Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy on December 22, 1858 into a family whose musical tradition extended back five generations.
After studying music with his uncle, Fortunato Magi, and with the director of the Insituto Musicale Pacini, Puccini started his career as an organist at St. Martino and St. Michele churches at the age of 14. Puccini’s father had died when he was only five years old and the family expected him continue the long family tradition by taking his father’s place as the local church organist. But in 1876, at the age of 17, Puccini walked 18 miles to the city of Pisa to see a production of Verdi’s Aida and from that moment on he knew that his life-long passion would be opera. Puccini left his position as church organist and, with financial support from his uncle, he entered the Milan Conservatory to study composition in 1880.
In 1882, while he was still a student, Puccini entered a competition for a one-act opera. His submission, Le villi, failed to receive even an honorable mention, but it did attract the attention of publisher Giulio Ricordi, who arranged a successful production of the opera at the Teatro del Verme in Milan and offered him a contract for a second opera. Part of the contract specified that the librettist of Le villi, Fernando Fontana, would write the new libretto. Unfortunately, Fontana’s libretto, Edgar, was unsuited to Puccini’s dramatic talent and, in spite of years of work, the opera was never successful. During his work on Edgar, Puccini met and fell in love with Elvira Germignani, the wife of a Luccan grocer. The rigid Catholic rules that were in place in Italy at the time prevented her from divorcing her husband, but in 1884 she and her two children moved into Puccini’s house and a year later their own son, Antonio, was born. It was not until years later, in 1904, after the death of Elvira’s husband, that the two were legally married.
The failure of Edgar nearly cost Puccini the support of Giulio Ricordi, but the young composer was given one more chance. For his next opera, Puccini chose the same subject as Massenet’s Manon, which had premiered in Paris in 1884 and gone on to enjoy international success. Puccini’s version, Manon Lescaut was the first time that the composer took an active part in developing a libretto and, with Ricordi advising him, he went through five librettists before the piece was finished. Manon Lescaut had its first performance at Turin on February 1, 1893 and enjoyed immediate success, quickly making Puccini’s name known all over Italy and the world.
Among the writers who worked on the libretto for Manon Lescaut were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who provided the librettos for Puccini’s next three operas. The first of these was La bohème, which was drawn from Henry Murger’s picaresque novel of life among the artists of the Latin Quarter in Paris. At its premiere in Turin in 1896, the critics initially gave the opera a cool reception, but the public embraced the piece and today it is widely considered Puccini’s greatest masterpiece. Before he had even completed La bohème, Puccini had already decided to do an operatic setting of Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca. It took three years for Illica and Giacosa to shape the play to Puccini’s requirements and Tosca finally premiered at the Teatro Costanzi, in Rome in 1900. Later that year Puccini visited London and saw David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly and took it as the basis for his next collaboration with Illica and Giasoca. Puccini considered Madame Butterfly to be the best and most technically advanced opera he had written. He was unprepared, however, for the fiasco of the work’s first performance in February 1904, when the La Scala audience was urged into an uproar by the composer’s jealous rivals. After revisions in which the second act was divided into two parts and various other cuts and alterations, Madame Butterfly had its second performance a few months later at Brescia and received great acclaim, joining its two predecessors as one of the cornerstones of operatic repertoire.
After Madama Butterfly, Puccini found it increasingly difficult to find subjects that both interested and challenged him. Finally, three years after the premiere of Butterfly, he discovered a subject set in the California gold rush of 1849. The Girl of the Golden West was based on another Belasco play and its stark realism and sentimentality appealed to the composer. Since the opera was set in America, it appropriately had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in December of 1910. His next opera, La rondine in 1917, was written as a Viennese operetta and remains the least well known of Puccini’s mature operas. His next project was a dramatically different challenge. Il trittico, which premiered in 1918, is a group of three sharply contrasting one-act operas. It consists of Il tabarro, a sinister melodrama, Suor Angelica, written entirely for women’s voices, and Gianni Schicchi, his only comic opera.
For his final opera, Turandot, Puccini once again struck out in a new direction. The opera, which is based on a fable by Carlo Gozzi adapted for him by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, is totally different from all of Puccini’s other operas and satisfied his desire for a subject with a fantastic, fairy-tale atmosphere but real flesh-and-blood characters. Puccini died of throat cancer in 1924, leaving the final scenes of Turandot unfinished. It was completed from his sketches by Franco Alfano and had its premiere at La Scala in 1926. At that performance, Maestro Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton at the point where Puccini had stopped writing, the death of Liù. The next evening the opera was played with Alfano’s ending. Puccini ranks as one of the greatest opera composers of all time. All of Italy went into mourning when he died and two years later his remains were interred as his home at Torre del Lago which, after his wife died in 1930, was turned into a museum.