Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in Lucca in Tuscany, Italy on December 22, 1858 into a family of five generations of church organists, choirmasters and composers. His father died when Giacomo was five years old, and he was sent to study with his uncle Fortunato Magi, who considered him to be a poor student. As a teenager, Puccini served as an organist to the area churches and played the piano as entertainment at social events. In March 1876, the twenty-year old walked thirty kilometers to attend a performance of Verdi’s latest opera success, Aïda. This event changed his life and he decided that he would make opera his life’s work.
The greatest influence in Puccini’s life was his mother, who petitioned and received a grant to send her son to the Milan Conservatory, where he worked diligently at his music and received his diploma in 1883. While studying at the Conservatory, Puccini obtained a libretto from Ferdinando Fontana, and entered a competition for a one-act opera in 1882. Although he did not win, Le Villi was later staged in 1884 at the Teatro Dal Verme and it caught the attention of Giulio Ricordi, head of G. Ricordi & Co. music publishers, who commissioned a second opera, Edgar, in 1889.
Edgar failed: it was a bad story and Fontana’s libretto was poor. This may have had an effect on Puccini’s thinking because when he began his next opera, Manon Lescaut, he announced that he would write his own libretto so that “no fool of a librettist” could spoil it. Ricordi persuaded him to accept Leoncavallo as his librettist, but Puccini soon asked Ricordi to remove him from the project. Four other librettists were then involved with the opera, due mainly to Puccini constantly changing his mind about the structure of the piece. It was almost by accident that the final two, Illica and Giacosa, came together to complete the opera. They remained with Puccini for his next three operas and probably his greatest successes: La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
The rights to David Belasco’s play, Madame Butterfly were not immediately available to Puccini. Undaunted, he set his librettists to begin the script for the new opera based on the “Century Magazine” story. As a result, the first version of the new opera script focused on the East-West conflict as told through the story of an innocent geisha fallen victim to an imperialist American naval officer. Puccini instinctively knew that this direction was not the stuff of great theatre, and after months of heated arguments with Illica and Giacosa, they refocused the libretto on the personal tragedy of the main character – the work became intimate, moving, real – and in so doing, they created a lyric drama for the ages.
The 1904 premiere of Madama Butterfly at La Scala was a fiasco. The opera went through three revisions until it was successfully reintroduced in the form we know it today. Madama Butterfly is a complete realization of powerful psychological drama that fully reveals the moving character of the title character. It is no surprise that it was Puccini’s favorite from among his operas.
Puccini collaborated with several librettists on his works, including Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. His most famed operas include: Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La fanciulla del West (1810), Il Trittico—a collection of three one-act operas: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi (1918), and Turandot (1926)—unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death and later completed by Franco Alfano, one of Puccini’s protégées.
Puccini was somewhat reclusive. He preferred his home in the country to hectic city life and enjoyed hunting and long walks through the countryside. He was a lifelong smoker, particularly of cigars, and in 1924 was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery which left him no longer able to speak and died of a heart attack four days later on November 29, 1924 in Brussels.