Singers and Roosters

From Mimicries

the New World invented both of the protagonists in this short musical drama. It led to a scene that ended with a musical duel and a defeat. Though the struggle of their white throats took place beneath the shadows of New York’s skyscrapers in 1903 on the stage of the already famous Carnegie Hall, their show of vocal strength was like a showdown in a western, a fight of arias and recitatives not bullets, and… But let’s relate this comedy from the beginning.

Carlo Pisaro was the son of a lawyer from northern Italy. In 1887, his father employed him in his office in Trieste, but the young man was sloppy in his filing and would instead watch the port, where the hulls of the ships and the vast blue sea mesmerized him. Meanwhile, he secretly took singing lessons at the Madonna Del Mare. As such Carlo led his double life. When his father one day read an advertisement for Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in the local newspaper and noticed the name Carlo Pisaro listed as one of the supporting roles, he couldn’t accept that the performer was his own son. What happened afterwards, the narrator knows little about. In 1894, the name of Carlo Pisaro appeared on the placards of all the major theaters in north Italy, but never alongside a leading role. Hence Carlo probably began to visit ports more frequently, drowning his thoughts in the endless expanse of water. This is probably what led him to board the ship “Laura” in March 1899, and set out for the New World alone, dressed like the other sailors, with his father’s picture tucked in his inside pocket…

The history of Baldasaro Cossa was entirely different. Baldasaro was the son of a cantor. He was destined to become a singer, with his beautiful tenor’s voice, clear in the high registers, soft and almost velvety in the low ones. Baldasaro’s youth was such that it doesn’t deserve the attention of a chronicler. His life was peaceful, filled with singing competitions with his father in the cathedral of St. Bartolommeo in Messina. Neither did he set out on the voyage as an act of rebellion. No, he departed with his father’s blessing and embarked on the ship “Garibaldi” with a decent savings. As the ship carrying the other tenor, Carlo, on its lower deck was sailing into New York, the transoceanic beauty “Garibaldi” departed into the marble sea towards the same destination. Baldasaro stood by the railing crowded by his compatriots who were completely unaware that from that moment on he was to play a major part in a small and now forgotten legend in America.

The voyages that our two heroes made were as different as the conditions under which they had departed. The embittered Carlo already on the ship wanted to forget insults - and for the image of his father to fade. He became the most beloved passenger on his ship. He sang songs from youth to the tear-stained old men. The cool air on the open sea in March suited his voice and he sang better than ever before, as he carried within his voice the shades of the orchards from his native country… Only a week later did Baldasaro sail across the same meridians, but he was silent. He stroked the hair of other people’s children but nobody knew that he was a singer.

At the beginning of April, both of the tenors reached American soil, but their arrivals could not have been more different. Carlo was carried out of the ship on the shoulders of the seamen. He was accompanied by the cries of new Americans, so that he got special treatment at the immigration counter for expatriates. The silent Baldasaro, however, was treated like all the others – which meant he had to sleep on a wooden bench in the dark corridors of the quarantine cell, from which he watched the sky framed by skyscrapers. Carlo, in the meantime, was saved from starving with all the other immigrants on Ellis Island by the particular sequence of events that had been happening to him ever since he departed for the New World. A stranger in a gray coat and bowler of the same color approached him and asked if he was a singer. When Carlo answered in the affirmative, the stranger told him that an Italian was about to die who needed a tenor more than a priest. Some hours later Carlo sang at the deathbed of a worn out man who was the picture of the living dead. The old man had difficulty breathing and it was unclear if he could even hear the singer who had arrived like a cherub, but still Carlo sang the warm tones of Bellini’s, Tosti’s and D’Annunzio’s compositions. Finally, the breath in the old Italian’s breast ceased. Thus Carlo’s unexpected debut in the New World was made… A week later, Baldasaro starved with the other immigrants in the isolation cell – and was silent. Three days later, he was released, through the doors of paradise or hell and entered New York muttering a line from Dante’s verse: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate”.

