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Listening now to Enrico Caruso’s last recording made in September of 1920, you would never suspect that you are hearing the voice of a heavy smoker. Caruso favored strong Egyptian cigarettes, even enjoying them between an opera’s acts before heading back on stage. In spite of his addiction, Caruso’s final recording—of the Crucfixus from Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle — boasts all the singer’s legendary attributes: the voice is strong, flexible and pure; full of expression and supported by unshakeable breath. Even through the hiss and crackle of the Victorola, the music seems to emanate from a voice at the top of its form, and therefore, too, from a body in robust health.
Yet the great tenor would be dead within a year of making the 78, and his smoking habit was a major factor in his demise at the age of 48. Pierre van Rensselaer Key’s classic early biography, written with aid of Caruso’s secretary Bruno Zirato, appeared just a year after Caruso’s death and offers a harrowing account of the tenor’s last stage appearances and the ensuing struggle for his life. Singing his signature role of Canio in Pagliacci at the Met on the evening of December 8, 1920, Caruso came to perhaps his most famous number, one he recorded several times —“Vesti la giubba.”
At the full-voiced high A at the crux of the aria, Caruso felt an “excruciating pain in his left side,” wires Key. “[This] made him ‘sick all over’ and he momentarily saw black.” Even in such dire condition, Caruso was bent, literally, on safeguarding his reputation and simultaneously answering the demands of the theatre: he made a stage fall to divert attention from the vocal disaster. Key goes on:
“[Caruso literally fell into the arms of Zirato. And amidst his sobs he managed to gasp, ‘My voice … I thought … it was … gone.’ Some minutes passed before the pain in his side had subsided enough to allow Caruso to move. He lay crumpled and moaning in the arms of his secretary surrounded by anxious-faced members of the company. Then, supported on both sides, he walked laboriously to his dressing room. Zirato pleaded with Caruso to abandon the remainder of the performance; vain argument. Then, having been sent for, Doctor Horowitz [Caruso’s personal medical adviser] arrived. He brushed aside the attending opera house physician, Doctor Marafioti, and directly announced that ‘it was nothing serious.’ Horowitz diagnosed the ailment as intercostal neuralgia, and after strapping the singer’s left side with adhesive plaster, gave his permission for Caruso to continue with the performance. Though suffering intense pain, the tenor went on.”
Vicious bouts of coughing and hemorrhaging blood into his handkerchief ensued in the days that follwed, these episodes quelled only by plentiful helpings of morphine and codeine. Yet Caruso managed to continue to appear at the Met over the next two weeks; with the assurance of his doctor that the condition was still “nothing” he sang in La Juive on Christmas Eve, 1920. It was his last public performance.
By Christmas Day Caruso was screaming in pain. After returning to Italy to convalesce, he made some brave attempts to sing in private, but died in August of 1921 in the Vesuvio Hotel in Naples.
In spite of Caruso’s relentless smoking, the singer knew how to use his lungs, however damaged they may have been. Vignettes related in Key’s biography still find Caruso inhaling deeply of his cigarettes in that fateful December of 1920.
It’s not unlikely that, had Caruso survived a couple of more decades, he would have suffered from a condition that afflicts millions worldwide: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The World Health Organization reports that according to data collected nearly ten years ago, an estimated 64 million then suffered from the disease, with three million dying annually from it; about 5% of global deaths were attributable to COPD. 90% of these cases were found low- and middle-income countries; Women are increasingly beset by the disease due to growing female tobacco consumption in wealthier countries. By 2020, claims the WHO, COPD will be the third largest cause of death globally.
Widely reported last week in the British Press as well as in Germany—where some five million people have COPD—is a recent study done by researchers at the Sydney de Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christchurch University in England demonstrating that choral singing can alleviate the symptoms of the disease. The outbreaks of communal singing that come with the holiday season must have prompted interest in a study published several months ago: a short segment that aired on the BBC this week begins with a COPD chorus offering up a spirited rendition of “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
Through the fingernails-on-blackboard science-speak of the Canterbury report can be discerned a powerful, if obvious, message: singing is good for you.
“Health-related quality of life [assessments] showed a 3.3 point change in the direction of health improvement. … Qualitative evidence showed that the singing groups were enjoyable social events and participants reported improvements in their breathing, activity levels and wellbeing.”
In the BBC story one of the lead researchers, Dr. Ian Morrison, outlined the vicious circle in which those with COPD are imprisoned. Each breath becomes a struggle, and fears about getting the next one cause tremendous anxiety. This in turn leads to what Morrison calls “gaspy” intakes of air. Singing teaches patients to “control the breathing, clear the air out of their lungs, and then take another breath.” Singing doesn’t cure COPD, nor increase lung capacity, says Morrison, but rather “allows you to use what you’ve got better.”
As in the BBC story, the Canterbury report is full of images of mostly elder folks, some breathing with the help of oxygen tubes, singing vigorously as they are urged on by “experienced singing facilitators.”
That the study is now getting coverage is a good thing; one sees that on the faces of the singers and hears it in their voices. Yet the truth of these findings has long been known; as so often, modern “scientific” studies simply confirm what common sense and cultural tradition long ago established.
In the preface to his Psalms, Sonets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie of 1588, the Elizabethan composer William Byrd, creator of some of the greatest choral masterpieces of the renaissance, laid out the benefits of singing:
“First, it is a knowledge safely taught and quickly learned, where there is a good Master, and an apt Scholler.
2. The exercise of singing is delightfull to Nature, & good to preserve the health of Man.
3. It doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.
4. It is s a singular good remedie for a stutting and stamering in the speech.
5. It is the best means to procure a perfect pronounciation, & to make a good Orator.
6. It is the onely way to know where Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyce: which guift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand, that hath it.
7. There is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered. 8. The better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God there-with : and the voyce of man is chiefely to bee imployed to that ende.”
Surprise, surprise! The Canterbury studies confirms, among many other incontestable points on Byrd’s list, that singing “strengthens the brest and clears out the pipes”—and does so without risk of side effects, and without pills and prosthetics. (Byrd also understood well that singing helps stammerers, a fact that dumbfounded the pop culture masses when severe stutterer Lazaro Arbos rode to the finals of this year’s American Idol with his unfaltering rendition “We Are the Champions”; singing as an effective form of speech and neurological therapy has also been the topic of many studies over the last decade.)
In spite of the medical boost given choral singing by the Canterbury research, one doubts that Byrd’s “This Day Christ was Born” will soon supplant “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as standard holiday vocal fare.
It wouldn’t surprise me if we one day learn that Byrd liked to enjoy a pipe of Virginia tobacco, and then clear out his own pipes with a burst of song. One might even be able to imagine an aged Caruso, desperate for breath, and therefore deigning to join a local choir of smokers in his native Naples, dutifully taking his choral medicine—even if it ain’t Pagliacci.