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Giacomo Puccini

Though Giacomo Puccini composed in other genres, his name is synonymous with opera.  Many singers who helped to define an operatic era appeared and even debuted in Puccini’s operas.  Among them were Enrico Caruso, Tito Schipa, and Emmy Destinn.  Puccini also helped launch the career of Arturo Toscanini, one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century, when Toscanini made his debut in the premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème.  Puccini’s death ended the last major age of Italian opera, but his operas have remained among the best-loved and most performed of the entire canon.


Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca (located in Tuscany), on December 22, 1858.  He was named after an eighteenth-century ancestor, who had founded a long line of prominent local musicians, including the young Puccini’s father Michele.  Michele, a composer, organist, and teacher, married Albina Magi, the sister of one of his students, in 1850.  The couple first had five daughters, followed by their first son, Giacomo, then two more daughters and a second son.  Puccini was just five years old when Michele died, but the boy was subsequently entrusted with the continuation of his family’s musical legacy.

His first music teacher was Albina’s brother Fortunati Magi, Michele’s former pupil. Magi found no special talent in his student, and recommended that Albina give up her hopes for her son.  Instead, she sent him to a different instructor, Carlo Angeloni, who had also been a pupil of Michele Puccini and who taught at the Instituto Musicale Pacini in Lucca (a music school associated with the composer Giovanni Pacini). This situation met with better results, and Puccini continued his studies at the conservatory until the age of seventeen.  By this time his potential was clear; in 1878, a performance of two religious works (his motet Plaudite populi and a Credo) had made a strong local impression.

However, after losing quite thoroughly in the first composition competition he entered (his work came in last place), he left for Milan.  He studied with composers Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli at the conservatory there, having received a scholarship engineered by his mother through family connections with members of the nobility.  In Milan, he not only received an excellent education, but he was also exposed to Wagner’s music, and to the important French operatic repertoire (such as Bizet and Gounod), which later influenced his own work. Though the scholarship ended after just one year and money was scarce for the large Puccini family, he completed his studies with high honors in 1883

Conservatory students performed a Capriccio Sinfonico by Puccini in July of that year, and the piece was received very well.  Ponchielli had high hopes for his pupil, and encouraged him to participate in an upcoming competition for one-act operas. The older composer arranged for Puccini to work with the writer Ferdinando Fontana, who supplied the libretto.  Their project, Le Willis (later Le Villi) served as Puccini’s entry for the contest.  It did not win, but its debut in May 1884 earned an enthusiastic public response, and Giulio Ricordi opted to publish it.  Following the success of his first opera, Puccini rushed home to be with his ailing mother, who died shortly thereafter on July 17, 1884.

Early Acclaim

While in Lucca that year, Puccini made the acquaintance of a young woman named Elvira Bonturi Gemignani.  She was married to a merchant, and though the details of their meeting are unclear, Puccini may have been hired to give Elvira singing lessons.  In any case, Puccini and Elvira Gemignani began an affair that resulted in a son, Antonio, in 1886.  As her pregnancy became apparent, she fled to Milan with Puccini and one of the two children from her marriage to Gemignani.  Puccini and Elvira did not marry, however, until 1904, following the death of her husband. 

During the early stages of this affair, Puccini had set to work again with Fontana to prepare a new two-act version of Le Villi, as it was now called, for production in Turin.  It was a great success there, and though a subsequent production at La Scala in Milan was initially not received very well, it was repeated thirteen times in 1885.  A second opera, Edgar, was completed with Fontana in the fall of 1887.  It did not premiere at La Scala until April of 1889; the reception was disappointing.  Despite reviews that took note of Puccini’s great talent, the libretto was heavily criticized, and the opera is considered to have been a failure.

Not discouraged for long, Puccini asked Ricordi to secure the rights to a popular play by Victorien Sardou, the title role of which had been performed in Paris by Sarah Bernhardt in 1887.  This play, La Tosca, was touring Europe in 1889, and had caught Puccini’s attention. However, Sardou would not consent to Ricordi’s request at the time, and Puccini was forced to look elsewhere for a subject.

That same spring, he happened to read L’Histoire de Manon Lescaut et du Chevalier des Grieux, by the Abbé Prévost.  Though the story had inspired Jules Massenet’s successful opera Manon a few years earlier (1884), Puccini was confident that he could create his own successful setting.  But finding the appropriate librettist proved to be a difficult undertaking; Ruggero Leoncavallo was the first in a series of collaborators supplied by Ricordi, but at last the poet Luigi Illica was engaged in 1891.

This partnership proved extremely successful, and when Manon Lescaut debuted in Turin on February 1, 1893, the audience offered fervent ovations even before the end of the first act.  Brilliant reviews and great acclaim followed, and less than a week after the opera’s premiere, Puccini was honored with the title Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Corona d’Italia (Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy).  Manon Lescaut earned Puccini international fame, with the opera in production immediately throughout Italy, in Germany, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and Russia.  In an 1894 review, when Puccini had been to London with Manon Lescaut, George Bernard Shaw named Puccini “the heir of Verdi.”

Bohème, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly

In the wake of all this success, Puccini sought a sanctuary where he could compose in peace, and bought a house in the Tuscan town of Torre del Lago.  In Torre del Lago, Puccini and some of his friends formed a genial and irreverent club they called the Club La Bohème.  The name was a reference both to the mindset of its artist-writer-musician members, and to Puccini’s opera-in-progress at the time, La Bohème

When Puccini chose to set Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, the decision sparked a rivalry that eventually lost him the friendship of Leoncavallo.  Leoncavallo was already working on a setting of the same subject when he found out about Puccini’s choice, and the two composers and their publishers argued in print over whether Puccini had been aware of Leoncavallo’s interest in the story.  In the end, Leoncavallo’s version opened after Puccini’s, and was not successful.

In any event, when plans began for Puccini’s La Bohème, as early as 1892, Puccini and Illica sought the further collaboration of an important contemporary writer, Giuseppe Giacosa.  Despite the fact that the team was plagued with a lack of consensus and constant demands from Puccini for revision, by the beginning of 1896, the opera was finally ready for production in Turin.  The conductor who had been Puccini’s first choice, Leopoldo Mugnone, was unavailable for the premiere, so the opera was instead conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  Puccini was entirely satisfied with Toscanini’s work, and La Bohème helped to launch the young conductor’s extraordinary career. 

The opening performance took place on February 1, 1896, with an audience including Italian royalty and numerous luminaries in the arts.  It was not an immediate success with audiences.  The reasons for its mixed reception are not certain, but this reaction has been tentatively attributed to a renewed interest in Wagner’s grander, larger-scale works, with the first Italian production of his Götterdämmerung occurring just prior to the opening of La Bohème. A somewhat tepid audience reaction at the premiere, and vicious reviews in Turin papers were devastating to Puccini, but the opera quickly caught on both in Turin and throughout Europe.  In spite of its rough beginnings, however, it certainly remains among the most beloved of all operas today.

While working on La Bohème, Puccini returned to the idea of setting Sardou’s La Tosca, and this time Puccini was able to acquire the rights.  Illica and Giacosa returned to work as a team on the libretto.  Though the playwright at times fought the composer and his librettists regarding their adaptation of his work, and though the librettists fought with Puccini, Tosca premiered in Rome on January 14, 1900

At that time political volatility in Rome was at a peak—King Umberto had recently endured multiple assassination attempts, and was in fact murdered later in the same year – and rumors of bomb threats to the theater, where the queen was to attend the opera, made for an unsettled cast and audience.  A disturbance during the beginning of the performance aroused much anxiety, but turned out to be related merely to discontent regarding inconsiderate latecomers in the audience.  The tension led to a strained performance and mixed reviews, but the opera soon became a popular success across Europe, as had the previous two works.

While he was in London for a Covent Garden production of Tosca, Puccini saw David Belasco’s drama Madame Butterfly. Although he could not understand the language, he was taken with the subject.  The opera Madama Butterfly, with a libretto by Illica and Giacosa, represents the first foray into musical exoticism for Puccini, distinct from the verismo or realism of Tosca.  He undertook extensive research, looking into Japanese music, and consulting two Japanese women (an actress traveling in Italy and the wife of a Japanese ambassador) in order to work out how he wanted to approach the female speech patterns of Japanese in his composition.  His music was influenced by the French composers, such as Debussy, who had also depicted Eastern cultures in their works.  Additionally, Puccini’s orchestration features Japanese bells and an emphasis on percussion. 