As poetry is not history, we can skip over the closing years of the 19th century. From 1901, the stories of Carlo and Baldasaro are easier to trace as they began to feature in the monographs and chronicles of New York. The two tenors at this point were no longer the heroes of oral tradition and we can more easily trace what happened during the two crucial weeks of April, two years before, when they both became Americans. Carlo had sung to a dying Italian only to learn that he was the sick father of Carlo Borsatti, the newspaper magnate and editor of the newspaper Il Progresso. When the old man had died, Carlo was silently led to a hall where, at a long table, he feasted alone and listened to the clatter of crystal and silverware and the gulping of cold turkey and slurping of rosé wine. Later we see him kissing padrone Borsatti’s hand and clumsily expressing his condolences, and, later still, making numerous performances under the sponsorship of this patron who treated him as his personal court singer. Only from time to time did Carlo feel like a nightingale trapped in a luxurious birdcage. Meanwhile, his padrone organized concerts for him in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, and Il Progresso writes about him, so he does not object to Borsatto playing the role of his father in America… Baldasaro also made it to the American stages, but he was a dark figure. He was from Sicily, a city which supplied much of the hired labor that came to America to work on construction sites. In Queens, he met many compatriots and his first patrons but his padroni didn’t invite him to their rich tables. They organized the Italian workers into brigades, took the lion’s share of their wages and called themselves “bankers”. They accepted Baldasaro, but in two years he changed patrons several times. Finally, being the property of a patron who had gone bankrupt when a bullet hit his ribs, he was inherited by Carmino de Sapia, who carefully orchestrated his future career because he wanted to be proclaimed King of the Southerners, and had heard that padrone Borsetti had his own tenor-protégé.

The rest of the story was finished with life itself. The hostilities between the southern and northern padroni were like violent earthquakes. Such was the situation in 1903 when the swords clashed yet again – although at this point the outcome was more bizarre than ever before. After a series of killings, anonymous calls to the New York police and disturbances among the Irishmen, Jews and Puerto Ricans, Don Carlo Borsatti and Carmino de Sapio Senior met on the benches of the St. John Cathedral. Every word they spoke in the church echoed ominously while on 112th street and Amsterdam Avenue suspicious characters lurked, dressed as Broadway theatergoers. What the patrons spoke about was never revealed. It was heard that they decided to solve their disputes in a way that was at once Italian and American. The following day after the deal was made they rented Carnegie Hall and ordered their court singers to fight a duel with each other. The tenors were to enter the ring like boxers although the rules of play were quite different. At daybreak, under the steel construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, it as agreed the two would sing until they could sing no more. From the pages of the Times and the World Telegram dated September 4, 1903, we learned that two pianists, Messrs. Mark Hambourg and Alexander Lambert, had accompanied Carlo, while three, Victor Herbert, Franz Kneisel and Miss Olga Samaroff, from Texas, had accompanied Baldasaro. On the fateful day, the tenors sang two arias in turns and, during the long performance, Carlo dined on salmon, while Baldasaro Cossa preferred cooked oysters, supplied every hour fresh from Queens.

In the early afternoon, on September 2, they began singing. Pisaro began the duel with the aria “Vesti la giubba” and continued with a surprise, Puccini’s “Che gelida manina”. Cossa replied with Gaetano Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lacrima” and, as a counterblow to his rival, with a newly composed aria by the young Puccini. Some in the hall heard “E lucevan le stelle” from “Tosca” for the first time and couldn’t hold back the tears, while the tenors continued to exchange blows. Time was ticking and their eyes became more and more sunken and sleepy, but they kept singing. The padroni would come and go. They would listen to their proteges for an hour or two and disappear, but men resembling gunmen more than bel canto lovers constantly ran in and out of the hall, undoubtedly bringing them fresh news. The two singers saw none of that. Soon, they began to enter the stage staggering. They sang new arias faster and faster in order to not give their rival enough time to sleep. Before dawn it was clear that the end was near. Some audience members shouted, “Shame on you!” and “Enough with this torture!” but others, eager to witness the fall, would throw out the objectors. Baldasaro sang two of Verdi’s arias and collapsed by the piano, but as he managed to finish them, two of his pianists carried him off the stage, to which, strangely fresh, Carlo immediately entered. Confident of victory, he began to sing an aria by Bellini when his voice cracked. He wanted to continue singing, his face was fresh and even resolute, but the shrill tones of his broken vocal cords sounded more like a rooster’s crowing. Finally he gave up and helplessly hid by the black and white keyboard, while the happy victors brought the flabby body of Baldasaro to the stage, who was barely alive.

That was the end. The one that looked defeated was declared the winner. As regards Carlo, who disappeared the following day from New York, a story was circulated that he had become mute. Whether he returned to Trieste and became a lawyer there, we don’t know. However, it’s known that the winner didn’t enjoy his glory for long. Already the next year, in 1904, tenor Enrico Caruso set foot on American soil and in 1905 made his debut at the Metropolitan. The fame that he gained overshadowed everything that had come before his arrival, so that a certain Baldasaro Cossa, the winner of the shameful outsinging competition in 1903, soon became unreal like a character from an unsuccessful, pathetic comedy.

(Translation: Danira Parenta)