Giacomo Puccini was born on 22 December, 1858 in Lucca, North Italy to a family with five generations of musicians. He lost his father when he was five and his uncle Fortunato Magi taught him music though he did not think high of Puccini, considering him to be a poor and undisciplined pupil. When Puccini turned fourteen he was appointed as church organist. His strong determination to become an opera composer overwhelmed him when he saw Verdi’s Aida after walking some 20 kilometers to watch the performance in Pisa. In the autumn of 1880, supported by a grant from a wealthy great-uncle and a scholarship from Queen Margherita, he enrolled in the Milan Conservatory.
While at the Conservatory he entered a competition for a one-act opera in 1882. His opera Le Villi, written in such haste to meet the deadline that the score was practically illegible, did not take the first prize but a group of his friends subsidized its production and it was staged with an enormous success in Milan in 1884. It caught the attention of Juilio Ricordi, head of the influential music publishing house “G. Ricordi & Co” who immediately acquired the copyright, gave Puccini a monthly grant and commissioned a second opera Edgar, staged in 1889. The opera was a failure despite much hard work on the part of Puccini. He blamed Fontana, the librettist, for the setback and resolved to write his own librettos for his operas. He was in constant quest for subjects to suit his abilities and finally two librettists Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa almost accidentally paired to complete the Manon Lescaut. The opera premiered in Turin in 1893 with the great success for which Puccini had waited for nearly a decade. In the same year it was successfully staged in St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aries and Munich. The royalties paid to Puccini helped him repay his debts and made it possible for the composer to live in the village of Torre del Lago in some kind of style.
Illica and Giacosa remained with Puccini for his next three operas La Boheme, Tosca and Madam Butterfly. La Boheme established worldwide fame for Puccini. It was premiered on February 1, 1896 to an enthusiastic audience in Turin. Along with Tosca it remains one of the most popular operas in the world. Tosca, premiered in 1900, was Puccini’s first attempt at verismo. It featured a lot of real life aspects including violence. Due to its significant features it occupies a special place in the history of opera. Within a year Tosca was staged in the major theatres around the world.
Puccini was one of the first opera composers to turn to a subject taken from the Japanese culture. When he saw the London production of Madam Butterfly the American playwright David Belasco in 1900 he was deeply moved by its plot even though he did not understand English. After signing a contract with Belasco Puccini embarked on the project diligently and when the opera premiered at La Scala in 1904 with its two overlong acts and with only one interval it was received with hostility, but after some reworkings enjoyed a stupendous success among audiences worldwide.
After 1904 compositions became less frequent. An ardent fan of blood sports and fast cars Puccini was nearly killed in a major car accident in 1903. In 1906 his librettist Guiseppe Giacosa died and in 1909 a scandal broke out when Puccini was falsely accused by his wife Elvira for having an affair with their maid who later committed suicide. Eventually, after the doctor’s examination it turned out that the girl was a virgin and Elvira faced charges for persecution and calumny and was sentenced to five months in prison. Puccini had to settle the affair by paying substantial money to reconcile the girl’s family and have them withdraw their accusations. The death of Juilio Ricordi, Puccini’s staunch friend, in 1912 ended a productive period of his career. Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, which he considered one of his best operas, was completed in 1910. His next opus would be La rondine reworked from an unsuccessful operetta. It was premiered in Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917. In 1918 the first performance of Il Trittico took place in New York. It is made up of three one-act operas: a violent piece Il Tabarro, a sentimental tragedy Suor Angelica and a comedy Gianni Schicchi. His final opera Turandot was left unfinished due to the composer’s death but was later completed by Franco Alfano who wrote the last two scenes using the composer’s sketches.
Puccini, a cigarette chain smoker, began to complain of a chronically sore throat in 1923 and was diagnosed with throat cancer. His doctors recommended a new and experimental radiation therapy treatment offered in Brussels. He died there on November 29, 1924 from complications after the treatment, his heart being too weak to withstand the treatment. News of his death reached Rome during a performance of La Bohème. The opera was immediately stopped, and the orchestra played Chopin's Funeral March for the stunned audience. He was buried in Milan but later his remains were transferred to a chapel inside the Puccini villa at Torre del Lago.