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Enrico Caruso and the 1906 Earthquake


Enrico Caruso (1873 - 1921) is considered by many music lovers to be the greatest operatic tenor of all time. He was on tour in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake, and appeared in Carmen at the Mission Opera House a few hours before the disaster.

Arnold Genthe , the famed photographer, saw Caruso after the world-famous tenor had left the Palace Hotel and walked to the St. Francis Hotel at Union Square.

This somewhat disjointed narrative of Caruso’s experiences in San Francisco appeared in The Sketch, published in London, with drawings by Caruso to illustrate his experiences. The article was reprinted in the July 1906 edition of The Theatre magazine.

You ask me to say what I saw and what I did during the terrible days which witnessed the destruction of San Francisco? Well, there have been many accounts of my so-called adventures published in the American papers, and most of them have not been quite correct. Some of the papers said that I was terribly frightened, that I went half crazy with fear, that I dragged my valise out of the hotel into the square and sat upon it and wept; but all this is untrue. I was frightened, as many others were, but I did not lose my head. I was stopping at the [Palace] Hotel, where many of my fellow-artists were staying, and very comfortable it was. I had a room on the fifth floor, and on Tuesday evening, the night before the great catastrophe, I went to bed feeling very contented. I had sung in “Carmen” that night, and the opera had one with fine eclat. We were all pleased, and, as I said before, I went to bed that night feeling happy and contented.

But what an awakening! You must know that I am not a very heavy sleeper—I always wake early, and when I feel restless I get up and go for a walk. So on the Wednesday morning early I wake up about 5 o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming that I am crossing the water on my way to my beautiful country. And so I take no notice for the moment, and then, as the rocking continues, I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children.

I remain speechless, thinking I am in some dreadful nightmare, and for something like forty seconds I stand there, while the buildings fall and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea. And during that forty seconds I think of forty thousand different things. All that I have ever done in my life passes before me, and I remember trivial things and important things. I think of my first appearance in grand opera, and I feel nervous as to my reception, and again I think I am going through last night’s “Carmen.”

sketch by Enrico Caruso shows how the famed tenor escaped San Francisco And then I gather my faculties together and call for my valet. He comes rushing in quite cool, and, without any tremor in his voice, says: “It is nothing.” But all the same he advises me to dress quickly and go into the open, lest the hotel fall and crush us to powder. By this time the plaster on the ceiling has fallen in a great shower, covering the bed and the carpet and the furniture, and I, to, begin to think it is time to “get busy.” My valet gives me some clothes; I know not what the garments are but I get into a pair of trousers and into a coat and draw some socks on and my shoes, and every now and again the room trembles, so that I jump and feel very nervous. I do not deny that I feel nervous, for I still think the building will fall to the ground and crush us. And all the time we hear the sound of crashing masonry and the cries of frightened people.

Then we run down the stairs and into the street, and my valet, brave fellow that he is, goes back and bundles all my things into trunks and drags them down six flights of stairs and out into the open one by one. While he is gone for another and another, I watch those that have already arrived, and presently someone comes and tries to take my trunks saying they are his. I say, “no, they are mine”; but he does not go away. Then a soldier comes up to me; I tell him that this man wants to take my trunks, and that I am Caruso, the artist who sang in “Carmen” the night before. He remembers me and makes the man who takes an interest in my baggage “skiddoo” as Americans say.

Then I make my way to Union Square, where I see some of my friends, and one of them tells me he has lost everything except his voice, but he is thankful that he has still got that. And they tell me to come to a house that is still standing; but I say houses are not safe, nothing is safe but the open square, and I prefer to remain in a place where there is no fear of being buried by falling buildings. So I lie down in the square for a little rest, while my valet goes and looks after the luggage, and soon I begin to see the flames and all the city seems to be on fire. All the day I wander about, and I tell my valet we must try and get away, but the soldiers will not let us pass. We can find no vehicle to find our luggage, and this night we are forced to sleep on the hard ground in the open. My limbs ache yet from so rough a bed.

SKETCH BY ENRICO CARUSO SHOWS HOW HE ESCAPED THE GREAT EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE OF 1906 Then my valet succeeds in getting a man with a cart, who says he will take us to the Oakland Ferry for a certain sum, and we agree to his terms. We pile the luggage into the cart and climb in after it, and the man whips up his horse and we start.

We pass terrible scenes on the way: buildings in ruins, and everywhere there seems to be smoke and dust. The driver seems in no hurry, which makes me impatient at times, for I am longing to return to New York, where I know I shall find a ship to take me to my beautiful Italy and my wife and my little boys.

When we arrive at Oakland we find a train there which is just about to start, and the officials are very polite, take charge of my luggage, and tell me go get on board, which I am very glad to do. The trip to New York seems very long and tedious, and I sleep very little, for I can still feel the terrible rocking which made me sick. Even now I can only sleep an hour at a time, for the experience was a terrible one.

The Sketch, London
reprinted in The Theatre
Vol. VI., No. 65, July 1, 1906.

Hear Caruso sing Il fior che avevi a me tu dato from Act II of Carmen. as he may have performed it on April 17, 1906. Recorded for Victor Red Seal records in 1909.
Enrico Caruso
Enrico Caruso is the son of a mechanic, resident in Naples. His age is thirty-three, and for many years he adopted his father's calling, earning commendation for industry and application. His vocal powers and possibilities were divined by one Vergine, Italian singing master, who at once took in hand their development, until a successful debut was recorded in "Traviata," year 1896, place Naples. Two years later Caruso appeared in "La Scala" at Milan and then in succession at other important cities in Italy, in South America, Russia, and finally at Convent Garden, London.

In the fall of 1903 he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Caruso is the most charming and lovable of characters, never shirking rehearsal duties, and by this very adaptability and amiableness. When he is not singing, his chief delight lies in sketching caricatures of himself and his acquaintances.

Biographic sketch from the Mission Opera House program for the appearance of the Conreid Opera Company, San Francisco, April 1906.

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