Today, when Giacomo Puccini’s operas are popular as never before, it is difficult to imagine a time when he was a failure, yet he struggled for nearly ten start-up years before he could score a solid success. In that period he often fell into depression. He once seriously considered leaving Italy for South America, where he could earn a living as a music teacher. In another low moment he talked of going back to his old job as an organist in village churches. A “third-rate organist,” he wryly described himself.
In the mid-1800s his first opera, Le Villi, won praise from critics and survived, though it was never widely popular, and his next work, Edgar, was such a fiasco that he despaired of it altogether and warned a friend about it, saying, “May God save you from this opera!”
All this meant that from 1883 to 1893, he fought a running battle against poverty. Living in unheated apartments, he could barely scrape together enough for rent and food. In fact, he was so poor that one evening when friends dropped in, he had to sell his pet bird and its cage to get enough money to buy meat for a stew.
On the all-important night of the premiere of Le Villi, he took his bows wearing his only decent suit. In a word, he lived meanly, getting older and watching his rivals become famous. Puccini was such a late starter that he was almost 35 when he scored his first big commercial success with Manon Lescaut (1893). Then La Bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) catapulted him to the top of his profession, bringing in a steady stream of royalties and lending him much-needed confidence. After 1901, when Giuseppe Verdi died, Puccini was even seen as “Il Successore,” the venerate composer’s successor.
Finding a Subject
Seeing how popular Tosca was, Puccini knew he had to start another opera quickly to capitalize on it. A composer’s first task—sometimes the most difficult task—is finding a subject or a source for a new work: a novel, play, story or poem that a librettist can turn into a viable theater piece. Composers often said they had to “see” a potential source as a drama and “feel” the music in a subject before deciding on it. And if that posed challenges for such practiced and confident musicians as Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, it sometimes utterly defeated Puccini, plagued as he was with self doubt. Over the course of his career, he became positively notorious for changing his mind about projects and forcing his librettists to revise finished work, even work that he had had redone three times or more. Several major projects were abandoned. He almost gave up on La Bohème and played “Yes and No” with Tosca for several years. At the end of his life, when work on Turandot was well along, he even considered dropping it and looking for something else. Surprisingly, though, he had few doubts about Madama Butterfly.
The source of Puccini’s opera is a one-act play called Madame Butterfly, which two Italian friends took him to see in London in 1900. Its author and producer was the American impresario David Belasco, then on tour abroad. Although Puccini understood no English, his sharply honed intuition about theater told him all he needed to know about the geisha. In the course of his career, he depended on this instinct all the time, most notably in the 1890s, when he saw Sarah Bernhardt in the French-language play La Tosca, and in 1907, when he saw Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West in English in New York City, understood almost none of the dialogue, and still knew it was right for him. La Fanciulla del West was the result.
Real People, Real Tragedy
Belasco’s literary source for Madame Butterfly was a short story by an American writer, John Luther Long. Surprisingly, the characters are based on real people, the plot on actual events. Long’s sister, Jennie Correll, a former Methodist Episcopal missionary in Nagasaki, told him about the geisha known as “O-Cho” or “Cho-San, Miss Butterfly,” a “Tea-House Girl” who had taken a lover, a “young man” who was a ship’s officer and a foreigner. He “married” Cho-San but had no intention of remaining faithful to her. However, when he had to ship out, he promised to return and send her a signal when his ship entered the harbor. Cho-San bore his child and waited for him “for many nights,” watching the port from behind a screen, but he never returned.
Fascinating recent research on this historical source of Butterfly has been done by Arthur Groos, whose article “The Story Behind the Story” appeared in the program of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, in September 2003. The resourceful Groos identified the man most likely to have been Miss Butterfly’s American husband as Ensign William B. Franklin, a ship’s officer. In the opera the character is called Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Groos has even found which years Ensign Franklin was in Nagasaki, 1892 and 1893, thus establishing the correct historical frame of the opera. If Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton seem real to us, it is because they were. And, one must add, because Puccini made them truer to life than life itself.
Creating the Opera
The two expert librettists who wrote Madama Butterfly had worked earlier with Puccini on the text for La Bohème and Tosca. One of them, the brilliant but hotheaded Luigi Illica, had also saved Manon Lescaut after three other writers abandoned it and Puccini. The other, Giuseppe Giacosa, the poet of the team, was one of Italy’s most serious and respected men of letters. As was customary, Illica wrote the scenario or first draft of the drama, and Giacosa wrote the poetry that made the libretto “sing.” In practice, however, both men worked with the composer from beginning to end—“slaved for” Puccini, as Giacosa once complained—and he often drove them to desperation.
A story as simple as Butterfly’s might easily have been turned into a short, workable libretto, but expanding a one-act play into a full evening of opera meant inventing new scenes or even whole acts, which the composer had to cover with about two hours of music. In fact, Act I of Madama Butterfly is Illica’s creation, as Puccini readily acknowledged. It worked; but other disputes with the librettists delayed the new opera’s progress. Among them was the composer’s decision to cut an important scene set in the American consulate. It had been put into Act II then moved to Act III. Both Illica and Giacosa thought it heightened the drama and moved the story along, but Puccini took it out all the same. A much larger problem was his extraordinary reorganization of the drama into two long acts with only one intermission. Thus the last act would be Act II, lasting an hour and a half without a break and including the present second act, the “Humming Chorus,” the orchestral intermezzo and the present third act. At that time, Italian audiences were not likely to tolerate anything that long. Giacosa, a successful playwright with decades of experience, raised all kinds of objections, warning Puccini that his long Act II would wreck Butterfly. To no avail. Puccini kept his two-act scheme, although the changes he made slowed his work and at times almost brought it to a halt.
