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.