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Puccini In America
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.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
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!”