Puccini was born into a family of court composers and organists in the historic city of Lucca , Italy. With a strong feeling of tradition in the Puccini family, it was expected that Giacomo would assume his deceased father’s position as maestro di cappella when he came of age — by 14 he already was playing organ in a number of the town’s churches. But at age 18 a performance of Verdi’s Aida inspired him to devote his life to opera. In 1880, Puccini began composition studies with Amilcare Ponchielli at the Milan Conservatory of Music. There he was introduced into the professional artists’ circle, to which he would belong for the rest of his life.
He was not a prolific composer. Unlike most of his contemporaries, there were long intervals between his operas, partly because of his fastidiousness in choosing subjects, several of which he took up only to abandon after several months, and partly because of his constant demands for modifications of the texts. Much of his time, too, was spent in hunting in the marshes around his home and in trips abroad to supervise revivals of his works.
The reception to the new work was mixed, but the revised two-act version was staged in a number of cities outside of Italy (a remarkable feat for a virtually unknown composer). Puccini’s next opera, Edgar, however, was a resounding critical failure, yet the astute publisher, Giulio Ricordi, found fault in the libretto only and promise in the music. He pitted himself against the shareholders of his publishing house who demanded that Puccini be released from retainer. Ricordi’s confidence was rewarded with Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s first true success.
In 1884, Puccini became acquainted with Elvira Gemignani, who was encouraged by her husband, a pharmacist and former classmate of Puccini’s, to take voice lessons with the composer. Shortly after his mother’s death, he was joined by Elvira and her daughter, Fosca, in Milan. She left her son, Renato, with her husband. Two years later she gave birth to their only child, Antonio. The couple was not married until 1903, after the death of Elvira’s first husband.
With the popularity of Manon Lescaut, Puccini was now generally considered by the Italian art circle to be Verdi’s successor (even by the great composer himself). As the royalties began rolling in, Puccini began to show a predilection for machines and gadgets, in particular fast automobiles and motor boats. His solitary nature drew him to a purchase a villa near the sea, surrounded by the mountains at Torre del Lago.
During the 1890s Puccini began working with Luigi Illica, who worked out the scheme and drafted the dialogue, and with the poet and playwright Giuseppe Giacosa, who put Illica’s lines into verse. Although they had participated in Manon Lescaut (as part of a string of several librettists), their first real collaboration was La bohème in 1896, followed four years later by Toscaand then Madame Butterfly four years after that. Giacosa died in 1906, putting an end to the successful team that produced three of Puccini’s most enduring works.
While Puccini was recuperating from an automobile accident, a young girl named Doria Manfredi was hired as a nurse and maid. She remained in the household as the Puccinis’ maid. Ever suspicious, Elvira saw the makings of an affair and immediately discharged her. She continued her slanderous accusations through the small village, and the townspeople, aware of her husband’s past philandering, quite naturally believed her. In this case, however, she was innocent, and totally humiliated, took poison, dying five days later after unbearable suffering. Giacomo took refuge in Rome and Elvira fled to Milan. Doria’s family sued Elvira following an autopsy that proved Doria’s virginity.
Puccini and his wife lived apart for four months while Elvira persisted in defending her legal position. The case was tried and she was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment — but Puccini made a large financial settlement with the Manfredi family and the lawsuit was dropped. In September of 1909, Giacomo, Elvira and Antonio were reunited at Torre. A month later he wrote, “In my home I have peace — Elvira is good — and the three of us live happily together.”
Puccini’s later operas were quite varied in their styles and subjects. La fanciulla del West, set in the American West, is notable for its advanced impressionistic orchestration and composition. La rondine was designed to be a sentimental musical comedy in the Viennese style. Il trittico was a mixed bag of one-act operas: Il tabarro, a tip-of-the-hat to Italian verismo; Suor Angelica, a nun embroiled in a battle for the future of her illegitimate child; and, most popular of the three, Gianni Schicchi, a comic masterpiece that features Puccini at his most exuberant.
Turandot was Puccini’s last (and arguably his greatest) opera. He died before completing it, and although another composer finished the job, at the premiere Arturo Toscanini set down his baton and refused to continue past Puccini’s last note.
Puccini has been much maligned for his flirtation with popular music, but he had an uncanny feel for a good story and a talent for composing enthralling yet economical music. Though like many of his contemporaries Puccini constantly was experimenting with tonality and form, his experiments were always subtle and without controversy. Having produced only 12 operas, the composer’s personal life was plagued with self doubt and laborious perfectionism, yet he profoundly influenced the world of opera with a deep understanding of music, drama and humanity.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera