His full name was Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini . . . it was Italian tradition to include the names of your grandfathers on the birth certificate. Giacomo came from a long line of organists, composers and choir masters in Lucca, a small town in nothern Italy. As a boy, Puccini was described as “lazy, slow, and a poor student,” who enjoyed only bird hunting. His mother, a single parent with seven children, forced him to study music. To help with family finances, Puccini began working at age 11 as a church organist, and later earned money by teaching piano and playing piano in Lucca’s taverns.
Puccini saw his first opera at age 18. Too poor for train fare, he walked almost 20 miles to see Verdi’s AIDA in Pisa, and it changed his life: “I felt that a musical window had opened for me.” Puccini now knew he would not become a church musician like his father, but would turn to opera. He made plans to move to Milan, where the famous opera house, La Scala, was the new center of Italian opera. It took him four years to save enough money to enroll in Milan Conservatory.
In Milan, Puccini was poor, but he met the most influential figures in Italian opera. To save money, he shared an apartment with several friends, and in later years, he would recall episodes of dodging bill collectors and playing piano in bars for food. Puccini hated his landlord, who opened the tenants’ mail to collect rent before they could spend it. The students were not allowed to cook in their rooms, but were too poor to eat out, so while his friends cooked, Puccini played piano as loudly as possible to cover the kitchen sounds. In LA BOHÈME, the landlord would become the old buffoon, Benoit, and the young roommates would cheat him out of his rent. . . something Puccini wanted to do in his youth.
Puccini wrote his first opera, LE VILLI, for an opera competition. The judges didn’t like it, but Giulio Ricordi, the most important publisher in Italy, liked it, and saw great promise in Puccini. He paid Puccini a stipend for several years, and stood by him through several attempts to write a successful opera. Ricordi believed that Puccini would become famous. He was right. He made a fortune as the publisher of the world’s most popular operas: TOSCA, LA BOHÈME, and MADAMA BUTTERFLY.
Some of Puccini’s most popular operas were composed around the turn of the century included LA BOHÈME in 1896, TOSCA in 1900, and MADAMA BUTTERFLY in 1904, an opera he based on a David Belasco play he’d seen in London. This would not be the first time that Puccini had inspiration from a Belasco play. Then came a long period when he searched for new subjects and yearned to write a different kind of opera. The result was a commission from America, on an American subject, to be premiered in New York for the Metropolitan Opera. Puccini was again inspired by a David Belasco play and subsequently wrote LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST), a tale of gold miners in the California gold rush. FANCIULLA had its premiere in 1910.
He wrote four more operas before beginning TURANDOT in 1920. TURANDOT would prove to be an extremely difficult project for Puccini. In fact, he never completed the opera. There were many problems: his librettists were slow, the story line required major rewriting, Puccini wanted it to be bigger than any of his other works and, worst of all, his health was failing. Throughout his life Puccini was never without his beloved cigars, and he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1923. He had a fatal heart attack after surgery in Brussels, and died on November 29, 1924. Unlike most composers, Puccini died a wealthy man, with an estate valued at $24 million in today’s money.
From 1850 to Puccini’s time, the opera business in Italy was like the Broadway musical scene of today: it was big business. Wealthy investors poured money into star performers and big productions, looking for the next hit show. In Italy, Giuseppe Verdi had been the reigning monarch of opera composers for over fifty years. He had just come out of a long retirement to compose OTELLO (1887) and FALSTAFF (1893), but he was already 80 years old. Italy was looking for Verdi’s successor, and Ricordi put his money on Puccini. And by 1900, all the world knew that Puccini was the heir designate. Puccini wrote 12 operas with three of them, MADAMA BUTTERFLY, LA BOHÈME, and TOSCA easily qualifying as world class, all-time hits, that made the “top ten money makers” list. Add FANCIULLA, TURANDOT and MANON LESCAUT, and you have operas with a large portion of the most beautiful, most frequently sung arias ever written.
Puccini was a master of composing beautiful tunes. Many are used in arias, but most are found woven into the score like threads in fabric. He uses melodies to describe action, individual characters, and emotions. Most of Puccini’s characters have their own themes, called motives, which portray them through music.
Puccini searched long and hard for good subjects for his operas. He read scripts and traveled widely to see new plays and theatrical productions. He had an uncanny sense of drama and would not settle on one subject until he knew it would provide powerful, emotional theater. Puccini once described himself as “more heart than mind,” and wrote once, “how can one compose what one does not feel?”
With his great melodic gifts, Puccini controlled pacing and mood on stage. He never let things slow down. His favorite tool was contrast: he could instantly turn a scene from humorous to tragic, from lyric to dramatic.
Puccini heroines are often tragic figures who are ultimately betrayed by the men in their lives. Floria Tosca is no exception. Her pact with Scarpia and his ultimate betrayal is a classic element in Puccini operas. Great interpreters of the role of Tosca include Emily Destinn and Maria Callas. Cavaradossi was often performed by legendary tenors like Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Scarpia became the signature role for baritone Tito Gobbi.