Mary di Michele evokes a voice from the past


On Tuesday, Jan. 11, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Mary di Michele reading from her book Tenor of Love (Penguin, 2005). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.  


“I smelled him before I saw him. His scent was a murky music composed of musk and wood….‘Signorina,’ he repeated, and when he spoke the syllables resonated as if I were being called to worship by a golden bell.”

from Tenor of Love
by Mary di Michele


One might say that Mary di Michele’s latest novel is really a love song. Appearing for the Canadian Writers in Person series on Jan. 11, she shared her thoughts on the creative process and the interplay of love, loss and music in Tenor of Love.

Right: Mary di Michele

The novel follows the early life of Enrico Caruso, an Italian tenor who found great success in early 20th-century America. Though di Michele honoured the facts of this historical figure, she said she sometimes struggled to write within their constraints, saying it was “more like writing a sonnet than free verse.” Because of this, she was more interested in using fiction to explore the scenes of his private life. She said novels are “about the interior life in relationships, in a social and historical context, and that fascinates me.” Through the eyes and ears of the women who loved “Rico”, one sees the man behind the operatic fame and hears what many did not: his speaking voice.

The story is told from the point of view of two of Rico’s three loves: Rina Giachetti, the young and innocent ingénue and Dorothy Caruso, the more pragmatic American he eventually marries near the end of his life. The author said she believed the two women were actually different sides of the same person, loving Caruso at different stages of life and from opposite sides of the Atlantic. In the middle is Rina’s sister Ada, an ambitious and tempestuous soprano, Rico’s mistress and mother to his illegitimate sons. With his life as full of melodrama as the operas he starred in, di Michele said she was more interested in “conjuring the myth, the legend, rather than represent the real man.”

Though she based her factual research on the memoirs written by his wife and son, di Michele also travelled to Italy to experience the places Caruso inhabited. She believes that understanding a sense of place, to “see the landscape, the quality of light, feel the weather, smell the air, the trees” is just as important to the process. “Writing fiction is part intellectual, part instinctual; the research for a book is better if the body takes part in it, too.”

Primarily a poet, di Michele was very much aware of the sound of words as well as their meaning, appropriate for a book about singers. Furthermore, she was intrigued by the poet’s concern of expressing what can’t be said, just as her novel’s characters “try to describe a voice that is gone, when they struggle to recall what couldn’t be recorded on disks.”

Reflecting on why she chose to write about “the quintessential tenor,” di Michele suggested that Caruso was a symbol of Italians going to America and finding themselves caught between two countries, unable to truly be at home again. This was the case for her father, for whom opera was also a great passion. “Like Rina, I’m interested in the passions of the people I love,” she said, and the book is dedicated to him. When asked if she also liked to sing, di Michele laughed, “I’m the girl in the story who the nun said was tone deaf!”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Jan. 25,  in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, Heather Cadsby will read from her poetry collection Could be.


Chris Cornish, a former teaching assistant with the course, has since graduated but continues to attend the readings.