Although Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West) is clearly set in the American West, replete with sheriffs and outlaws, the Italian composer never traveled further than New York City during his lifetime. Luckily for him, librettist and playwright David Belasco was born in San Francisco and had personally experienced the California Gold Rush as a boy.
The world premiere of Puccini’s western-themed opera (December 10, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera) was so successful that it earned a total of nineteen curtain calls for the composer, stage director David Belasco, stars and conductor.
Orchestrating the Wild West
La fanciulla del West is far from the sole piece of orchestral literature, which deals with the American West. In fact, the well-known 20th century composer Aaron Copland created the music for two American ballets: Billy the Kid and Rodeo.
Loosely based on the exploits of the outlaw who gives this ballet his name, the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid explores the numerous landscapes of the American West, sweeping from the Great Plains to a frontier town and on to the desert. Much like Puccini’s Fanciulla, Copland’s work features an opposition of lawful and lawless at its core. In keeping with the western theme of the ballet, Copland utilized a number of cowboy and folk tunes in his composition, most recognizable among these is likely the song “Git Along, Little Doggies”.
Although Copland was initially hesitant to compose yet another western-styled ballet, his Rodeo was an instant hit that received 22 curtain calls at its 1942 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House and has continued to be performed with regularity across the county. Unlike the earlier ballet, the basis of Rodeo is not historic, but rather romantic. Instead of following the life of an outlaw, this ballet tells the story of an American Cowgirl doing her best to hold her own among the cowboys and to win the heart of the Champion Roper. As with much of Copland’s music, the main theme “Hoe-Down” is based on an American folk-tune, but listeners will also find familiar melodies in every section of the work.
Another point of intersection between orchestral music and the American West is found in the use of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini’s overture to his opera Guillaume Tell, or William Tell. Even those unfamiliar with the work of Rossini will undoubtedly recognize the sound galloping horses evoked by the trumpets and brass in this piece—after all, the overture has been famously featured as the theme music for The Lone Ranger television, radio and film series.
Nicknamed the “Bishop of Broadway” due to his conservative and clerical appearance, David Belasco was an American theatrical producer, director and playwright responsible for creating many of the scripts that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini would use as librettos for his own work. Belasco was born in San Francisco, California in 1853 at the peak of the California Gold Rush to his Sephardic Jewish parents, Abraham and Reyna Belasco. Although he would later come to be one of the most recognizable names in theater at the beginning of the 20th century, David Belasco began his career as a child actor, call boy and script copier with companies touring the California mining camps. He later served as stage manager, actor, and play adapter in a handful of San Francisco theatres before moving to New York City in 1880. Once there, Belasco acted as a manager of both the Madison Square Theatre and the Lyceum, eventually establishing himself as an independent producer and building his own theatre in 1906. His long career (1884-1930) established Belasco as the most well-known theatre personality in New York City, as the man was personally responsible for writing, directing or producing well over 100 Broadway plays. In fact, Belasco claimed to have been connected with the production of exactly 374 plays, most of which he wrote and adapted. With this to his credit, Belasco became the first American producer to attract audiences to the theatre through his name alone, rather than through the actors involved or the title of the play.
Belasco has been credited with setting a new standard for production and bringing a number of groundbreaking innovations to the stage. Foremost among these is his willingness to embrace a sort of naturalism in his scenic and lighting design. This he achieved through a great attention to detail, often building fully functional sets in which he could stage his productions. In his play The Governor’s Lady, for example, Belasco designed a kitchen where actors could actually prepare and cook food throughout the production. In another he is said to have included a fully operational laundromat.
By embracing and experimenting with existing theatre technology Belasco was able to achieve astonishing mechanical effects in his productions. In fact, he employed a permanent staff to care for and design new affects with the machinery, flyspace, hydraulics systems and lighting rigs that Belasco had specially installed in his theatre. This work led to the elimination of footlights in favor of lensed spotlights and more realistic lighting – an innovation which quickly spread to other theatres. Many of the other mechanical innovations developed by the Belasco team were sold to other producers, supplying the producer with an additional source of income and fame.
Belasco and Puccini
Although Belasco and Puccini never met, a handful of the playwright’s works were adapted as librettos for Puccini’s operas. Most significant among these is Madame Butterfly, which Belasco adapted for the stage from a short story of the same name in 1900, and The Girl of the Golden West, which was created by Belasco in 1905. Librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giasoca adapted Belasco’s work for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered in 1904, while Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini made use of Belasco’s Gold Rush era play for Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, which premiered in 1910.
