Puccini In America

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.