Born in the small Italian town of Recanati in 1890, Gigli began singing as a chorister before vocal training in Rome. After a successful 1914 debut in La Gioconda, he was in demand throughout Italy and by 1920 had made it to the Met, where he inherited many of Caruso’s roles following the latter’s death the next year. He stayed in New York until 1932, when he refused a pay cut due to the Depression and returned to Italy. There he became Mussolini’s favourite tenor, though after the war this association was forgiven.
He made 20 films and 900 records which show an impeccable lyric tenor voice of remarkable sweetness, used with taste and imagination, though from the mid-1930s his voice deteriorated. He nevertheless continued to perform until shortly before his death in 1957. The verismo operas – including such heavy assignments as Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier – suited him, while in lyric operas such as Traviata or Bohème he was hard to match.
In his own words: ‘To sing the same aria the same way twice, that is of the schools and of the professors. Gigli is not of the schools.’
Greatest recording: The Very Best of Beniamino Gigli EMI 585 0932 (2 discs)