Born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, December 23, 1858, in Lucca, Italy; (died November 29, 1924 in Brussels, Belgium, following cancer surgery and a heart attack); son of Michele Puccini (a teacher and composer); companion of Elvira Gemignani after 1886; children: (with Gemignani) Antonio. Education: Studied at the Milan Conservatory, 1880-83.

Giacomo Puccini was the last of Italy's great opera composers, a lineage that began in the seventeenth century with Claudio Monteverdi and progressed through Gioacchino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi. But unlike his predecessors, Puccini wrote lighter works in a new, realistic style that gained popularity in the late nineteenth century. His operas were notable for their delightful melodies and three-dimensional female heroines. His three great works-La Bohme, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot-remain some of the most popular standards in the opera repertoire.

Born in 1858, Puccini was the eldest boy of several children in a musically gifted family in Lucca, Italy, where several generations of Puccinis had already achieved minor local renown. When his father died when he was just six, Puccini's formidable mother asked the authorities to decree that the father's post as organist at the Church of San Martino be passed on to her son when he came of age; his uncle, Fortunato Magi, assumed the post in the interim. Puccini began music study with Magi, and then took classes from Carlo Angeloni at Lucca's Pacini Institute; both men had been taught by the elder Puccini. When he reached the age of 14, he began working as organist at San Martino.

It is said that around 1876, Puccini, then about 18, walked 13 miles to a theater in Pisa to hear Aida, the great Verdi opera, and immediately decided to become an opera composer as well. Serious study, however, would be needed, and with this in mind he secured a stipend from a grand-uncle, and then a scholarship to the Conservatory in Milan. He arrived in late 1880, and studied diligently for the next three years. He learned composition in the class of Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of the opera La Gioconda. Ponchielli's lighter style was a great influence on Puccini.

The first of Puccini's works to be performed was Capriccio sinfonico,a piece written for his examinations, at the Conservatory in 1883. It was also accepted for publication, and premiered later that year at the famed La Scala with an orchestra. Completed in 1778, La Scala is considered the virtual heart of Milan and is one of the world's top opera venues. Upon graduation, Puccini decided to enter an opera competition for young Italian composers sponsored by music publisher Sonzogno. Ponchielli found a librettist to help, but the entry, Le Villi, did not fair well; however, other influential Milanese music-lovers secured it a production at the Teatro del Verme theater in May of 1884. It premiered at La Scala the following year.

Around this time Puccini met a Lucca woman named Elvira Gemignani. She eventually left her merchant husband for Puccini. Though they never married, they had a son in 1886 and spent the rest of their lives together. Puccini's first early successes in Milan led to a commission from La Scala to write an opera. He was given an advance and a stipend, and wrote Edgar, which was a complete failure at its premiere in April of 1889. His third attempt fared much better: Manon Lescaut was deemed a great success at its premiere in Turin's Teatro Regio theater in February of 1893. Based on a well-received French novel and play, its London production caused the playwright and drama critic George Bernard Shaw to hail Puccini as the successor to Verdi.

Manon Lescaut was produced in Philadelphia and then Paris. While in Paris Puccini began writing an opera based on the book Scenes de la Vie de Bohmeby Henri Murger. He then heard that another Italian composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, was writing a similar work, and finished his quickly. The result was La Bohme, which premiered at the Teatro Regio in February of 1896. Set in Paris's Left Bank in the 1830s, it tracks the romances of a group of young bohemians. It premiered to mixed reviews, but was restaged in Palermo later in 1896 and fared much better; the audience refused to leave the concert hall until the final death scene was repeated for an encore. La Bohme would be the first of Puccini's works in the verismo style, a backlash against heavy symbolism and mythological themes common to most operas of the era. Taken from the Italian root for "truth" or "reality," verismo operas were set in the present or recent past, and featured accessible themes and characters. Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci was one of the first in this style.

The success of La Bohme would earn Puccini the lifelong enmity of Leoncavallo. It also made him famous and exceedingly wealthy. With the earnings he built a villa on Florence's Lake Massaciuccoli that he named Torre del Lago. Puccini was famously handsome and charming, but he also possessed a melancholic side that he drew on to give depth to his characters. He was wholly uninterested in religion or politics, and enjoyed racing sports cars on his property and gambling at cards.

Tosca and Madama Butterfly

Puccini wrote slowly. His next work, Tosca, premiered four years after La Bohme at the Teatro Constanzi theater in Rome in January of 1900. Set in the same city exactly one hundred years before, its title character was an opera singer attempting to bargain for the release of her political dissident lover in a time of Napoleonic political strife in Rome. Her foe was the sadistic aristocrat police chief who wanted to see Tosca humiliated. The work premiered at the New York Metropolitan Opera a year later, and quickly became a classic.

The composer was nearly killed in automobile accident in 1903, but managed to finish one of his most popular works during his convalescence. Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala in February of 1904, but its storyline-a Japanese woman who falls in love with an American naval officer-brought jeers from the audience. It is believed that hecklers were hired by composers who were jealous of Puccini's success.

On the advice of his friend, the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, Puccini revised Madama Butterfly, and a new version premiered in Brescia in May of 1904 to a much better reception. For its Metropolitan Opera premiere, Puccini traveled to the United States for first time in 1906. The Met commissioned his next work, La Fanciulla del West, ("The Girl of the Golden West"), set during the California gold rush of the 1840s, but Italian singers play-acting as Wild West characters failed to enchant audiences or critics. Enrico Caruso sang at its Met premiere in 1910, but La Fanciullawas soon forgotten.

Scandal and War

For a time, Puccini stopped composing as the result of personal misfortunes. A scandal in his household was salaciously chronicled in the press: a servant girl died, and at first her death was thought to be a suicide. But reports that Elvira Gemignani had accused her of a relationship with Puccini surfaced. An autopsy ruled the death suspicious and implicated Gemignani, but later evidence suggested that the Gemignani family had actually harassed the girl.

Puccini's next work, La Rondine, premiered at Monte Carlo in March of 1917. He then premiered a trilogy of one-act operas, Il Trittico, at the Metropolitan Opera in December of 1918. Its American premiere was largely the result of the war in Europe, just recently ended. Il Trittico consists of the drama Il Tabarra ("The Cloak"), the religious piece Suor Angelica, and the comic work Gianni Schicchi.

Puccini and his family moved from Torre del Lago and settled in Viareggio. It was there that Puccini began work on Turandot, his final opera. In 1924 he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent radiation treatment in Brussels. While there, he suffered a heart attack on November 29. The announcement of Puccini's death halted a performance of La Bohme at La Scala. Benito Mussolini gave a eulogy at his funeral. He was buried at Torre del Lago.

Puccini Endures

Turandot premiered at La Scala in April of 1926, conducted by Toscanini. On that night, the action and music froze just where Puccini had left it, and Toscanini turned to the audience with tears in his eyes and said, "Here the Maestro put down his pen." Like Madama Butterfly, Turandot employsan Asian setting and female lead, and remains one of Puccini's most enduring works. A composer named Franco Alfano was later hired to complete the third act. In September of 1998, Turandot was staged in Beijing, China, in a $15 million production conducted by Zubin Mehta that attracted opera fans from around the world.

La Bohme later became the basis for the hit musical Rent, which premiered on Broadway to massive box-office receipts in 1996. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, used the setting and action of Puccini's work and gave it an even more "verismo" feel by placing it in contemporary New York City, specifically the artists' enclave of the East Village.

by Carol Brennan

Giacomo Puccini's Career

Became church organist in Lucca, Italy, at age14; began writing church music at 17; public premiere of his composition, Capriccio sinfonico, Milan, 1883; first opera, Le Villi,premiered at Teatro del Verme, Milan, May, 1884; the 1889 opera Edgar premiered at Milan's La Scala opera house, April, 1889; premiered Manon Lescaut, 1893.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 16 years ago

Has anyone reading about Puccini and Madam Butterfly, heard of a french opera singer named Zora D'Orly? This may not be the exact spelling. She was one of the first to perform the leading role in Paris sometime in the early 1900's ( we think). She and Puccini corresponded during his time in Italy while he was composing Madam Butterfly and it is known that they had an affair. The letters are in existance and in the good hands of Zora's daughter, Odette, who is still alive and living in France. She is 98 years old. We cannot find any information by surfing the web on Zora Dorly. Please contact me if anyone has come across this name while researching the history of Puccini.