Puccini And The Radioactive Death Of Opera

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Giacomo Puccini (left) and Arturo Toscanini
People who know nothing about opera know one of two names. The first is Wagner, whom most of us are familiar with because Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd danced around singing "Kill the Wabbit" to the tune of "Ride of the Valkries."

The other is Giacomo Puccini, who laid down La Boheme, the most ripped-off of ripped-off stories this side of Romeo and Juliet. Puccini was Italian, as you may have guessed by the fact that he had a Godfather character's name, and in his time made Mick Jagger look like Wayne Brady.

He was a fast-car enthusiast back in the day when a lot of people still thought they were fueled by the blood of unbaptised babies (source needed). His wife falsely accused him of hitting high notes between the legs of their maid, and when the poor girl did exactly what you'd expect of Puccini opera heroine would and killed herself, Puccini got sued by her family.

But let's talk about the man's melodramatic exit, which happened 86 years ago today.

In 1923, Puccini complained of a chronic sore throat, not completely unexpected for a man who chain-smoked cigars. The maestro was diagnosed with throat cancer, and they decided to try a radical new treatment called radiation therapy.

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Though it's pretty standard for trying to wedgie cancer and steal its lunch money today, in Puccini's time radiation was very, very new. The X-ray had only been discovered 30 years earlier, and Marie Curie's work was only really getting a push as a therapeutic tool in the 1910s and '20s.

Doctors decided that Puccini would make a great guinea pig, and gave irradiating him a shot. The surgical procedure resulted in profuse bleeding and a heart attack the next day.

One of Puccini's most famous opera's, Turandot, was two scenes short of completion at his death. Think A.I., but without all the sucking. Franco Alfano gave finishing it a shot, and the result is what we now call Turandot.

Arturo Toscanini - yes, the Toscanini - conducted a memorial performance of Turandot to honor his close personal friend Puccini in April 1926 to a sold-out crowd of every prominent Italian of the time. (Except Mussolini, whom Toscanini hated like Van Halen hated brown M&Ms.)

Toscanini chose not to perform Alfano's portions of the score, laying down his baton and simply saying, "Here the maestro died."


Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.


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