By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 10, 2004 at 5:29 AM

A few months ago we had a series of stories sharing some of the best concerts in Milwaukee. But, connoisseurs of classical and opera might argue that the three best musical performances of the 20th Century in Cream City all took place in the first two decades of the 1900s, because that's when the masterful Enrico Caruso made appearances in our fair city.

The Neapolitan tenor possessed a voice like none that had been heard before or has been since. But the big man with the big voice was also a massive international superstar and people watched his every move with interest, thanks to the advent of the gramophone record. Caruso was the first tenor to regularly record and release records.

So, it was no surprise that his Milwaukee visits drew attention in the city. The Milwaukee Sentinel covered his arrival in the city on each of his three visits -- April 27, 1907, April 18, 1910 and, finally, May 13, 1919 -- and devoted a fair number of column inches to reviews of his performances.

Caruso's first Milwaukee appearance took place at the Alhambra Theatre during a night when three operas were performed. While he sat out the two German shows that opened the evening's progam -- "Hansael und Gretel" and Wagner's "Tannhauser" -- he performed the role of Canio -- a role for which he was especially esteemed -- in Leoncavallo's classic "Pagliacci."

The headlines declared:

"Caruso Proves Favorite."

"Prominent Society People Attend Brilliant Close of Grand Opera Season for 1907."

And we get a feel for just how important a society event Caruso's appearance was because, in addition to a run-down of the evening's performance, the morning newspaper ran a lengthy list of prominent Milwaukeeans in attendance. The roster reads like a who's who in Cream City society: Uihleins, Kohlers, Vogels, Trostels, Millers, Pfisters.

Caruso returned almost exactly three years later to perform Verdi's "Aida" with New York's Metropolitan Opera Co. at the then-new Milwaukee Auditorium. Nearly all of the 6,800 seats were filled and patrons spent more than $13,000 on tickets for the evening's performance, which was roundly feted.

"Fashionable Folk Mingle With Humbler Musical Devotees in Social and Managerial Triumph," trumpeted one headline under the banner, "Stars Are Greeted by Great Audience."

In 1919, two years before his premature death at age 45, Caruso returned to perform a concert in the Auditorium. This time the Sentinel -- and likely Caruso himself -- was quick to point out that he loved America, even though he considered Italy his home. During World War I, this would have been an important thing.

That bit of patriotism out of the way, Caruso posed for pictures and was the toast of the city, attending events such as the Press Club dinner. Incidentally, this dinner is immortalized at the Milwaukee Press Club Bar on Water and Wells Streets, where patrons today can view Caruso's autograph displayed on the wall.

At the concert, Caruso was a smashing success, charming the crowd with his "Golden Voice" and he performed a range of material, from "Celeste Aida," "Una Furtiva Lacrima" from "The Elixir of Love" and "Vesti la Giubba" from Pagliacci.

Alas, this was Caruso's final visit to Cream City and he died two years later of abscesses on his lungs that resulted from a bout of pleurisy. His final performance was on Christmas Eve at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.