Gun-totin’ barmaid Minnie fights for true love in Puccini’s “spaghetti western” opera, making her mark on a gold-rush California town with a rifle, virtue and a few cards up her sleeve. After twice defending her lover Dick Johnson, the infamous bandit Ramírez, from the lawful intentions of the sheriff, Minnie wins the sympathy of the gold miners and leaves town to begin a new life with Dick—riding off into the sunset.
Name that Tune
Many listeners cite similarities between the song “Quello che tacete” sung by the character Dick Johnson and a section of “The Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera. While some listeners have claimed that this similarity is evidence of musical plagiarism on the part of Webber, it is very possible that it is yet another instance in the long-standing compositional practice of “borrowing.” Puccini himself borrowed from a collection of Zuni melodies recorded by ethnomusicologist Carlos Troyer. Although he intended to draw on these recordings while composing music for the native American character Wowkle, Puccini eventually made use of this source for the character Jake Wallace instead.
Based on the play by American author David Belasco, La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) premiered on December 10, 1910 at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City and has since seen 104 performances with the company. This occasion marked the first ever world premiere to be performed at The Met, which was founded 30 years earlier in 1880, and was received with great excitement. The opera went on to be performed throughout Europe and was met with a highly successful German premier in March of 1913. While Puccini’s operas have been performed with great regularity in Omaha—Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and Tosca account for three of the five most frequently performed operas in the city—2016 will mark the first time that La fanciulla del West has graced the Opera Omaha stage.
Leave it to the Critics
Although Puccini’s spaghetti western was well received during its U.S. premier in New York, it never reached the same extent of popularity in Europe, with an exception made for Germany. In fact, the opera’s initial popularity dwindled over time, and overall audience opinions of the music and plot were mixed, to say the least. Despite this, Puccini himself believed La fanciulla del West to be one of his greatest works and many academics agree, calling the work a magnum opus for its fine musical craftsmanship.
The Brightest Star
Although La fanciulla del West was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera, and the leading roles of Minnie and Dick Johnson were originally created for Met stars Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso, Puccini’s preferred performance of Minnie was given by Gilda dalla Rizza at the Opera de Monte-Carlo in 1921. Indeed, he is said to have made the following remark regarding this performance: “At last I have seen my true Fanciulla.” This 1921 production must have been spectacular, since coming from the composer himself, this was high praise indeed!
The Girl of the Golden West
February 12 & 14, 2016
For tickets click here or call (402) 345-0606.
Opera Omaha’s The Girl of the Golden West is Feb. 12 & 14, 2016 at the Orpheum Theater. Learn more about the man behind the music, Giacomo Puccini
Giacomo Antonia Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in on the 22nd of December 1858 in the town of Lucca, Tuscany. One of nine children, Giacomo Puccini was part of a musical dynasty established by his great-great grandfather, who was also named Giacomo. For two centuries the family had been tightly enveloped in the musical life of the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, acting as both musicians and musical directors. The young Puccini began his musical education at an early age, as a result of his family’s business. First tutored by his uncles, Giacomo would also study under the composers Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli at the Milan Conservatory. Shortly after the death of his mother in 1884, Puccini moved to Monza, a town near Milan, bringing with him his sweetheart, Elvira Gemignani, who happened to be married to another man. In 1886 Puccini and Elvira had a son, Antonio, and the family increased again in size as Elvira’s daughter, Fosca, came to live with the pair. In 1891 the family moved to Torre del Lago, a fishing village in Tuscany, where Giacomo and Elvira were legally married in 1904, following the death of her previous husband. Although the union would continue to be riddled with affairs, Puccini found a personal refuge in the Italian countryside, where he could freely drive automobiles and pursue his love of hunting. In 1924 another passion of Puccini’s would become the cause of his death—a longtime consumption of Toscano cigars and cigarettes resulted in the development of a serious throat cancer. Following a difficult surgery, Giacomo Puccini passed away on November 29 in Brussels, clutching the incomplete score of his famed Turandot.
