Three Edison Tenors

Giuseppe Anselmi, Alessandro Bonci, José Mojica


Long before Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras were singing together, Thomas A. Edison was recording three tenors during the early 20th century: Giuseppe Anselmi, Alessandro Bonci, and José Mojica. These tenors never performed together, yet each has left his mark in the history of singing and Edison has preserved their legacies by the most successful recording process of that era. Today, the beauty of Anselmi, the technical prowess of Bonci and the expressiveness of Mojica, is gathered on this one-disc compilation. Their sweet tone and lyricism was captured by Edison at the height of their respective careers resulting in sound that transcends their present fame. These tenors may not be the first three that come to mind, yet after hearing this disc they will not soon be forgotten.

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Liner Notes

Three tenors! No, these three never appeared as a group, and “Nessun dorma” wasn’t known to have been sung by any of them. These three, however, did have two points in common: they were lyric tenors with somewhat similar repertoire, and each recorded for Thomas A. Edison’s National Phonograph Company (later Thomas A. Edison Inc.). Most appropriate of all, for our purposes, is that their total operatic output for Edison conveniently fits one CD!

Edison was both the inventor of the cylindrical phonograph in 1877 and also one of the most colorful characters related to its history. After an initial flurry of activity, Edison left his new brainchild for work in other fields. During that interval, the disc record was invented and patented by others. Despite their poorer sonic quality, the shellac discs had the advantage of a simple mass production system and were more durable than the fragile, individually recorded wax cylinders. By the time Edison developed mass production methods and a more durable material for his cylinders, the discs companies had gained predominance in the recording field.

Edison commercially entered the disc record field in 1912, his recordings being of considerably greater fidelity than those of the competition. To beat patent strictures, however, Edison’s records were playable only on Edison machines. Securing celebrity artists was a problem, as most of the major operatic singers had exclusive arrangements with the other companies. Edison had to rely on younger performers, European singers untested in the U.S., and those few still unattached to Victor or Columbia.

As it turned out, the celebrated inventor was often his own worst enemy in developing his superior recording system as a purveyor of things artistic. He was handicapped by his limited musical knowledge and taste, and he had a seemingly pathological need to be in control of all aspects of production. All recordings had to be personally heard and approved by Edison, despite his handicap of severe deafness.

The books at the Edison National Historic Site are rife with Edison’s comments and condemnations in his own hand of various artists he tested. Many stars, from Al Jolson (whom he labeled a “Coney Island beer salon singer”) and Eddie Cantor through Conchita Supervia and Amelita Galli-Curci were heard and rejected as unsatisfactory. This testing was done either by means of trial recordings made for Edison or by Edison himself, listening to Victor, Columbia, and Fonotipia records of the artists. Seldom did either the performers or repertoire elicit more than faint praise. The principal vocalists of the period he considered simply “names” and felt that any number of young, unkown voices would be more suitable for recording purposes. Most he felt had excessive “tremolo” or “the shakes”, terms he used for vibrato, and the voices he particularly admired were those with the straightest tone, such as sopranos Ellen Beach Yaw and Anna Case. Edison even went so far as to have violinist Carl Flesch experiment by recording without vibrato. This may have pleased Edison’s ears but probably wouldn’t have elicited any other positive response.

Edison’s favorite song was I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, and, while he had a staff to help select repertoire, he freely offered his advice and opinions. For example, he tested another company’s record of the Lucia “Sextette”. “Tune good, splendid,” he enthused in his notebook, but further suggested that his forces could make a much better recording of it using fewer singers! That thought serves to encapsulate Edison’s competence as a musician and a producer.

During the experimental period between 1910 and 1912, Edison had both European and American recording studios. Millions of dollars were spent, and well over a thousand master disc records were made before Edison felt ready for production late in 1912. His 12” discs had the capacity of eight minutes on a side as opposed to about four and a half on Victor and Columbia, but rather than capitalizing on this asset, Edison decided not to issue any twelve-inch records. As a result, hundreds of masters already made were put in storage, never to see the light of day. Of the remaining ten-inch sides, scarcely more than two dozen of all those titles recorded during the first three years ever reached publication status.

