Born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, as it was Italian tradition to include the names of one’s grandfathers on the birth certificate, Puccini came from a long line of organists, composers and choir masters in Lucca, a small town in northern 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. Puccini began working as a church organist at the age of eleven, and later earned money by teaching and playing piano in Lucca’s taverns.
Puccini saw his first opera at age eighteen. Too poor for train fare, he walked almost twenty miles to Pisa to see Verdi’s Aida, and it changed his life. He commented, “I felt that a musical window had opened for me.” After such a transcendent experience, Puccini decided to pursue opera rather than work as a church musician like his father. After four years, he saved enough money to enroll in the Milan Conservatory. Milan was an ideal location because it was located close to La Scala and the new center of Italian opera.
Although Puccini was poor, in Milan he met the most influential figures in Italian opera. To save money, he shared an apartment with several friends. In later years, he would recall episodes of dodging bill collectors and playing piano in bars for food. Puccini hated his landlord, who mischievously opened tenants’ mail to collect rent before they could spend it. The students were not allowed to cook in their rooms, so while his friends cooked, Puccini played piano as loudly as possible to cover the kitchen sounds. In LA BOHÈME, Puccini’s experience with the landlord inspired the character of the old buffoon, Benoit. In the story, the young roommates would cheat him out of his rent, something Puccini had wanted to do in his youth.
Puccini wrote his first opera, LE VILLI, for an opera competition. While it was not well received by the judges, Giulio Ricordi, the most important publisher in Italy, saw great promise in Puccini. He paid Puccini a stipend for several years and stood by him through multiple attempts to write a successful opera. Ricordi’s belief that Puccini would one day become famous was quickly realized. Ricordi made a fortune as the publisher of the world’s most popular operas: LA BOHEME (1896), TOSCA (1900), and MADAME BUTTERFLY (1904).
The latter was based on a play of the same name, written by David Belasco, which Puccini saw in London. Many of Puccini’s heroines are ultimately betrayed by their life circumstances. The tragic tale of the Japanese Geisha, Cio-Cio-San, is no different. Her dedication to honor and loyalty motivates her actions and also leads to her death.
Inspired by Belasco again, Puccini subsequently wrote THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, along with four additional operas before beginning his final work, TURANDOT, in 1920. TURANDOT would prove to be an extremely difficult project for Puccini, and one which he never completed. There were many problems: his librettists were slow, the story line required major rewriting, Puccini wanted it to be larger in scope than any of his other works and, worst of all, his health was failing. Throughout his life, Puccini was never without his beloved cigars. 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 today.
During the time of Puccini’s life from the mid 1800’s to the early 1900s, the opera business in Italy was much like the Broadway musical scene of today: big business. Wealthy investors poured money into star performers and big productions, looking for the next hit show. Giuseppe Verdi had been the reigning monarch of opera composers in Italy for over fifty years. He came out of a long retirement at age eighty to compose OTELLO (1887) and FALSTAFF (1893). Italy was looking for Verdi’s successor, and Ricordi put his money on Puccini. By 1900, the entire world knew that Puccini was the heir designate. Puccini wrote 12 operas, with three of them, MADAME BUTTERFLY, LA BOHÈME, and TOSCA among the “top ten money makers” list. Add THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, TURANDOT and MANON LESCAUT, and you have operas with a large portion of the most beautiful and most frequently sung arias ever written.
BEHIND THE SCANDAL
While Puccini was professionally successful, he had his fair share of personal trials. In 1903, Puccini survived the first motor accident ever to receive wide spread media coverage in Italy. While Puccini’s longtime mistress, Elvira Gemignani, and their son, Antonio, walked away with only minor wounds, the chauffeur and Puccini suffered severe injuries. Puccini was found trapped underneath the car with his right leg broken, almost choked by fumes. He had a difficult time healing and received treatment for months following the accident. Soon after, he found out he was also suffering from a form of diabetes. These health issues slowed Puccini’s work in completing MADAME BUTTERFLY.
Strangely, the day after the car accident, when Puccini desperately needed someone to aid him during recovery, Elvira’s womanizing and abusive husband whom she had long since left, died. After seventeen years of companionship, Elvira and Puccini finally married, though their marriage was not always filled with wedded bliss.
After the success of MADAME BUTTEFLY, Puccini’s librettist, Giuseppe Giacosa, died in 1904. Without his collaborator, Puccini felt even more pressure to produce a work as equally impassioned as that of LA BOHÈME, TOSCA or MADAME BUTTERFLY. Finding a suitable story on which to base his next opera took several years. When he finally started composing THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, family drama halted his work. In 1909, his wife accused Puccini and a servant girl of having an affair. The young Doria Manfredi was traumatized by the false accusations and public scandal; she committed suicide by poisoning herself with mercury.
The devastation caused by this scandal and misunderstanding worsened by another rumor that Puccini was not actually having the affair with Doria, but was having an affair with her cousin, Guilla.
A Modern Scandal?
We have all heard the adage that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Throughout music history, many composers have been known to “borrow” musical material from other composers. The Puccini estate, however, was not a fan of this tradition when, in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber included musical material from Puccini’s THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST in his highly successful musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Moments from Dick Johnson’s aria, “Quello che tacete” are heard in the Phantom’s song, “Music of the Night.” Fortunately, the case was settled out of court.
Music from MADAME BUTTERFLY was also “borrowed” by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg in another widely beloved music, Les Misérables. The beautiful melody sung in the Humming Chorus in BUTTERFLY (the scene where Butterfly, having seen Pinkerton’s ship arrive in the distance, awaits through the night for his return to her) is used in Les Misérables’ “Bring him Home,” (when Valjean sings for Marius’ safe return from the war).