Though Dec. 7 remains the date that “will live in infamy,” it also marks the birth of one of opera’s most influential composers, Pietro Mascagni. Born on Dec. 7, 1863, in Tuscany, Mascagni went on to write 15 operas, from L’amico Fritz (1891) to Nerone (1935). But he’s primarily remembered for his first, Cavalleria rusticana (1890).

With that one-act work, Mascagni introduced the age of verismo (realism) — opera based on characters drawn from everyday life. That’s certainly the case in Cavalleria rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”), which depicts a fatal love triangle as it unravels in a 19th-century Sicilian village on Easter Sunday.

Riccardo Muti, who led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in three concert performances of Cavalleria rusticana last season, considers the work “a great opera,” he said in an interview with critic Dennis Polkow on WDCB-FM. “It’s an opera that the entire operatic world loves and wants to hear.”

Muti lamented that productions of Cavalleria rusticana over the years have often indulged in stereotypes “because some people think that Sicily is a land of savage people,” he said. “For many people outside Italy, Italianate means vulgarity. To be vulgar, to be excessive, to shout, to have big, high notes.”

Time magazine put Pietro Mascagni on its cover to salute his card-playing skills — not necessarily his music.

Throughout his career, Muti has tried to return a sense of dignity to Mascagni’s masterpiece: “Cavalleria rusticana requires a certain knowledge of the culture of Sicily, which is a culture that is a little bit, as you say in English, tribale — tribal,” he said. “So there are certain elements in the opera that are full of blood, of violence. But it is never vulgar; there is a dignity, always. A sense of honor.”

Back to Mascagni. Equally acclaimed as a conductor, he visited the United States on a 15-week tour in 1902, with a stop in Chicago, where he led an uneven performance of his Cavalleria rusticana at the Auditorium Theatre. Though the crowd demanded encores of certain segments, including the famous intermezzo (stretching the usual 80-minute running time to three hours), the city’s music critics were less kind. The tour, which was beset by rehearsal, contract and union-related problems, caused Mascagni to declare: “I think this will be my last visit to America.”

Until his death in 1945, Mascagni remained a man known for his many passions: cigars, cycling, collecting (watches, pens, clothing) but especially cards. “Playing cards was a real craze,” noted one biographer. “Mascagni often forced his relatives, friends and assistants to play with him, especially at night.” On Sept. 6, 1926, he even made the cover of Time magazine, which depicted the composer enjoying the Italian card game known as scopone.

But perhaps his “crowning” glory was a “proverbial full head of hair,” observed the same biographer. Along with his operatic catalog, Mascagni “was an orchestra director, a music composer for cinema and a grand, well-known personality. He was truly a phenomenon of his times.”

TOP: Born on Dec. 7, 1863, Pietro Mascagni wrote 15 operas but only one remains part of the regular repertoire, Cavalleria rusticana (Santuzza pleads with Turiddu in this illustration). | Photos: Wikimedia