It was obvious to even Edison, however, that he needed star power, particularly tenors, to sell operatic records. Giovanni Martinelli made a few discs for Edison in 1912, prior to his American début, but Edison was very unhappy with the results. It was with Giuseppe Anselmi and Alessandro Bonci that Edison sought to invade Victor’s Caruso success.

Bonci and Anselmi were celebrated Italian operatic tenors, but both had exclusive recording contracts with the Fonotipia Company. In order to secure these singers, Edison had to buy their contracts and also offer them better terms than had Fonotipia, gambling that their records would add needed artistic prestige and that they would sell well enough to cover the expenses.

Giuseppe Anselmi born near Catania, 6 October 1876, studied with conductor Luigi Mancinelli and made his Italian operatic début in Genoa, 1900. He appeared with success at Covent Garden and was a matinee idol in Russia, South America, and Spain, where he appeared in the major lyric tenor roles. His career was rather short. By 1918 he had retired. He then spent his time teaching and composing, and he died 29 May 1929, near Rapallo, Italy.

From 1907 to 1911, Anselmi had been a frequent visitor to the Fonotipia studios. Edison had reviewed several of these records, and his comments included remarks such as “bad tremolo” and “great change in volume making it hard to record.” Caruso’s name also entered the picture. “Not as sweet as Caruso,” Edison noted in an undated memo, “and more explosive.” Still, it was decided to record him, the event occurring in late January or early February, 1913. As is typical of Edison records of the period, the “orchestra” consisted of a string quartet, harp, and an occasional wind instrument, Edison preferring this soothing combination to whatever the composer may have intended. Eight recordings were made, with two takes of each. Six were published and two were withheld.

In 1923, Anselmi wrote to Edison, reminding him that the recording session a decade earlier had included the “Siciliana” from Cavalleria Rusticana which Edison had not approved. Also, apparently, there was some unpaid money due Anselmi as a result. The tenor reminded Edison of his earlier offer to record the selection again, but the war had interrupted. He now (1923) most politely requested that he be allowed to remake the aria in question and be paid $2000, outstanding on his contract or else a percentage of that amount to resolve the contract. Edison’s reply appears on the letter: “No answer—treated me dirty.” Whatever this may have been about is now shrouded by mystery. Anselmi and Edison never met, the recording work having taken place in London, so it is likely the problems had to do with this contract.

Shortly after having captured Anselmi on disc, Edison went about obtaining the services of Alessandro Bonci. Born in Cesena, Rimini, 10 February 1870, Bonci was the apprentice of a bootmaker. He was granted a scholarship comparable to nine dollars a month to the Pesaro Conservatory and made the (appropriately enough) nine miles trip there daily on foot. His début was in Parma, in 1896, as Fenton in Falstaff, and he soon became an international favorite in the light lyric tenor repertoire. Although Bonci was frequently lauded by the press as Caruso’s major competitor, there was actually little in common between the two singers. Caruso’s repertoire was headed toward the more dramatic, while Bonci remained the bel canto expert. He died at Viserba, near Rimini, Italy, 10 August 1940.

Edison felt, upon reviewing one of Bonci’s Fonotipia records, that he was a “good tenor, sweet voice—good range.” However he concluded Bonci’s “tremolo very considerable” and determined that he would be “valuable for advertising purposes” only. Evidently, though, Edison developed at least a modicum of enthusiasm for the voice of his high priced tenor. A year after recording Bonci, Edison “reviewed” a Victor record of baritone Titta Ruffo. “Terrible tremolo!”, he underlined for emphasis. “Cannot use this man, even if he ‘paid us’. Not a sweet voice like Bonci.”

Unusual for phonograph companies at the time, Edison and Columbia joined forces in assisting Bonci in getting a release from his Fonotipia contract in return for both companies having exclusive rights to his services for a period of years. In January 1913, Bonci began his recording work for Edison, which consisted of three sessions that month and four more in May.

