Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Most Famous Survivor of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Enrico Caruso autographReading biographical accounts of the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso, I'm struck by one man's fortuitous career move to embrace a technology (the phonograph record) that changed forever the way we engage with music. It's also fascinating to read about an America just beginning to embrace the allure of high culture on a much larger commercial scale than it ever had before.

But what few people know about Caruso is that he was a survivor of one of the greatest natural disasters of the twentieth century: the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. Caruso had just finished performing the role of Don Jose in a Metropolitan Opera touring production of Carmen in San Francisco's Tivoli Opera House. That night in the Palace Hotel, he was awoken by his bed rocking. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco has a transcript of his interview with The Theatre, in which he gives a first-person account of his harrowing escape from the hotel and journey through the ruined city. An excerpt:
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.
Caruso was lucky to get out of the Palace Hotel alive, as this picture shows. He never returned to San Francisco.

What would Caruso have sounded like on that fateful evening, hours before the disaster? tomfroekjaer (also see his website) has posted on YouTube a remastered recording of the Flower Song from Carmen ("La fleur que tu m'avais jetée") Caruso made for the Victor Talking Machine Company:

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