About the Composer

“Without Puccini, there is no opera.” That’s the verdict of a Puccini biographer and who can argue. He wasn’t the most prolific composer -- Rossini wrote 39 operas and Donizetti’s output totals a staggering 70. But fully half of Puccini’s 10 operas are among the most beloved and performed works world wide, year after year. Imagine the opera repertoire without La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut and Turandot.

Indeed, Puccini is such a crowd pleaser that criticism occasionally drifts toward the patronizing. If these productions are such box of ce hits, Puccini must lack a certain gravitas. Why he even collaborated with David Belasco, a Broadway showman, in creating Madama Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West.

Audiences could care less. What Puccini delivers is dramatic theater, a taste of the exotic, and memorable roles for women — Mimi, Tosca, Butterfly, Princess Turandot, and poker playing Minnie, opera’s answer to Annie Oakley. Lush musical scores are punctuated by arias that define the art form for all time. Think “Vissi d’arte”, indelibly identified with Maria Callas; Butterfly’s “Un bel di,” and “O mio babbino caro” from the one-act comedy gem Gianni Schicchi. This is a middle-brow composer? Imagine yourself saying, “I don’t need to listen to “Nessun dorma” again. I’ve heard it often enough.” Case closed.

A mark of Puccini’s creative genius was taking risks, seldom repeating himself. His greatest works delved into starkly different worlds: The underclass of starving artists in La bohème, historical melodrama in Tosca, and what was at the time Asian exotica in Madama Butterfly. (Booed mightily at its debut.) Near the end of his career, he wrote ll trittico, a trio of remarkably different one-act operas for the Metropolitan Opera in New York: Il tabarro, a gritty story of jealousy and murder among Parisian lowlifes; Suor Angelica, a sentimental story set in a convent with an all-female cast, and Gianni Schicchi, a hilarious glimpse at a dysfunctional Italian family. During World War I, he tried writing a Viennese-style operetta, La Rondine. His final work, Turandot, completed after his death, was a tragic fable set in ancient China.

He was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca in 1858 with a first-class musical pedigree. Family members had been leading church musicians in the Tuscan town of Lucca for over a century, yet Giacomo frittered away his youth and flunked out of school. His life changed when at age 18 he saw a performance of Verdi’s Aida. Lionized by Italians, Verdi was nearing the end of his career and a handful of young composers were competing to take his place. Puccini enrolled at Lucca’s conservatory and produced his first opera, Le Villi at age 26. His first hit, Manon Lescaut premiered in 1893, the same year as Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. For the next three decades, at the dawn of the 20th century, Puccini dominated Italian opera and made a small fortune, to boot. “He represents Verdi’s only true successor,” says the Grove Dictionary of Music.

Poulenc’s family was wealthy. With no money worries, he confessed to indolence and was said to have taken amphetamines from time to time to spark his energy. He was badgered with depression and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1954.

Puccini’s private life was not without drama. He memorably described himself as “a mighty hunter of wild fowl, operatic librettos and attractive women.”
His affair with a piano pupil, Elvira Gemignani, the wife of a long time friend, created a personal  fire storm. They eventually married but the relationship was unhappy and Puccini’s dalliances continued. His lovers included major divas of the day, Maria Jeritza and Emmy Destin among them. Politically naive, he raised a ruckus at the outset of World War I by casually suggesting that chaotic Italy might benefit from a German invasion that would bring “good German order.” He was pinned under his car in a night time auto accident and nearly died. What did eventually kill him, in Brussels at age 65, was post-operative effects of botched surgery for throat cancer, the undoubted result of a lifetime of chain smoking cigarettes and cigars.

A footnote: Among Puccini’s legion of fans was Thomas Edison, who saw his newly-invented phonograph as the means of recording opera stars of the time. After Puccini’s death, a short letter to the composer from the genius inventor was discovered. It read: “Men die and Governments change, but the songs of La bohème will live forever.” (signed) Thomas A. Edison, Sept, 1920.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson