My father, "Il babbo," was an Italian journalist. From my 10th year on, my family lived in Berlin. I do not know if "Il babbo" was musical, but he set great store by his ethnic cultural heritage and took us to see all the Italian opera companies that visited Berlin. He usually got tickets free, through the Italian Press Club. He knew most Italian opera well enough to explain the action to us, and my younger sister Luigia and I loved it. For some reason, my mother never joined us on those trips to the opera.
I believe it was in 1903 when I was 13 years old that Enrico Caruso came to the Royal Opera. This was no occasion for free tickets for the foreign press. But Luigia and I thought we must hear Caruso or die.
I told my mother we were going to write the great tenor a letter asking him for a free pass to his first appearance in Berlin. She said we might as well write a letter to the man in the moon, and that he would not even see such a letter, that he would be swamped with solicitations, all of which would be intercepted by his secretaries.
She was right, of course. But Luigia and I were very young, and our innocence was abysmal. We wrote anyway.
We wrote that we were two Italian girls living in Germany, that we loved Italy and Italian music, and that we wish above all to hear Enrico Caruso. Unfortunately, our parents could not afford tickets to the opera, so we were turning directly to him to ask if he could see any way of sneaking us into the opera house, into the worst and most uncomfortable seats, or even in without a seat. If so, we would be grateful to him for the rest of our lives, and please to let us have his answer soon, we were his devoted compatriots, etc.
Our parents shook their heads at our stupidity, but we were not too surprised when some days later we got a note on fancy hotel stationery, signed with an Italian name, telling us to present ourselves at the hotel on such and such a date at noon.
The date given was the date after Caruso's arrival. We had to wait for a week. I will not elaborate on our childish excitement during that period. On the appointed date, we set out together, Luigia and I, walking through the Tiergarten to the hotel.
I was a shy girl and found it very difficult to speak to a stranger even under ordinary circumstances. Now I stood in the elegant lobby, the precious letter in my hand, and needed quite a few energetic pushes from Luigia before I dared move toward the desk. There, I silently held out my letter, and the desk man, looking very unfriendly, sent out a messenger boy with the letter.
After a relatively short time, the boy came back accompanied by a middle-aged Italian, who looked very friendly indeed. He took both Luigia and me by the hand and walked upstairs with us. The maestro, he said, wanted to see us. We were led into an elegant reception room and asked to sit down. We waited a little while. Then Caruso came in, alone.
He embraced both of us and said we had written him such a nice letter that he had gotten us passes for the next night, and wanted to make our acquaintance. He sat down in a big, upholstered chair and bade us sit on the two arms of the chair. He asked us questions, joked with us, and then dismissed us, saying he wanted to see us again. He gave me an envelope with two tickets for "Aida" -- high in the fourth balcony, but real tickets! I don't remember how we got home.
"Aida" was performed the following night with Emmy Destinn in the title role. I had already developed a bit of an ear for music, and I found it so overwhelmingly beautiful that even today I cannot find words to describe it. I do not think that in all my long life I have ever been more ecstatically happy than during those three hours. Even little Luigia was carried away by the spirit of enchantment that had gripped the whole audience.
Again I have no idea how we got home.
What I remember very well is the next morning. At a very early hour, 7 o'clock or so, my father shook me awake and told me to get up and dress quickly. He had been out early and had gathered all of the morning papers, of which Berlin had many. From all of these he had clipped the reviews of "Aida." They were raves, to put it mildly. They all said that golden tones like Caruso's were heard once or twice in a lifetime.
"Il babbo" said to me, "Now you can thank Caruso for his kindness to you. Every artist wants to know what the critics say about him, and they doubly want to know it when the critics sing a unanimous hymn of praise. Caruso doesn't read German, and he cannot have seen any of this yet. You take Luigia and rush to the hotel and read all these reviews to him in Italian. That will start his day with pleasure."
Luigia and I arrived at the hotel shortly after 9. This time my elation carried me forward. I walked boldly to the desk, telling the man that we had all the reviews of last night's performance and would be glad to translate them if Mr. Caruso wanted to hear them.
Again someone came down for us and took us upstairs. Our wait was even shorter than on the first occasion. The door was flung open, and Caruso strode out in a plum-colored robe, slippers on his feet, and looking rather unkempt.
"What's this I hear about the reviews?"
I held out my fat bundle of newspaper clippings and said, "I will read them to you in Italian if you want to hear them now."
He wondered how I had come by the clippings so early. I told him. He sat down in the armchair again, pulled me this time upon his lap and said the equivalent of "shoot." I began with the big well-known morning papers and Caruso listened with intense concentration. His face began to relax and after a while he was beaming all over. He got up, walked up and down, rubbed his hands, gesticulated, smiled. I forget what he said, but his delight was childlike and extreme. We stayed for about two hours.
When we left, Caruso made me write down our names and address. "I want to see you again when I come back to Berlin," he said. "Write, or come to the hotel. I'll always have tickets for you." He embraced us, chastely -- without kissing -- and we departed brimming with pride and happiness.
We would have been gladly willing to wait a few years for our next contact with Caruso, but it was to come soon. Six months after our great adventure, the mail brought a postcard for me from Boston, Mass., U.S.A. It showed the swan boats in the public gardens and was inscribed "saluti, Caruso."
During the next years, I got postcards from, as it seemed to me, all over the world: London, Paris, San Francisco, from a steamer on its way to South America, from Buenos Aires. I was deeply touched that the man who was growing more famous with every passing season remembered one little girl through many of his far-flung travels.
When he came back to Berlin about two years later, we could hardly wait until we could present ourselves again at the hotel. The process became almost ritualistic. Writing our letter, going to get our tickets, delivering and translating reviews the morning after. The meetings were less emotionally charged than the first one, but more friendly, and even at times tender.
I received more postcards during the following two years of separation. By now I had quite a sizable bundle.
When I make an honest effort to remember whether we heard Caruso sing at his third appearance in Berlin, I find myself unable to do so with assurance. The withering impact of our last meeting has overshadowed and, it seems, eliminated everything else."
I was now 16 years old, or even 17, no longer a little girl but an adolescent; still living in an atmosphere of total innocence, but physically only too well developed. When we announced at the dinner table that Caruso's arrival was imminent, and that we were going to collect our tickets, my father declared that we no longer could go to see a young bachelor artist without a chaperone.
I cannot even say that I was surprised. Luigia and I were aware that our relationship with Caruso and our visits to him, always without any witness, were highly unconventional. I did not hold it against my father that he put a stop to them.
In the family circle it was decided that we were going to ask Miss Clara Schultz to act as chaperone. She was a voice student at the Royal Academy of Music, who studied Italian with my mother and helped me with my piano playing. She was no longer "young" -- she may have been all of 27 or 28 years old. Small and mousy, friendly and rather shy, she was thrilled to the core by the chance of meeting Enrico Caruso privately face to face. She accepted with enthusiasm.
So we set out together to make the now familiar trip to the hotel with hardly dampened anticipation of pleasure on my part. Again we were led upstairs by a secretary and were seated in the waiting room. When Caruso entered he came quickly toward me, with outstretched arms. Then he saw Miss Schultz and stopped abruptly. "And who is that?" he asked sharply.
I made the introduction. Miss Schultz stood up and made a near-curtsy. Caruso hardly acknowledged her presence. He listened with obvious disgust to my explanation. His face froze, his lips pressed together. His expression was at once furious and forbidding. His voice was ice-cold, and his tone final when he spoke.
"If your father thinks of me so badly, you need not come to see me any more." He turned around and left the room. And that was that.