Play It Again
Mechanical and biological reproduction in art.
Canon, two-channel video installation, 15 min., 2013
Whenever a great artist dies, along with the tributes and collective mourning we often hear the statement that their work “lives on”, which is an indirect way of acknowledging that they will not produce new work anymore. I am interested in the ways by which we seek to maintain the illusion that the deceased artist is still actively within us.
Back in the fall of 1998 I received a voicemail from “Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi, director of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America.” Mancusi had seen, in a gallery exhibition in New York, an artwork of mine that made a reference to the Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, who is considered by many as the greatest tenor in the recorded history of opera. Mancusi had acquired my work for his museum and wanted to invite me to see his collection.
Mancusi inherited—through his mentor, the publisher Michael Sisca— many of the personal belongings and other objects once owned by Caruso, who died in New York in 1921. The objects included costumes, phonographic recordings, photographs, and some of the tenor’s own great caricatures —as he also happened to be a talented cartoonist. After inheriting the collection in 1989, Mancusi created a DYI-style museum in his own house in Sheepdhead Bay, Brooklyn, building even a small home theater where he regularly screens “My Cousin”, the only feature-length film where Caruso appeared (ironically, a silent movie). One can still visit the museum today (by appointment only). Mancusi, an indefatigable promotor of Italian opera, has been recognized by the Italian government with several honorary titles, first as “Cavaliere Ufficiale” and, more recently, “Commendatore.”
During those years I was interested in the Museum of Jurassic Technology and other conceptual and institutional critique projects that straddled the line between fact and fiction, and I was gravitating toward art that, while appearing to present false stories, was in fact based in truth (as the MJT partially is). The Caruso Museum of America in that sense possesses those “believe it or not” qualities to me. It is the museum-level equivalent of a found object, or an example of what I would term as “Organic Postmodernism.”
The Caruso Museum has unique memorabilia in its collection, including multiple portraits of the singer (a death mask, even), pipes used by the tenor (hard to believe that Caruso smoked, but he did) and of course every single recording that Caruso made in his lifetime, which Mancusi gladly plays for visitors in his various phonograph players and Victrolas.
The museum touched me personally. My mom’s side of the family was absolutely fanatic about opera, and to them Caruso was the highest deity of the divo pantheon. My grandfather, Juan Ignacio Lizalde, while a teenager, managed to see Caruso sing in person during the only performances he gave in Mexico City, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in 1919, which was still under construction — and as proof of it my uncle kept an autographed Caruso photo that my grandfather got signed that day.
During my visit to the museum I spotted a contemporary photograph of a man who looked absolutely identical to Caruso— a resemblance so uncanny that I had to do a double-take. It was as if the tenor had time-travelled to the 1990s. “He is Riccardo Caruso” — Mancusi explained. “He is Caruso’s great-grandson.” Riccardo, the grandson of one of the famous tenor’s five children, Mancusi further told me, was a practicing opera singer based in Florence.
Enrico Caruso in 1917 and Riccardo Caruso in the 1990s
Many years passed during which every now and then I thought about Riccardo Caruso. It was not until the summer of 2013, when I happened to be in Cremona working on an exhibition project that I decided to contact Riccardo. I wanted to visit him in Florence. I was really nervous —mainly because I would be heartbroken if I failed to meet him. I called him and did my very best to try to explain, in my poor Italian, that I was an artist and that I wanted to do a video project about him. I was afraid he would think I was crazy. However, Caruso agreed to meet me. He was busy rehearsing with the choir of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino where he worked and asked me to meet him at the end of one of their rehearsals.
Meeting him was a surreal and profound experience: it kind of felt that I was encountering a distant relative. Riccardo was delightful and modest and, perhaps to an extent, surprised by my eagerness to meet him.
Throughout my life I have always been interested in individuals whose life stories have been defined by very unusual events largely outside of their control. This is what has drawn me to meet and interview people like the last speakers of Yaghan and Eyak and supercentenarian Sussanah Mushatt Jones, the last living American born in the 1800s and at one point the oldest living person in the world (She died in 2016 a few weeks before turning 117).
Riccardo Caruso is one of those persons with such a unique story. In his case, the interesting thing about him was not just his DNA (which he of course shared with other Caruso descendants), nor that he also chose to become a singer, but the added fact of his remarkable physical resemblance to his great-grandfather— all of which he has openly acknowledged and incorporated into his career as one can see on his website, where the family relationship is presented as “the Caruso dynasty”. In conversation with him I learned of the curious and strange situation of being connected to such an operatic legend. Riccardo told me an anecdote of one time where Luciano Pavarotti sang with the choir of La Scala in Milano where Riccardo Caruso was working at the time. During one of the rehearsals, Pavarotti decided to greet each member of the choir personally. Each singer introduced themselves to Pavarotti by saying their last name, for instance, “Rossi”, “Ferrari”, “Lombardi”, and so on. Then came Riccardo’s turn. As he tells it, “when I extended my hand saying ‘Caruso’ to him, Pavarotti turned white in shock, as if he had seen a ghost.”
Canon, two-channel video installation, 15 min., 2013
One of the reasons why Enrico Caruso looms so large in the history of opera is that he really was the very first global mega-star. Aside from his nearly supernatural voice and artistry, he had the luck of being born on the very decade of the invention of the phonograph and of flourishing artistically exactly around the time of the commercial global boom of the device (his first recording was made in 1902, when he was in his late 20s). Ending an era where the only way one could hear a singer was in person, the very first human voice that was literally heard throughout the entire world was most likely the one of Enrico Caruso.
Precisely because the legend of Caruso was built largely thanks to mechanical reproduction, I felt even more compelled to make a video of Riccardo, who represented in some ways biological reproduction— the carrier of the Caruso gene, literally manifested in the visual resemblance.
To be clear I was, and still am, fully aware of the misplaced importance that we give to those genealogical connections. Around that time, a group of teenage opera singers known as Il Volo had recently become famous in the program America’s Pop Idol — as the Guardian described them, “a group that has fused Justin Bieber's teen appeal with the soaring voices of the Three Tenors”. In the typical distortion process that often results from social media virality, someone made a video meme stating that those teenage idols were the actual sons of the original “Three Tenors,” Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, which is false— but the false meme grew on and on regardless. The distortion, however willful or not, is revealing of the extent to which we search for meaning and authenticity in biology, inheritance, national origin, or other circumstances that largely are meaningless, when instead we simply need to do the hard work of becoming informed readers, viewers and listeners. As for the descendants of major artists, as I have pointed out in a previous column, the burden is in fact very heavy and the expectations at times so great that they often steer away from art altogether in order to pursue other endeavors.
But given that it is not possible to replicate a great artist after their passing, some of us might unconsciously have the fantasy that biology and genealogical legacy could somehow reproduce that magic once more— just as that diamond-point needle invented by Thomas Alva Edison would cross the surface of minute hills and valleys within the grooves of a wax cylinder to bring a unique voice back to life, over and over again.