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Puccini In America

July 2024
13min read

New York received the great composer like a god; he responded con brio to its shiny gadgets and beautiful women and produced an “American” opera.

On a cold December day in 1906, the tiny Italian village of Torre del Lago was filled with excitement. Virtually the entire population—120 men, women, and children—milled about its little railroad station to bid farewell to its most eminent citizen, leaving that day for New York. One neighbor, with a kind heart but an abysmal ignorance of geography, had brought along a sausage for delivery to an uncle in Argentina. Others had brought armfuls of flowers, and some had composed sentimental little poems especially for the occasion. After all the speeches had been spoken and a respectable volume of tears had been shed, the locomotive’s whistle sounded and the train chugged slowly out of the station. The great composer Giacomo Puccini was off for America.

Puccini, tall, handsome, dramatic, was a Tuscan who referred to himself as a “hunter of wild ducks” even after his operas had brought him a fortune in royalties. Torre del Lago was “the supreme joy. Paradise, Eden, the highest sphere of heaven, an ivory tower, vas spirituale, a kingdom.” He had written once: “I hate palaces! I hate capitals! I hate styles! I hate horses, cats and pedigreed dogs! I hate steamers, top hats and evening clothes!” He was a sportsman who sat through the chill of wet mornings in a duck blind among the reeds of his remote lake near Lucca, then went home to set down pages of music that made him the most famous composer in the turn-of-the-century world.

The general manager of the Metropolitan Opera had invited Puccini to come to the United States to supervise the American premieres of two of his most famous works. Neither Manon Lescaut nor Madame Butterfly had ever been heard at the Metropolitan before. But in 1907 the great opera company had Caruso and vivacious, sharp-witted Geraldine Farrar; it had Lina Cavalieri, whose flawless beauty had made her an international legend and given her the title of “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Certainly this was the year to give the Puccini operas.

The composer’s contract called for him to attend rehearsals of both productions, but fog and heavy seas delayed his ship, the S.S. Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, while Puccini fumed and spluttered. On January 17 she anchored in the fog off Sandy Hook. On the eighteenth she was fogbound between quarantine and Hoboken, while Puccini and the Metropolitan burned up the wireless. The rehearsals of Manon Lescaut were almost finished, for the opera was scheduled to have its first performance on the night of the eighteenth, with Caruso and Cavalieri. Was it possible that Puccini would not get to New York in time?

Shortly before five o’clock on the afternoon of the eighteenth, the Auguste Victoria steamed into her berth in the Hudson River. A representative of the Metropolitan and a horde of reporters had been at the pier since early morning. They buttonholed Puccini at once and were given an astonishing scoop: Puccini was thinking of writing an opera about the American West. This was a revelation! Operas were set in Egypt, in Vienna, in Paris, Nagasaki, or Babylon, but not in California! This Italian, the most famous composer alive, might choose an American subject. Yes, he was glad to be here. Yes, he was familiar with American literature. Bret Harte’s stories and David Belasco’s plays especially delighted him. Evidently the reporters were accustomed to seeing more hirsute musicians, for they commented happily on Puccini’s beardless face and short hair. “Very different,” they said, “from some of the Italian maestros who have visited New York.”

Puccini was swept quickly into the unfamiliar fast pace of American life. At six o’clock the interview ended, passports were put in order, and the composer and his wife prepared to leave the ship. At seven they were in the Hotel Astor, where dinner was served in their suite. Puccini pulled his frock coat from a trunk, stuffed it into a valise, and hurried to a waiting carriage. At eight he presented himself at the opera house. He changed quickly and slipped into the director’s box during the first act of Manon Lescaut. When the lights went up, the public saw its idol for the first time.

The entire audience broke out in a frenzy of applause. The orchestra saluted Puccini with a brassy fanfare that launched a ten-minute ovation. “Every time there was applause, I had to get up and sit down,” Puccini said later. “I felt like one of those puppets you see at the circus.” After the second act, Caruso and Cavalieri persuaded Puccini to come before the foot-lights, where he seemed very much embarrassed. Later he stood outside his box and greeted the public in Italian and French. When the Metropolitan’s huge gold curtain fell for the last time, Puccini was numb with excitement and fatigue, yet he had to stand through several more rounds of applause.

The next morning Puccini began to explore the magic city. To his astonishment, he loved the hurly-burly of New York and especially the energetic vigor of the American people. With his childlike passion for anything mechanical, he found America a paradise of gadgets and machines. He was a tireless motorist who had traveled through Europe by car and now wanted to inspect carefully every American automobile on the street. He looked over American women as well and found them also to his taste.

At the Metropolitan, among the singers, he renewed old friendships. Many of the opera stars of that era had known Puccini in Europe. Poverty was their common heritage, music the catalyst that brought them together in the theater and made them rich. Caruso was the son of a laborer, Toscanini of a poor tailor. Verdi’s father had been the proprietor of a ramshackle roadside tavern. By 1913 the exquisite Lina Cavalieri had accepted jewels worth $3,000,000 from the Tsar, the Prince of Monaco, and other masculine admirers, but thirty years before she had slept in doorways in the streets of Rome and scrounged for scraps of bread to share with her mother, a washerwoman. Puccini himself was descended from a family of distinguished Tuscan musicians, but his widowed mother had raised her children in the most humble circumstances and had been forced to beg from the city of Lucca and the Queen of Italy the lire needed to give her Giacomo a musical education. These performers understood hardship and feared the caprice of fortune. They clung together.

Caruso, like Puccini, lived at the Astor. He was inseparable from the baritone Antonio Scotti, and the three men were rarely apart during Puccini’s American stay. They began each day with rehearsal at the Metropolitan, for the American première of Madame Butterfly was scheduled for the eleventh of February. Caruso was to sing the role of the American naval lieutenant; Scotti, that of the American consul. Geraldine Farrar had been engaged as the first American Madame Butterfly.

At eleven every morning in the huge red and gold Metropolitan auditorium the trio of singers would join Puccini and two hundred oddly assorted musicians, choristers, claqueurs, costumers, stagehands, and hangers-on to rehearse the new score. Tension ran high. It began over Geraldine Farrar’s habit of conserving her vocal resources by singing with what musicians call “hall-voice.” The Italians, who were accustomed to soar through rehearsals, singing with all the power they had, regarded this as cheating. Miss Farrar, in her autobiography, recalled that they resented her tactics but that tempers never flared openly.

For her part, the soprano wished for better attention from Caruso and Scotti. These two lighthearted colleagues had sung Madame Butterfly earlier in London and were already familiar with the music; it seemed to Farrar that they came to rehearsals merely as a gesture, while she struggled to master a very difficult role.

Puccini had his own complaints. There were not enough rehearsals. “And no one knew anything,” he wrote to a friend in exasperation. “Farrar doesn’t satisfy me too much. She sings out of tune and … her voice doesn’t carry too well.” He complained that the conductor was an imbecile, that he had to do all the stage direction himself. Caruso “won’t learn anything, he’s lazy and too pleased with himself.” But even in this mood Puccini admitted that “all the same, his voice is magnificent.”

The American mezzo-soprano Louise Homer had her mind on other problems. She had recently given birth to twins, and her only concern, Geraldine Farrar noted, was whether her babies’ feedings were being handled properly while she was at the opera house.

Confusion in the theater was increased by the scores of outsiders who had no business there. At the dress rehearsal there was a huge audience which brought sandwiches and what Miss Farrar called “that new fad,” the thermos bottle, so that they might not miss a note of the music. David Belasco, too, was in attendance, dressed in his strange white clerical collar and black suit. The “Bishop of Broadway” had written and produced Madame Butterfly as a play in 1900.

Shortly after the rehearsals began, Puccini became absorbed in a flirtation with a pretty young American girl who was connected with the Metropolitan. He quickly learned that his total ignorance of English was no obstacle in such matters. Caruso discovered the affair and, like a tattletale schoolboy, ran straight to Puccini’s wife with the delicious tale. Here he saw the chance to avenge the dozens of practical jokes Puccini had played on him over the years.

In all the music world of that time there was no woman more jealous than Elvira Puccini. She had lived with the composer and borne him a son before their marriage. She knew exactly how his eye could rove.

“That devil of a Giacomo is at it again,” Caruso reported. “My God, how does he do it? What a man he is!”

Elvira saw at once that there was no time to lose. Within minutes she had her strategy mapped out. She began to attend every rehearsal on her husband’s arm. One morning she was sitting next to him in the front row of the Metropolitan orchestra when she noticed that his big diamond ring was missing from his finger.

“Where is your ring?” she whispered loudly.

Puccini pretended not to hear, but she persisted.

“Where is it?”

“Keep quiet,” he ordered. “Can’t you see they’re rehearsing?” But Elvira was not to be distracted.

Since it was impossible to silence her, Puccini pretended to discover that he had lost the ring.

“Did you have it when you left the hotel?” Elvira persisted.

“Yes, of course. Give me time to think.”

But Elvira’s sharp eye had lighted on a pretty young woman seated in one of the boxes. That must be the hussy! And that, of course, was where the ring had been “lost.”

“Go and find it,” Elvira commanded. “You know where you have been and with whom.”

“All right. After the rehearsal is over,” Puccini agreed.

“No. Get it now.” Elvira’s voice rose shrilly over the music. “Either you get it or I will.”

Puccini muttered rebelliously as he made his way up the aisle. Out of the corner of her eye, Elvira watched him approach the girl in the box above. Soon he returned, his hand extended to show the ring.

“Satisfied?” he asked. “You see what it is to be a good Catholic? While you were scolding I said a prayer to Saint Anthony, and he helped me. I found the ring under a chair where I was sitting some time ago.”

“Bravo. Giacomo,” Elvira responded bitterly. “We must remember to make a special offering to Saint Anthony!”

At the end of the rehearsal, Elvira sought out her American rival and addressed her with maliciously feigned gratitude. “Dear Signora,” she said, “I thank both you and Saint Anthony for helping my husband find his ring.”

Just before he left New York, Puccini attended a reception at the Metropolitan, leaving Elvira at the Astor, in bed with a cold. He resumed the flirtation and danced all night with the young American who had caught his fancy. At dawn, he slipped into his hotel. The moment he fell asleep, Elvira crept from bed and searched systematically through every piece of her husband’s clothing. Finally, in his hat she discovered a small snip of paper hidden inside the band. It was from the girl, setting a meeting for the next day.

“From that moment, I believed in telepathy, spiritualism, necromancy, mind-reading and every kind of occult art,” Puccini swore, as he told the story over and over. “Don’t tell me Elvira is not a medium, for how else could she have seen through that hatband?”

Caruso, who had first come to the United States in 1903, was already fired with that exuberant brand of Americanism which remained distinctively his own all the rest of his life. He could scarcely wait to show Puccini “his” country. Alter rehearsal each day, he, Puccini, and Scotti would plunge along the snowy sidewalks, the two veterans of New York life delightedly pointing out the sights to their recently arrived compatriot. The finest shops, the largest jewels, the handsomest women, the shiniest cars, all captured their eye. In the evenings they and their entourages would make their way downtown from the Metropolitan to Mulberry Street, in the heart of Little Italy. At Del Pezzo’s restaurant they joined Marziale Sisca, the witty dean of Italo-American publishers who was then and is now the owner of the newspaper La Follin.

They would all sit down together at a table groaning with Neapolitan specialties while dozens of curious Italo-Americans peered in through the windows for a glimpse of their famous countrymen. After dinner the men would settle down to a game of poker or scopa. Caruso possessed a diabolic instinct for cards and frequently hit winning streaks that left the other players breathless. They finally devised a scheme to beat him. They bribed the proprietor to install an inconspicuous mirror just behind the chair that Caruso always chose. Of course the tenor began to lose—but not so frequently that he became suspicious. It was not until Puccini was back in Europe that he took pity on Caruso and wrote him: “Dear Enrico, be a little bit careful not to fall into the trap.” Then he unfolded the secret.

Madame Butterfly was presented at the Metropolitan on February 11 and achieved a smashing success with both press and public, but not with Puccini: he thought the production “lacking the poetry which I put into it.” In spite of the fact that Geraldine Farrar became the idol of millions of Americans in the title role, Puccini still thought her “not what she ought to have been.”

With the opera’s première out of the way, Puccini was free to attend both plays and vaudeville. His musician’s ear had been caught early by ragtime and by the sorrowful harmonies of Negro music. He was enthralled, too, by stories of the American West. Each evening he went to the theater hopeful of finding a drama which he could set to music, but he reported regretfully that only a few random scenes from the New York stage seemed suitable for opera. But at the end of his stay he found what he was looking for. It was Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West, a creaky but still popular melodrama which Puccini grasped though he understood virtually no English.

The play owed much to Bret Harte. Its heroine was a composite of several of his fictional women, among them Miggles, mistress of the Polka Saloon in Marysville in 1853. Puccini must have recognized the debt. He was delighted too by Belasco’s daring staging and by the banjo, “bones,” and concertina which substituted for a pit orchestra and played “Old Dog Tray,” “Camptown Races,” “Coal Oil Tommy,” “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

Before departing for Europe Puccini told reporters that he would set The Girl to music if Belasco would provide him with a libretto. Belasco agreed.

