The wonderful Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja is appearing as Caruso in a new movie starring Marion Cotillard and Joachuin Phoenix (The Immigrant will be shown at the New York Film Festival in October), and he’s absolutely the right person to do so: his voice harkens back to the Golden Age of singing — and no-one else today comes close, as so many music critics and fans have been quick to point out. But the question I have is this: should his voice be compared to or with those of the legendary singers of the past, such as Björling, Gigli and others? Strangely, one preposition emphasizes the similarities between the items being compared, and one highlights the differences.
Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, compare the prepositions with one another:
“To compare to is to point out or imply resemblances between objects regarded as essentially of a different order; to compare with is mainly to point out differences between objects regarded as essentially of the same order. Thus, life has been compared to a pilgrimage, to a drama, to a battle; Congress may be compared with the British Parliament. Paris has been compared to ancient Athens; it may be compared with modern London.”
Although Calleja’s voice is essentially of the same order as the great singers of the past to whom he’s often likened, and therefore a comparison — by Strunk and White’s logic — should fall into the latter “with” category, the resemblance is striking enough that “to” should probably be the chosen preposition. As Paris is compared to ancient Athens, so should the Maltese tenor be compared to the legendary Golden Age singers, the most famous one of whom he now portrays on the silver screen.