Madama Butterfly opened at La Scala on February 17, 1904.  Despite the great hopes and confidence of the composer, the debut was a total failure, with an audience that was aggressively antagonistic.  The hostile reaction is thought to have been linked to the phenomenon of audience “claques.”  Who exactly Puccini’s enemies might have been is not certain, but problems with the libretto may also have played a role.  The disastrous opening led to thorough revisions for the opera’s second production in Brescia that May, and for its third run in Paris in 1906.  Fortunately, these performances were highly successful.

Scandal and La Fanciulla del West


Around the time of Butterfly’s premiere, Puccini married Elvira.  Her husband, Narciso Gemignani, had died in February 1903, and after the mandatory ten-month waiting period required of a widow, Elvira was at last free to wed the father of her son.  She and Puccini had maintained a relationship through the years, but she did not often travel with him, and he was less than faithful.  However, Elvira was intent on saving their relationship, and he felt it best for their son that they marry.  In addition, an automobile accident that Puccini suffered in 1903, and an illness following it, coincided with a messy breakup between the composer and a mistress named Corinna.  These incidents undoubtedly added to Elvira’s urgent desire to wed Puccini when the opportunity finally arose.

For a time, the composer’s work was sidetracked by a family crisis, a tragedy that weighed heavily on him.  Toward the end of 1908, Elvira accused Doria Manfredi, who had been employed as a servant to care for Puccini after his accident, of indulging in a sexual relationship with the composer.  After a period of bitter fighting with Puccini and anger toward the twenty-one-year-old Doria, Elvira terminated her employment and embarked upon a campaign to tarnish the girl’s reputation.  Puccini, who had retreated to Paris in desperation, tried to ameliorate the situation with letters to Doria and her mother, supporting Doria’s claims of innocence.  These efforts were not enough, however, and on January 23, 1909, Doria poisoned herself.  She died five days later, and when an autopsy showed that she remained a virgin, things unraveled for Elvira.  The Manfredi family sued.  Puccini’s wife was tried and sentenced to five months of prison time, and faced heavy fines.  The ordeal had become international news, and Puccini was advised to file for a legal separation from his wife.  But Puccini believed that his wife had been manipulated to a degree in this affair, and tentatively reconciled with her in time to negotiate an appeal and a settlement out of court, so that Elvira remained free.

With the scandal at an end, Puccini could return to his planned opera, La Fanciulla del West.  The opera was an adaptation of another play by David Belasco, The Girl of the Golden West.  Earlier, in 1907, Puccini had sailed to New York in order to oversee productions of Manon Lescaut and Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera.  While in New York, he had attended a performance of Belasco’s play, and found in it his inspiration for a new project.  However, Giacosa had died in 1906, and Illica was working on another project for Puccini (which was never completed). So Puccini settled on a new team for his libretto, comprised of Guelfo Civinni and Carlo Zangarini.  More precisely, he settled on Zangarini, whose mother was, incidentally, American, and later insisted, with the help of a lawyer, on the involvement of a second librettist.

When Puccini traveled to Paris in the spring of 1910 for the long-awaited French premiere of his Manon Lescaut (fear of competition with Massenet’s beloved Manon had kept the opera from opening in France), he also managed to make plans for a Metropolitan Opera premiere of the forthcoming operaLa Fanciulla del West was the Met’s first “world premiere,” and its debut on December 10, 1910 starring Emmy Destin and Enrico Caruso, and with Toscanini in the pit, led to the work’s immediate success.

Final Years


In 1913, Puccini was in Vienna for a production of La Fancuilla del West, when the managers of the Karlstheater there, Otto Eibenschütz and Heinrich Berté, asked the composer to consider writing an operetta for them.  Puccini was not anxious to work in this theatrical form, which contained both dialogue and musical numbers, but he eventually agreed, and, the resulting work, La Rondine, ended up as a through-sung opera, with a libretto by Giuseppe Adami.  A falling out with Giulio Ricordi’s son, Tito (the elder Ricordi had died), led Puccini to publish the new opera with the rival of the Ricordi house, Sonzogno.  The intended Viennese premiere was delayed by the onset of the First World War, in which Italy was part of the alliance against Austria-Hungary.  Instead, Sonzogno was able to arrange in 1917 for La Rondine to debut in Monte Carlo, where it was extremely successful.

