Caruso Plays Santa Claus

by Mary Hammann, violist


Some of the parts the MET Orchestra uses are more than one hundred years old.  Curious what they might contain, I went spelunking in the Metropolitan Opera's Music Library, where all the opera scores for the conductors and the parts for every singer and instrumentalist reside.

Excited by my search, the Chief Librarian, Robert Sutherland, pulled out the Pagliacci clarinet part. Needless to say, as a violist, I had never perused any clarinet parts. One hundred two years ago, during a Christmas Eve performance of Pagliacci in Brooklyn, the MET Orchestra's principal clarinetist had written in blue pencil, at the end of Act I, “Brook Dec. 24, 1912 - Caruso give $5 to every member of the Orch.” In what looks like the same handwriting, he added “(What a man)”.

Intrigued, I continued my sleuthing and took the historic part across the subterranean hall to Bob Tuggle, the Met’s director of archives since 1981. Excited by the challenge of unearthing more information about Enrico Caruso’s Christmas gift to the orchestra, Bob found the following clipping from the New York Times:

According to the article, his generosity included the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Ballet.  But according to the clarinet part, the Orchestra musicians also received the $5 gold pieces from the legendary tenor.

Bob also provided the principal clarinetist’s 1912-1913 Met season contract. To put Caruso’s gift in perspective, the clarinetist was paid $70 per week. Adjusted for inflation, the $5 Caruso gave out would today be about $120 for each member of the orchestra. “What a man,” indeed! 102 years later, I am touched by Caruso’s generosity.

As a footnote, I find it interesting that the Metropolitan Opera Company contract indicates they played that season not only in the United States, but in Canada, Cuba, and Mexico as well. There certainly was a lot of boat and train travel in 1912!

I feel fortunate to work in a place so steeped in history and talent…and, as it turns out, generosity as well!