(DECEMBER 22, 1858 – NOVEMBER 29, 1924)
Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, a member of a large family with a five-generation lineage of musicians going back to the early 18th century. His first job, at age 14, was as an organist to the two churches of Lucca, but he quickly became more interested in opera than church music. A performance of Verdi’s Aida at Pisa in 1876 made such an impact on him that he decided to follow his heart and began to pursue operatic composition. With a scholarship and financial support from a wealthy uncle, he was able to enter the Milan Conservatory in 1880. While in Milan, he came into contact with a group of Milanese artists, called the Scapigliati, who lived the Bohemian lifestyle.
Puccini wrote his first opera, Le villi, a “dramatic legend” about mythical, vampire-like creatures found in Italian mythology, in 1884. It was successful, and opened at the La Scala in Milan the next year. His second opera, Edgar, was a less well-received, but his third, Manon Lescaut, was celebrated, and established him on the international operatic scene. Around this time, the composer met Elvira Gemignani, wife of a merchant in Lucca. They carried on an illicit affair, and she gave birth to his son in 1886. Eventually, the two married following the death of her first husband. She is said to have been an unfit partner for Puccini, limiting his intellectual pursuits, controlling him emotionally, and ferociously cutting him off from most personal relationships with friends and other artists.
His next opera, La Bohème was at first less successful than Manon Lescaut, although it later went on to grow in fame. After producing Tosca and Madama Butterfly, Puccini was embroiled in a domestic scandel in 1909 that resulted in a court case and large amounts of negative publicity. Puccini’s jealous wife accused him of having had an intimate affair with his servant girl, Doria. Eventually the girl herself committed suicide in 1909 as a result. Today, scholars are still intrigued by the affair and work to prove or disprove Puccini’s innocence. Consensus indicates that it was most likely a fabrication of his wife. The experience took its toll on the very sensitive composer, and its deep psychological effects were a main factor in the long period before he began work on his next opera.
In the single decade before his death, Puccini completed La Rondine, and the trilogy of Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. His final opera, the lavish fairy tale Turandot, was unfinished at his death in 1924, but was completed by his colleague Franco Alfano and premiered in 1926. It remains one of his most admired works. During its composition, he moved to Viareggio and in 1923, he developed cancer of the throat. Although he sought treatment at a Brussels clinic, his heart could not stand the strain and he died on November 29, 1924. All Italy went into mourning and two years later, his remains were interred at his house at Torre del Lago. After his wife’s death in 1930, the house was turned into a museum where fans from around the world could come to celebrate one of opera’s greatest composers.