Edison was correct in predicting that Bonci’s name would be a valuable asset to the company. Unlike Anselmi, who never visited the United States, Bonci’s American popularity assured record sales. Shortly after his first Edison recording session, Bonci gave a recital in New York’s Aeolian Hall. In commenting on the performance for the New York Mail, reviewer Emilie Bauer wrote:

Mr. Bonci’s voice was in unusually excellent condition, due to an interesting cause. Mr. Bonci has been making records for Thomas Edison’s latest instrument. The great inventor had asked Mr. Bonci to prepare himself by perfect quiet and a certain amount of rehearsing so that he might secure records absolutely pure and perfect of tone. For this reason his voice was in the most marvelous condition in which it has ever been heard. Never has Bonci shown such power, color and mastery of the smallest detail. His mere tone production was the most glorious example of singing that New York has ever heard.

If we are to believe any of this, then his records made that prior month must have done him at least equal justice.

Bonci appeared in opera concerts in the U.S. through 1920, and most of his, as well as Anselmi’s, Edison records remained mainstays in their catalogue until the company ceased operations in 1929. Neither tenor returned to the Edison recording horn after their initial sessions, but Bonci did make a few final electrical Italian Columbia sides in 1926. Comparison indicates how remarkably faithful Edison’s acoustical process had been in capturing the timbre of Bonci’s voice.

After his experience with Bonci and Anselmi, Edison recorded only two additional Italian tenors, Giovanni Zenatello and Guido Ciccolini. Reviewing a Ciccolini record, Edison opined in a concluding sentence, “I have about made up my mind that every Italian tenor is an all round [sic] d__d fool.” Having given up on Italians but needing new tenor operatic releases in later years, Edison recruited his most popular Spanish singing-star tenor José Mojica (Mexico City, 14 September 1896– Lima, Peru, 29 September 1974) to record several Italian and French arias.

Mojica’s introduction to Edison came about in 1916. He was then visiting New York in hopes of further developing a promising career begun in his native Mexico, but his success had been limited at best. In what he considered financially “a last resort”, Mojica contacted the Edison Company. They were, at the time, considering exporting their machines to Latin America and were looking for Spanish singers to help stimulate interest. Mojica made a test record and was “enormously disillusioned” when the record was played back. Mojica was subsequently told that Edison had not liked his voice, and that ended matters for the time being.

Three years later, following his Chicago Opera début, Mojica and the Edison people again connected. This time the tenor was given a contract to record eight Spanish songs at $50 per selection. While a pittance as compared to the thousands paid Bonci and Anselmi, it should be remembered that Mojica was still very much a novice, and that his Chicago Opera work during those first seasons was mainly in comprimario roles.

By the time Mojica began making operatic records for Edison, 1925-26, he had become an important figure at the Chicago Opera, having moved into principal roles. His handsome appearance provided the sobriquet “the Valentino of the opera”. He was subsequently to leave Edison in favor of Victor and then made several successful early Spanish sound films. He moved comfortably during the 1930s through the worlds of opera, film, and concerts, but left this milieu in 1943, honoring a deathbed promise to his mother to become a priest. Like Edison, Mojica eventually became completely deaf.

One particular thrill for Mojica was in eventually meeting Edison, who had, subsequent to that original test record, apparently changed his opinion of the tenor. Even though deaf, he told Mojica he could “still hear by means of a special apparatus” and enjoy the tenor’s recordings. He particularly liked the Esparza Oteo song, Golondrina Mesajera. Mojica wrote in his autobiography, “Edison said that he listened to this song every night before retiring [this seems a rather incredible statement], and that he could scarcely believe that it was sung by such a young man.”

Mojica might have known Bonci in passing, as both were with the Chicago Opera in 1920, but it seems quite certain that they never performed together. Anselmi and Bonci may have met, but Anselmi would never have known Mojica, who appeared in Europe only once. Their common point, having made recordings for Edison, presents the opportunity to hear these three important voices captured by the most successful recording process of that era at the peak of their respective careers.

© Lawrence F. Holdridge, 1998