Giacomo Puccinib. Lucca, Toscana, December 22, 1858; d. Brussels, Belgium, November 29, 1924
Giacomo Puccini was born in the Tuscan town of Lucca, where his family had a long musical history. He was a fifth-generation composer. After the death of his father, Giacomo was sent, at the age of five, to study with his uncle, Fortunato Magi, an accomplished organist and teacher. It soon became clear that the young musician was talented, and equally clear that opera was his calling. In 1880, Giacomo entered the Milan Conservatory. In 1882, he produced his first opera, Le villi, for a competition sponsored by the Italian music publisher Sonzogno. Unfortunately, he did not win.
Le villi was not a complete loss for Puccini, though. Giulio Ricordi, the internationally famous head of Sonzogno’s major competitor, liked it. In 1884, Ricordi purchased the copyright to Le villi and commissioned a new work from Puccini. The new commission, Edgar, was a disaster, but with Le villi and Edgar done, Puccini had completed his apprenticeship. Of the ten remaining operas he would compose in his lifetime, four would be among the most performed operas of all time—La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. Five would earn established places in the repertoire—Manon Lescaut, La fanciulla del West, Gianni Schicchi, Il tabarro, and Suor Angelica; while only one, La rondine, would be largely ignored.
Around 1884, Puccini began an affair with Elvira Gemignani, the wife of a Lucchese merchant. She would bear Puccini a son in 1886, but they would not be free to marry until after the death of her husband in 1904.
On a trip to attend a performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth, Puccini was inspired to write a new opera. When Manon Lescaut premiered in 1893, it was a huge success. Author, playwright, and critic George Bernard Shaw declared Puccini the heir to Giuseppe Verdi. A string of major works followed: La bohème in 1896, Tosca in 1900, and Madama Butterfly in 1904.
A car accident in 1903 left Puccini wheelchair-bound for months, and shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with diabetes. His librettist Giacosa died in 1906 at the age of 58. In 1909, Puccini's maid committed suicide after Elvira accused her of having an affair with the composer. Puccini’s renown made this an international news story.
After the premiere of La fanciulla del West in 1910, it would be seven years before the composer completed another opera. The next composition was La rondine, Puccini’s only operetta. Il trittico, a triple-bill of Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, followed in 1918, but the composer was unable to attend the New York premiere.
Shortly thereafter, Puccini began work on his final opera, Turandot. Puccini wanted to strike out in a new direction. Based on a play by 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi, Turandot was far removed from the contemporary realism of Tosca. Set in China “in the time of fables,” it was explicitly cast as a fairy tale with a prince, princess, and a fantastic background of tyranny and torture. Puccini would find his heroine—the ice princess Turandot—a difficult creature to make sympathetic. The problem would be exacerbated by his invention of the extremely sympathetic slave girl Liù, perhaps an oblique reference to the Puccini’s young maid who had committed suicide a decade earlier.
Puccini grappled with these problems while suffering from the throat cancer that would eventually kill him. He did not live to finish his Chinese fable. Two years after his death, Turandot—completed by the composer Franco Alfano—would premiere under the baton of Puccini’s friend, the conductor Arturo Toscanini.