A few years earlier, Puccini had started work on setting three short operas known today as Il Trittico (The Triptych).  To a libretto by Adami, in 1913 he began composition on the first opera, Il Tabarro.  When it was finished in 1916, Puccini looked for someone to provide the libretti for the other two pieces, and decided on a friend, Giovacchino Forzano.  The idea for the second of the three, Suor Angelica, was Forzano’s own, and the third subject of Gianni Schicchi came from a short passage in Dante’s Divine ComedySuor Angelica was complete by mid-September 1917, and Gianni Schicchi the following April.  Because resources in Italy were drastically depleted by the war, Il Trittico was set to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  In spite of the armistice in November 1918, lingering travel difficulties prevented Puccini from participating in or even attending the production.  It was successful, and went on to open in Rome in January 1919 and London’s Covent Garden in May.

The Puccinis relocated to the larger, coastal Tuscan town of Viareggio in 1921, where the composer began work on his final opera, Turandot.  The exotic subject for this opera, set in China, was taken from an eighteenth-century play of the same name by Carlo Gozzi, and originally drawn from a story in A Thousand and One Nights. For Turandot, Puccini turned to Adami and to Renato Simoni to provide the libretto.  The usual delays due to difficulties with the collaborative process, in addition to Puccini’s own uncertainties about his compositional plan, slowed progress on the work.

The work was slated for a 1925 premiere, but in the fall of 1924, before completing it, Puccini fell ill.  He was diagnosed with throat cancer, and at the suggestion of a specialist in Florence, he traveled to Brussels with his son for a course of radiation treatment—a new medical development at the time.  After a few days, the arduous and painful treatment seemed to be succeeding, but the stress of it triggered a heart attack on November 29.  On that morning, 1924, Puccini died.  He was given a funeral procession in Brussels, and then buried in Milan; in 1926, his remains were removed to the chapel of his villa in Torre del Lago.

A composer and pianist named Franco Alfano, at the time the director of the Turin Conservatory and whom Toscanini had recommended for the job, completed Turandot.  Alfano had to write a second version of his contribution, however, upon receiving criticism from both Toscanini and Ricordi, the work’s publisher.  Toscanini conducted Turandot at La Scala on April 25, 1926, but stopped the performance at the point where Puccini had laid down his pen.  Today the opera is nearly always performed with Alfano’s ending, though in 2001 the composer Luciano Berio offered a new ending. 

Though Puccini composed in other genres—his additional output, much of it unpublished, includes sacred choral works, pieces for string quartet, a few keyboard pieces, and numerous songs—his name is nearly synonymous with opera.  Many singers who helped to define an operatic era, as well as the early years of opera recording, appeared and even debuted in Puccini’s operas.  Among them were Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Tito Schipa,  and Claudia Muzio.  Puccini’s connection to the history of recording goes beyond the singers; he also wrote a song, "Canto d’anime," specifically for the Gramophone Company, that was recorded in 1907.  Though his death ended the last major age of Italian opera, his work has remained among the most loved and most performed of the entire operatic canon.


Girardi, Michele: ‘Giacomo (Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria) Puccini (ii),’ Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 27 February 2006), <>

Greenfeld, Howard.  Puccini. New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1980.

Kay, Michael.  “The Nonoperatic Works of Giacomo Puccini.”   The Puccini Companion.  Eds. William Weaver and Simonetta Puccini.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.  279-302.

Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. “Puccini’s America.” The Puccini Companion.  Eds. William Weaver and Simonetta Puccini. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.  202-227.

Puccini, Simonetta.  “The Puccini Family.”  The Puccini Companion.  Eds. William Weaver and Simonetta Puccini. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994. 3-38.

Ramsden, Timothy.  Puccini and His Operas. The World of Opera.  Staplehurst, Kent: Spellmount, 1996.