» Giacomo Puccini Bust

“Only with emotion, can one achieve a triumph which endures.”

- Giacomo Puccini

Critical Essay By
Giulio M. Ongaro, Ph.D.

Dean and Professor
College of Performing Arts
View Bio

Puccini is one of the most important composers of Italian opera and without a doubt the heir to the great Giuseppe Verdi. Puccini came from a family of musicians who had served the Duke of Lucca as “maestri di cappella,” that is, directors of music at the cathedral in Lucca, for four generations. His father, a professor of composition at the local conservatory, died when Giacomo was five. As a result, Giacomo was sent to study music with an uncle, who was not impressed by his pupil and disparaged his lack of commitment and hard work. Even though he continued to be tagged as an indifferent student by his teachers, once he started studying at the local conservatory, he quickly showed his talent in composition and organ playing, and from the age of fourteen, he helped his family financially by playing organ in several churches, as well as playing piano for the entertainment of the patrons of a local café.

In 1880, after graduating from the local conservatory, Puccini moved to Milan to continue his studies, concentrating on opera composition. Given the financial difficulties of the Puccini family, his move and his studies in Milan would not have been possible without the tireless work of his mother, who moved heaven and earth to get some important people to grant Giacomo a scholarship. Milano was then one of the most important centers of opera and of music publishing, thanks to the famous La Scala opera house and to the music publishing firm established by the Ricordi family in 1808 and still extant today.

During his time at the conservatory in Milano Puccini studied with opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli and became friends with fellow student Pietro Mascagni, who later became famous with his Cavalleria rusticana. Being in Milano at the time for a composer intent on writing operas was like moving to New York or Los Angeles for an American musician of our time: a center teeming with talent and opportunities, where the managers and impresarios were competing, sometimes ruthlessly, to back the best works, and where one hit on the stage would secure a composer’s reputation. We should remember that successful composers of opera in Italy, for example Giuseppe Verdi, became objects of adoration by the crowds. When Verdi died in 1901, even though he had asked for a simple funeral, crowds lined the streets of Milan to honor the funeral cortege, and when his body was moved a month later to its current location, 300,000 people showed up to pay their respects.

As is still often the case, the hardest part for a young composer was to break into this world, and Puccini tried entering his first opera, Le Villi, in a competition, but the work was not ranked highly by the committee. Undaunted, the librettist of the opera organized a soirée so that Puccini could play the music for a group of important composers and men of theatre. The work was highly praised and a few months later, in 1884, because of the sponsorship of the music publisher and entrepreneur Giulio Ricordi,  was staged in Milano to great success among the critics and audiences alike. This early success made it possible for Puccini to sign a contract with Ricordi and to begin a collaboration that lasted all his life.  His relationship with Giulio Ricordi was one of the most important in his life, and Giacomo and Giulio had an intense correspondence where they discussed details of every business deal and performance. Reading these letters is a most fascinating experience, and gives great insights into the business and artistic world of the time, in addition to containing many private comments by Puccini about the skills of the opera singers of the time, and his frustrations with the librettists who would not deliver the kind of poetry he wanted to set. In this period, opera as a business was run differently than it is today, and the closest thing to its business model is perhaps today’s Broadway musical. Operas were expensive to stage, but if the audience did not react positively, their run would be short and it was rare for the composer to have a second chance at impressing the public. Composers like Puccini had to worry about a variety of issues: make sure that the right singers were engaged; keep an eye on the design of costumes and sets; make sure that the contracts were to their satisfaction, since the primary sources of income for the composers were the performances and the printing of scores; work with the librettist to make sure the narrative was dramatically effective and that the individual sections could be set to music well;  insist on poetry of a sufficient caliber, particularly since the audience could understand and appreciate the text; be at rehearsals, make adjustments based on rehearsal issues, and even suggest appropriate stage movement and positioning. In short, instead of being an artist with his head in the clouds (and in this period composers were overwhelmingly male), composers of operas needed to be businessmen, to know all aspects of business from legal affairs to production, to marketing and so on. For example, in a letter of 1893 Puccini, after asking a business partner to purchase a bicycle for him, remarks that he has agreed to have two singers engaged for a performance in Lucca because he was assured that they are good, but that he would have preferred two different singers and concludes: “Please keep pressure on Mr. Bolcioni for the set design, so that the set does not turn out like the one in Trento, which was horrible.”  