Puccini had left New York a famous musician, but in 1910 he returned a god. His Bohème, his Butterfly, and his Tosca had captured the hearts of opera-lovers. Now he had assigned the world première of The Girl of the Golden West (he called it La Fanciulla del West) to the Metropolitan, thereby bringing that theater and American music to a new eminence.

On the voyage, Puccini and his entourage occupied the royal suite of the newest luxury liner, the George Washington, and New York was ready with a regal welcome. The world première of The Girl was to be the big moment of that social and theatrical season.

Puccini and David Belasco presided over rehearsals together, the composer to transmit an understanding of the music, the producer to mold the singers into actors for the occasion. It was Toscanini who directed a cast which no theater in the world could conjure up today: Caruso was the bandit, Dick Johnson; the great soprano Emmy Destinn sang Minnie; Pasquale Amato was the villain, Sheriff Jack Ranee. For once Puccini was satisfied. He described Caruso as “magnificent,” Toscanini as “the zenith.”

By the morning of the première, December 10, Broadway in the vicinity of the Metropolitan was jammed with crowds of curious people, hoping for a glimpse of one of the members of the opera’s “golden cast.” By 3 P.M., police had to be called to keep order.

Because it was the most gala of evenings, very few arrived on foot. For hours on end carriages and cars drew up at the Metropolitan’s marquee to discharge their notable passengers. In the side streets chauffeurs cursed and jockeyed for position. The Metropolitan had tried to thwart scalpers by making each buyer sign his ticket at the time of purchase. Now no one was permitted to enter the theater until he had counter-signed and let the doorman compare the signatures.

Inside, high excitement trembled throughout the theater. Then at eight fifteen the lights went down and there was silence. Toscanini raised his baton.

The musicologist Ernest De Weerth, who was in the audience that night, recalls that Toscanini carried every listener straight out of reality and into the world of fantasy with his grand sweep of the music. The Metropolitan’s urbane subscribers forgot their sophistication and rose to shriek their homage to Puccini. Caruso reached a new height, which moved one newspaper critic to write merely: “Ye gods, how he sang!” The public loved the story of Minnie, “the Girl,” and her passionate devotion to the bandit Johnson.

For many years, during the blasé thirties and forties, it became fashionable to look down at The Girl as a bloated melodrama of the Gold Rush era. Today, however, there is a renaissance of interest in this opera; indeed it seems, to the listener of the fifties, no more lurid than the fare served several times each evening on television. Musically the opera struck home at once. The audience thrilled to Puccini’s westernized Italian score, which included ragtime, several Zuni Indian melodies, George M. Cohan’s “Belle of the Barber’s Ball,” and a tear-jerking finale, “Addio, California.”

Puccini, weak with excitement, counted an astounding total of 55 curtain calls, then stood shakily in the midst of the pandemonium to be crowned by the management with a silver wreath. When the shouting had died down, he declared he had never heard anything like it in any theater in the world.

America had brought Puccini great fulfillment. He cherished one unrealized desire: a motorboat, sleek and powerful, which he had seen in a display window on Fifth Avenue. In his mind’s eye he saw himself in it, knifing through the water at Torre del Lago and stupefying his Italian friends. But the boat cost $3,000—to Puccini’s thrifty Tuscan heart an unimaginable sum.

One evening the composer was the guest of honor at a banquet at the Vanderbilt mansion, where he was approached by a famous banker whose great desire was to own a Puccini-autographed manuscript page. The man’s favorite music, he said, was “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Bohème, and he would pay any price to have Puccini write it out for him.

“Any price?” Puccini repeated, unbelieving.

“Anything,” was the answer.

“Three thousand dollars?” Puccini asked, eying his admirer.

The following day the banker owned the manuscript of “Musetta’s Waltz,” and the day after that Puccini owned his motorboat.

When he returned to Italy, Puccini took back more than just memories. He held to a firm conviction that the United States was the country with a future. He always retained a genuine sense of gratitude toward this country for its generosity toward him. The Metropolitan, in fact, paid him the kingly sum of 120,000 lire (then worth $22,800) for the first-night royalties on The Girl of the Golden West alone. That represented more than 1,600 times the monthly pension his mother had raised her children on! In a velvet-lined leather box, he carried his silver wreath. And a month after his return to his Paradise, the motorboat came, a polished, tangible trophy to recall his triumphs in America.

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