|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|In 1997, Aldo Mancusi presided over a gala event honoring Enrico Caruso. In 2018, in the dining-room-turned-tiny-theater of the Caruso Museum, we watched selected bits on a (literal) videotape. It was downright weird to see then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani deliver a thoughtful, erudite, witty speech unveiling a proclamation in honor of Caruso and Aldo’s museum.
And it made me wonder, what made late ’90s Giuliani transform into today’s Giuliani? They seem so different from one another.
Of all the random museums I’ve visited during this project, the Enrico Caruso Museum is surely, surely the randomest. Sorry, Mossman Lock Collection, you’re now #2. The Caruso Museum has been on my list from the very start, but I’ve kind of been saving it. I understood that it was the project of an obsessive collector, an elderly Italian gent, who kept it in his apartment, which he opened to the public on Sundays by appointment.
That’s a little disconcerting, in the way that all obsessions–and obsessives–can be. “I’m gonna call you before I go in,” I joked to a friend. “If you don’t hear from me in an hour, alert the authorities!”
The Enrico Caruso Museum of America (to use its proper name) was founded in 1990 by Cavaliere Aldo Mancusi, who holds suitably operatic title of Commendatore of the institution. It’s not in his apartment, rather the flat upstairs from his in the house he and his wife own in Sheepshead Bay.
Mancusi formerly had a tenant upstairs. As the Caruso collection grew, he asked her to share her space with the museum. Which might’ve worked; however, it transpired that she hated opera. After relatively few Sundays subjected to Caruso blaring from the vintage Victrola she decided to find other quarters. And so the museum expanded to take over the whole flat.
The Caruso Museum is jam-packed with art and artifacts related to Caruso, to opera, and to the museum itself. Every wall is filled with photographs and posters, records, awards, and plaques. A genuine Caruso costume; the man’s shoes; his cigarette holder; commemorative Caruso coins, stamps, and medallions. Caruso brand pasta. Caruso’s death mask. It overwhelms.
Aldo welcomed me and said that he was expecting a big group, but they called and cancelled that morning. He asked if I would wait to see if any drop-ins come for the tour. I wondered about that, whether there really was a big group, and how many of them needed to get how sick to call off the visit. I also wondered if the place ever, ever gets walk-in visitors.
Despite my skepticism, I smiled and nodded and thanked him for holding the tour just for me. Aldo apologetically said he’d need to keep it short for just one person, and encouraged me to come back and bring my friends. He then went on to show me through the collection and tell stories for well over an hour.The Commendatore Is In
Aldo told a discursive version of Caruso’s story, with many digressions outlining his family tree, descendants, friends. He went into great, gory detail on the man’s demise in his native Naples. Time after time Aldo came back to Caruso’s generosity— the man loved people and did what he could to help out (for example he lent his name gratis to the aforementioned pasta company). It’s a nice thing to be remembered for, whether or not you were the Greatest Tenor Ever.
The Aldo Mancusi Museum
At some point during my visit to the Enrico Caruso Museum, I started to realize that this was only partly a museum to the greatest Italian tenor of the early 20th century. Partly, it is a museum to Cavaliere Mancusi himself. As a monument to an obsession, it’s less institutional and more personal than other single-artist museums, such as the Louis Armstrong House, Noguchi Museum, or Roerich Museum. So I suppose it’s natural that it reflects its founder as much as its subject.
Aldo’s tour spends much time on the soprano Licia Albanese and other opera stars of Aldo’s own era, whom he met thanks to the museum. He delightedly shows off his collection of early music recording and playback devices, which he has carefully restored to working order. And he gets meta, talking about the museum and its hunt for artifacts almost more than about Caruso.
The strangest thing about the Caruso Museum, though, is that it’s not even Aldo’s obsession. At least not originally. Caruso died in 1921. Aldo never saw or heard the man while he was alive. It’s Aldo’s dad who was the original Caruso fan, and somehow the bug got passed on.
At the end of the tour I asked Aldo if he had a favorite Caruso recording, fully expecting him to say he loved them all. But, no, he immediately responded with a song called “Core ‘ngrato” (“Ungrateful Heart”) and even—despite the tour being over— played it for me on the old Victrola, translating from the Neapolitan dialect as Caruso sang.
He asked me if I wanted to know Caruso’s favorite and I said, “of course.” Again I expected the reply to be he loved all the music he sang. But no. According to Aldo, for Caruso, it wasn’t about love. It was all work, labor, effort to craft words and notes and breath and emotion into moments of great (for some people, transcendent) beauty.
Who Merits a Museum?
Since my visit to Cavaliere Mancusi’s museum I’ve pondered anew who merits a museum. I last grappled with that at the Voelker Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary, etc. There, I decided that some people and places just don’t.
Does Caruso deserve a museum? Does Aldo Mancusi? And given that the museum does exist, who should consider a visit? Part of me thinks the easy, obvious, snarky answers to those questions are the right ones. But I keep returning to the lesson of the Mossman Lock Collection. Sometimes a good story can justify something that, in itself, might be trivial or uninteresting. And I hunger for quirkiness in this corporate and homogenous era.
Caruso was a superstar of his day. I can respect, even if I don’t understand, the time and effort devoted to memorializing him in an unassuming house on a quiet street in Sheepshead Bay. And I can admire Aldo Mancusi as someone charming and genuine and interesting.
It’s not for everybody. But if you’re a proud Italian or Italian-American, or an opera lover, or if you are interested in New York of the early 1900s, or just worry that there’s no room left in the world (or this city) for the singular… make an appointment to visit Aldo, and hear the story of his life’s work. I think you’ll be glad you did.
|1942 East 19th Street, Brooklyn
|General Admission: $10-$15 donation
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