The latter half of the 19th century saw the rise of new political powers and technological innovations. While Giacomo Puccini was only a boy in Lucca, the world was fraught with war and other movements of violence. 1860 saw the onset of the American Civil War, which would be carried out over a bloody five years on the western side of the Atlantic. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln would occur in 1865, and London would be terrorized by a string of murders attributed to Jack the Ripper in 1888. Although the growing international influence of the British, Russian, and German Empires, as well as the United States, clearly marks the intensifying struggles for power, which would give way to World Wars I and II, the late 19th century also saw notable human achievements. The Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was opened in 1869. The first commercial automobile was sold by Karl Benz in 1886 and construction on the Statue of Liberty was begun that same year. Dialogue raised by the American Civil War and European colonialism led to the abolition of legal slavery. Artists and composers such as Van Gogh, Wagner and Tchaikovsky were creating masterworks, and significant works of literature were produced by Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and H.G. Wells among others. With the rise of the 20th century came the invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers in 1903 and the first television broadcast in 1909. Yet this period of giddy innovation and invention was brought to a halt with the onset of World War I in 1914. Despite the tumultuous social atmosphere in Europe at this time, made even more volatile by the growth of nationalist policies, Puccini remained stoutly indifferent towards politics of any sort.
A predominant composer of late-Romantic Opera, Puccini is best known for his famous works La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, as well as Tosca and Turandot, although these account for only four of his twelve operatic creations. Puccini also wrote sacred and secular music for orchestra and chamber ensembles, as well as songs for voice and piano. Among these, the mass Messa di Gloria and string quartet Crisantemi are perhaps the most notable. Of course, connections between all of Puccini’s works are simple to find, as the composer often made use of a single melody in multiple works; transcribing and transposing the figure to suite his needs. While it is tempting to think of this compositional methodology as a sort of self-plagiarism, it was in fact a practice utilized by many composers at the time.
Call (402) 345-0606 or click here for tickets to Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West Feb. 12 & 14 at the Orpheum Theater.
Every person is born making sound – just think of what that means! When our new-born voices first cried out to the world, we took steps towards being able to communicate with one another and to express ourselves. The voice is a powerful instrument – not just as a tool for communication, but also for musical expression! It’s no wonder that we find music to be so emotionally powerful, as sound is something that we can manipulate from such an early age.
Actually, sound is an amazing conveyor of feeling in more than one way. Firstly, sound can be physically felt. Maybe you’ve heard of how elephants use a very low, deep pitch to communicate over long distances. This is called a “rumble” and the elephants don’t hear this with their characteristically large ears, but rather feel the sound through the bottoms of their feet as it travels through the earth! Some dance-artists have also made use of the physicality of sound – by changing the levels of audio output, deaf dancers are actually able to feel sound patterns and choreograph movement to music that they are otherwise unable to hear.
Secondly, sound can be used to express personal feelings and even character! If you pay close attention to orchestral music, especially that written for opera, you might discover that the music ebbs and builds both in volume and the number of instruments playing at one time. You might also notice that certain melodies or rhythms will reoccur at certain points in the music. All of what you hear is meant to represent and supplement the meaning of vocal text and the actions of performers on the stage. In fact, emotions can often be presented in music without anyone acting out the meaning. Particular sets of musical notes, which musicians name the Major and minor modes, are often interpreted as sounding happy, sad, or even triumphant!
At Opera Omaha we find the emotional characteristics of music and sound very exciting. As part of National Opera Week, we partnered with the Omaha Children’s Museum on a children-oriented workshop led by Opera Omaha’s Resident Music Director J. Gawf on October 25. Our “Musical Explorers: The Magic Flute” allowed children to learn how singers use their voice to express feelings in song, and give them the opportunity to try a few things out for themselves. Music from Mozart’s The Magic Flute provides wonderful material for young and old alike, as this heroic opera contains narratives of love, sadness, hope, and, of course, good triumphing over evil. Throughout the month of November the Omaha Children’s Museum is offering children a chance to create puppets and other crafts relating to the colorful and beloved Magic Flute character Papageno!
Have you ever thought about the benefit of the arts in the growth and development of your children? Arts projects and performances provide children with fun opportunities to develop their creativity and self-expression, but here are some additional and lesser known benefits of introducing the arts into your child’s life. Arts practice and performance promotes self-esteem and fosters communication skills. It also encourages creative and analytical thinking, as well as problem solving and self-expression. The fall events offered at the Omaha Children’s Museum offer a perfect chance to introduce the arts and music into the life of your child. Let them try out the opera—perhaps singing will spark new ideas and provide a fun method of emotional expression!
If you’re looking for more ways to interact with The Magic Flute, join Opera Omaha and Omaha Children’s Museum at Film Streams on Saturday, December 12th at noon for a live screening of Mozart’s classic from the Metropolitan Opera. Children who bring along their colorful Papageno puppets from the Omaha Children’s Museum will receive free popcorn—a perfect treat for the child who likes to munch along to the music! Purchase tickets for the whole family at http://tinyurl.com/qdguc44.
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