In the end, though, it was an accident rather than composer-librettist disputes that came close to bringing Butterfly down. Puccini was in two automobile crashes while he was working on the opera. The first left him with nothing more than small scrapes and bruises, but the second, in 1903, almost killed him after he was trapped under his overturned car. He suffered a broken leg, which did not heal and had to be re-broken and re-set. Then, in the course of a long, agonizing recovery, he discovered he was diabetic.
An even bigger and more wrenching change affected his emotional life in this same period. During his convalescence he was forced to break off his passionate three-year-long affair with Corinna (the only name by which she is known), a young woman from Turin. Puccini, who was unmarried, was legally free to marry her, and he may have promised to do so. However, he had a long term bond with someone else, a very angry woman, Elvira Gemignani, who lived with him, had been his mistress for nearly 17 years and had borne him a son. In all that time, he and Elvira could not marry because her husband, whom she had abandoned, was still alive. This is not to say that she and Puccini were happy. Over the decades, Elvira’s insane jealousy constantly threatened their peace of mind, even though he tried to reassure her, describing his flirts as “cultivating my little gardens.”
In fact, he had very few serious affairs, but Corinna was certainly one of them, and Elvira was furious about her. While Puccini was recovering from the crash, he came under unremitting pressure from her, other family members, and his publisher to stop seeing Corinna. Moreover, everyone wanted him to marry Elvira, whose husband had died. Giving in, he very reluctantly agreed; but Corinna—contrary to what everyone expected of her—did not go away quietly. Instead when she learned that Puccini was breaking off their romance, she handed his love letters to an attorney, who then threatened to publish them. This put the composer at risk for public exposure, scandal, a lawsuit (possibly for breach of promise) and other more dire legal woes, so he had to settle out of court. As part of the agreement, he also had to declare that he intended to marry Elvira. That he did, in January of 1904.
It was the worst of all possible outcomes. Imagine Puccini after the auto crash. Age: forty-five; in atrocious pain, confined to bed for months, then moving into a wheelchair and on to crutches and canes; suffering with diabetes; unable to sit at his piano, but driven to finish Madama Butterfly and get it onstage; fending off criticism and fearing scandal; separated from Corinna; and, in the end, standing at the altar of the parish church and exchanging vows with Elvira, with whom he had such a tumultuous relationship. In one desperate letter to his foster daughter he wrote, “The life we live, Elvira and I, is simply terrible.”
It is simply a miracle that he ever finished Butterfly, but he did, and he was even optimistic about its chance for success.
A Fiasco of Monumental Proportion
Among all of Puccini’s operas, none came closer to ruin and even oblivion than Madama Butterfly, because its world premiere was a total debacle. The fatal night was February 17, 1904. From the very start the La Scala audience, rarely sympathetic to Puccini, seemed prepared to destroy the opera. Even during the first act, they jeered at him, shouted abuse and gave him only two curtain calls—a very bad sign. Worse, when he came to the footlights leaning on a cane, someone laughed. Nor was the soprano spared. “Butterfly is pregnant,” one man shouted, and at the point there were so many hoots and so much laughter that she could not hear the orchestra and began to cry.
The worst moment, however, came exactly as Giacosa had predicted it would: when the long second act stretched on and on. During Butterfly’s vigil, some people began to applaud, thinking the act was over, but when the lights failed to go up and the orchestra went on playing, the whole theater simply erupted. As one critic wrote, it was this long intermezzo that started the downhill slide to the opera’s wretched end.
Giacosa, of course, was fully vindicated. The extent of the catastrophe is clear from this review: “Groans, roars, moos, laughs, bellows, sneers, the usual cries for encores that were intended to inflame the audience even more—that in brief, is how the public at La Scala welcomed the new opera by Maestro Giacomo Puccini. After this pandemonium, during which almost nothing could be heard, people walked out of the theater, as contented as lambs! Never have we seen so many happy faces...in the lobby... The show in the [audience] was as well organized as the one onstage, beginning just when the curtain went up.” This meant that at least part of the demonstration was staged by Puccini’s rivals and carried out by a hired claque.
Saving the Opera
Puccini described that night as a lynching, and he was so demoralized that he might well have tossed the score on the junk heap. Indeed, a healthy, self-confident artist could have put aside a work that had had such a bad start. And in Puccini’s case, this blow came as he was trying to survive the shipwreck of his private life. It is very much to his credit that—sick as he was—he stayed the course, going back to work with Illica and Giacosa the very morning after the premiere. They made major revisions; and finally, when Puccini was satisfied, he saw Madama Butterfly get a fair hearing at last, in May 1904, when it rang up an absolute triumph in Brescia. In effect, then, he saved this opera himself, simply by believing so strongly in it; and his greatest act of courage lay in facing its ruin and finding the strength to create a masterpiece.
Credits and acknowledgments: William Ashbrook, The Operas of Puccini; Julian Budden, Puccini: His Life and Works; Eugenio Gara, Carteggi puccinani; and Arnaldo Marchette, Puccini com’era.
Mary Jane Phillips is the author of books including Puccini: A Biography, Rosa Ponselle: American Diva, and the definitive Verdi: A Biography, which won the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the ASCAPDeems Taylor Award, and the New York Governor’s Award of Excellence.