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Enrico Caruso’s Big Debut…and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

Jake Gibson

By Jake Gibson

When you’ve been around for 141 years, you’ve seen it all. And while the events of the past few weeks are truly extraordinary, this is not the first time UMS has been forced to make tough choices in response to a global pandemic.

Enrico Caruso

A little over a century ago, the Spanish Flu outbreak put the presentation of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in jeopardy. Here is the story of how UMS brought “the world’s greatest tenor” to Ann Arbor.

Programming Caruso

In 1918, Enrico Caruso was set to perform in just four cities across the Midwest: Buffalo, St. Louis, Chicago, and Ann Arbor. Nearly every large midwestern city placed its own bid on bringing in Caruso. As UMS president emeritus Ken Fischer tells the story, Charles Sink (UMS president from 1927-68) met personally with Caruso in New York to convince him to come to Ann Arbor. The two reportedly left the meeting in high spirits with Caruso excited to perform in Hill Auditorium.

Caruso’s manager, though, was concerned about UMS’s ability to meet his fees. Yet, within a week, Sink had secured the necessary funds. At the time, Sink was protective over disclosing how large Caruso’s fee was. However, he noted that “Caruso receives enough for such an engagement as this to purchase 100 acres of the finest farmland, to buy also a ‘first-class’ automobile, and after having done both these to have enough left over to take an excellent summer vacation.” Eventually it was disclosed Caruso’s fee was $13,200 (the equivalent of around $220,000 today!).

Enrico Caruso recital program from 1918

Caruso’s recital program from UMS’s 1918-19 season

Ann Arbor Times article from 1918

Ann Arbor Times News, Oct 24, 1918

Spanish Flu Hits Ann Arbor

Caruso was scheduled to perform his first concert in Ann Arbor alongside soprano Nina Morgana and violinist Elias Breeskin at Hill Auditorium on October 19, 1918. In order to fund the performance, patrons were required to buy a three-year subscription to UMS performances (though all tickets were exempt from the war tax!). However, in the weeks leading up to Caruso’s performance, the dangers of the Spanish Influenza spread to Ann Arbor. On October 16, just three days before the scheduled performance, Ann Arbor’s health officer ordered that “all places of public assemblage, including auditoriums, churches, theaters, dance halls and all places of amusement within doors be and are hereby closed until further notice.” Read more on Michigan Medicine’s archives (PDF)

This, of course, forced UMS to postpone the performance. Charles Sink immediately wired Caruso’s manager in New York to reschedule, but no date could be announced immediately.

Michigan Daily article from 1919

Michigan Daily, Feb 28, 1919

Rescheduling Caruso

The rescheduled date of March 3 for Caruso’s recital was not announced until February 1919. Sink, once again, personally went to New York to secure the new date. It was particularly special for Caruso to agree to return in March, as it fell in the midst of the Metropolitan Opera season; it was the first time in his 25 years of singing at the Met where he even considered leaving New York.

At first, the announcement of Caruso’s rescheduled date caused controversy due to a potentially conflicting performance. On the evening of March 3, British theatre actor Cyril Maude was set to perform in a play at the Whitney Theatre on Main and Ann (not a UMS performance). Fortunately, Maude’s performance was able to be rescheduled for the afternoon, allowing enthusiasts to attend both events.

The Performance

In the days leading to the performance, Caruso was praised in advance for his programming choices, as they highlighted the work of WWI-allied composers. In particular, Caruso and Morgana’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” drew the attention of the Michigan Daily, which reported that the piece sent “audiences home with a sense of overwhelming wonder.” Though only four pieces were programmed for Caruso, he performed thirteen. The encores even included a premiere of a work by his pianist, Salvatore Fucito. View the full program on UMS Rewind

Shortly after the performance, Caruso had to make his way to the Ann Arbor train station; the next day he was scheduled to perform in New York at an event celebrating the return of President Woodrow Wilson from a WWI peace conference in Europe. In order to accommodate Caruso’s schedule, a special stop in Ann Arbor had to be arranged. Arrangements such as these, it seems, could be made when a notable plans to reserve his own compartment and five additional sections of the train for his traveling party.


Enjoy our accompanying playlist of Caruso recordings, featuring works performed in this legendary UMS performance.

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