Puccini and Popular Theatre

December 22 was the birth date of the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).

I was startled to learn how recently he’d died; we are only just coming upon the centennial. So modern a figure was he in fact, that he was once seriously injured in an automobile accident (1903). We are accustomed to tying such revered figures to a past more distant, but though Puccini was a member of a musical dynasty that stretches back to the time of Rossini, he himself was of the modern era, as is evident from the contemporary, realistic themes from many of his works, and the fact that he adapted many then-recent stage plays. His most popular and enduring works include La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900, based on the Sardou play), Madama Butterfly (1904, based on Belasco’s play), La fanciulla del West (1919, based on Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West), and Turandot (1924, based on a play by Carlo Gozzi). A section of Il Tritico (1918) is based on the Grand Guignol!

At any rate, as with Gilbert and Sullivan and Giuseppi Verdi, both of whom we’ve touched on a little, Puccini was a popular contemporary figure during the time of vaudeville. Sections of his works and/or artists who had performed in them, were presented there or in other similar popular settings. Among them were Emma Calve, Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Anna Fitziu, Helen Gahagan, Mary Garden, Corinne Malverne, Grace Moore, Adelina Patti, Rosa Ponselle, Clifton Webb, and Alice Zeppilli,

A couple of Puccini’s works were adapted into silent Hollywood movies, including Tosca (1918) with Pauline Frederick and La Boheme (1926) with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert. And his works continue into pop culture into the present day. Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge (2001) incorporated elements of La Boheme, which he had directed nearly a decade earlier at the Sydney Opera House, and obviously Jonathan Larson’s Rent (1996) is also based on it. Henry David Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988, filmed 1993) references Madama Butterfly.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.