Of course, the first, most important element was to have an interesting story to tell on the stage, and Puccini was constantly looking for works to adapt into operas. There are some constants in his choices, which usually involve a heroine who dies tragically, sacrificing herself because of love.  Most of his operas, and certainly all of his most successful opera, have a plot centered on a tragic female character, and Puccini was deliberately trying to appeal to the sensibilities of Italian audiences at the turn of the century, which preferred a high degree of sentimentality (one could say “overwrought sentimentality”) in poetry and the arts.  To appeal to the audience’s taste for this sentimentality was Puccini’s goal and in a letter of 1894, two years before the premiere of La bohéme, he writes to Giulio Ricordi: “But the part that I think came out exceedingly well is the last act. The death [of the female protagonist] and everything that precedes are truly moving.” And a little later, after having some disagreements with the librettist, he writes again to Ricordi, saying: “I want the death [of the protagonist] to be exactly the way I have conceived it, and if I can have that, I am sure I will write an original and vital work.”

Even though many of the plots might seem mawkish to us, the situations in which the protagonists found themselves would have been quite familiar to his audiences from their own life experiences. In this, Puccini was influenced by the movement known as verismo (true to life), as he focused on characters that for the most part were relatable, not distant queen and kings, and portrayed as full human beings, so that while not entirely part of verismo, his operas deal with human emotions in a realistic way.  On the other hand, there was also a definite appetite for the exotica, and Puccini tried to find settings for his operas that would appeal to the imagination of his largely middle and upper class audiences. His first big success, Manon Lescaut,  is partly set in Louisiana; La bohéme takes place in Paris, but in the world of penniless artists, not in the glittering Paris of the turn of the century. Madame Butterfly is set in Japan, with the male protagonist being the American lieutenant Pinkerton; and La fanciulla del West (The Girl of The Golden West) is entirely set in the American West and was in fact premiered in New York at the Met in 1910. His last, grandiose and unfinished opera, Turandot, is set in Imperial China. All of these would have been highly exotic settings to an audience in late 19th-century Europe, and these settings made it possible to have unusual scenery and costumes. The decision to set some operas in the Far East (modern Japan and ancient China) and the Far West of the United States must be understood within the taste of the time. At a series of world fairs held in Paris in the late 19th century,  for example, visitors were able to see pavilions from a variety of countries, in one case a reconstruction of an Egyptian quarter, with real Egyptians working in it, with art and music from participating countries from all over the world. Although a taste for the art of the Far East had been present in Europe for centuries, this kind of events had a deep influence in popularizing this taste and contributed to the audience demand for exotic locales in plays and operas. Puccini, in his usual manner, tried to learn as much as possible about these settings, and in some of the letters written during the composition of Madama Butterfly, for example, he says he needs to learn more about Japanese music, to try and incorporate elements of it in his score.

The way Puccini chose stories to bring to the stage was  primarily by reading and especially by going to theatre plays to see the latest hits. In effect he acted like today’s movie directors and producers, who are always looking for successful books and stories to adapt for the silver screen. Virtually all of Puccini’s successes were based on pre-existing works. Manon Lescaut actually followed another successful opera (Manon) by the French composer Massenet, and in fact Puccini was initially discouraged from writing on this subject so soon after Massenet’s success. La bohéme was based on a widely available French set of stories (Stories of bohemian life) published in 1851, Tosca (1900) was based on a play by Victorien Sardou, which Puccini had seen in 1889. Madame Butterfly (1904) is an adaptation of a play by the American playwright David Belasco of an earlier short story. Puccini saw the play in London in 1900 and was immediately fascinated by it, even though his English was not fully adequate to understand the play. Belasco later said (perhaps exaggerating slightly) that Puccini entered his dressing room immediately after the play ended to ask for the rights to turn it into an opera, and that he had to agree without setting clear business terms because it was impossible “to discuss business arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both arms around your neck.” The collaboration between the playwright and Puccini also was the impetus for the composition of La fanciulla del West (1910), based on a Belasco play from 1905.

In short Puccini, wanted to put on stage what was already popular and successful, but also wanted stories that would really move the audience. However, we should not forget that Puccini was primarily a composer and it is music which is the perfect way to convey the disparate emotions and nuances of the text. Puccini is a master melodic writer and orchestrator, able to write memorable melodies (is there anyone who has not heard “Nessun dorma” from Turandot?) , and to accompany them by using the orchestra in a sophisticated way, from passages played with vigor by the full orchestra, to moments where the instruments are treated as they would be in a chamber piece, with inventive combinations of sounds, and a delicate musical fabric. In his use of the orchestra, we can say that Puccini reaches the pinnacle of Italian opera composition: if in the first half of the nineteenth century the orchestra was often mere accompaniment to the singers on stage, with Puccini it becomes a sensitive partner, another protagonist and a narrator, as it were, that reminds us of past events and foreshadows future ruin by bringing back and re-working themes and motives. The greatness of Puccini is in giving his full attention to all dramatic and musical elements, thus creating true masterpieces that can still move the audiences of today.

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Giacomo Puccini bust

May 1, 2008

Patrick and Mary Dirk

Designation Name
The Sebastian Paul and Marybelle Musco Chair in Italian Studies

Juan Rosillo

Campus Location
Aitken Arts Plaza, Orange Campus