Born in 1858 in Lucca, Italy, Giacomo Puccini came from a long line of professional musicians. When his father, organist and choirmaster of the San Martino church there, died, Giacomo was only five years old. The post as organist and choirmaster was held, through an uncle, to ensure Puccini could assume the post when he was old enough in order to maintain the line of Puccini musicians presiding there, which went back to Giacomo Puccini, having received that appointment in 1739. Young Puccini began his career as organist there when he was 14.
Despite a reluctance to follow in the family footsteps, his mother’s persistence and his own interest in the gadgetry of organs and mechanics of music, Puccini not only held two jobs as a church organist during his teens, he did become a composer.
Puccini was encouraged in his career as a composer by the positive reception for some of his church pieces and a cantata. Aida, the latest Verdi opera he saw at age 18, also inspired him. Scholarships from a great-uncle and Queen Margherita of Savoy enabled him to study at the Milan Conservatory from 1880-83.
Puccini did not care for city life but it did influence his work. His bohemian existence as a poor student, sharing an apartment with two other artists, later found expression in La Bohème (just as the writer, Henri Mürger’s early years as a poor author inspired his stories on which the opera was based). Though loosely associated with the verismo movement, which strove to create more natural and believable opera theatre, Puccini did not hesitate to write period pieces or to exploit exotic locales. In Tosca he wrote an intense melodrama set in Rome during Napoleonic times.
For Madama Butterfly he chose an American story set in Japan. These three operas earned Puccini an international reputation.
Because Puccini was so theatrical, critics and academics have always tried to deny him his proper place among serious composers. The public, however, feels differently, and Puccini remains one of operagoers’ favourites. Critics also point out that Puccini was more interested in his female characters – his heroines generally being a ‘soft, smiling girl driven by emotion rather than by thought.’
Puccini experienced some initial failure with Madama Butterfly (1904) but his faith in the work led him to revise it until operagoers accepted it. This initial failure temporarily prevented him from new compositions but a visit to New York ultimately resulted in his writing his first ‘modern’ work in La Fanciulla del West.
World War I caused the next major break in Puccini’s creative life. Hostilities complicated his negotiations to write an operetta for Vienna, now in enemy territory. The operetta became instead a light opera, La Rondine, produced at Monte Carlo and welcomed coolly at the Met as “the afternoon of a genius”. Puccini never regained his youthful eminence and romantic spontaneity, but he continued to work seriously, broadening his horizons.
A chain-smoker, Puccini developed throat cancer and was taken to Brussels in 1924 for treatment by a specialist. Though the surgery was successful, Puccini’s heart failed, and he died shortly afterward. At the time of his death, he had been working on the most ambitious of his 12 operas, Turandot, based on Schiller’s romantic adaptation of a fantasy by Carlo Gozzi, the 18th-century Venetian satirist. In Turandot for the first time Puccini wrote extensively for the chorus, and he provided an enlarged, enriched orchestral tapestry that showed an awareness of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and other contemporary scores.
Compiled from New York City Opera teachopera.org, Fort Worth Opera 2000 Study Guide, and Tulsa Opera Study Guide 1995-96.