Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, into a family whose members had been prominent musicians, mostly church organists, for several generations. He was not a child prodigy and his early musical studies gave little promise that he would fulfill his mother’s ambition that he follow in the family tradition. The turning point was apparently attending a performance of Verdi’s Aida when he was 18, after which he decided to devote himself to opera. For three years, 1880 to 1883, he studied seriously at the Milan Conservatory, but his early works were failures with audiences and critics and have not remained in the repertory. His third opera, Manon Lescaut of 1893, was a triumph and demonstrated the extraordinary sense of theater that was to characterize the six other full-length and three one-act operas he completed over the course of his life.
Puccini was drawn to stories of passionate relationships set in exotic locations. His reputation rests largely on three operas: La Boheme (1896) that takes place around 1830 in the Latin Quarter of Paris, Tosca (1900) in several historic sites in Rome, and Madame Butterfly (1904) on a hillside overlooking Nagasaki, Japan. Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, is set during a legendary time in Peking (Beijing), China. Puccini, a chain smoker, developed throat cancer and died while he was working on the final scene, which was completed by another composer. At its premiere in 1926 in Milan, at the point in the score where Puccini had stopped working, the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, stopped the performance, turned to the audience and said, “Here the opera finishes, because at this point the Maestro died.”
The power of Puccini’s scores lies in his gift for writing music that evokes and intensifies the passions and atmosphere of each dramatic situation. A particularly effective device is recalling music associated with earlier moments in the story, but now heard in the new context of the evolving drama. His poetic imagination is also apparent in lush harmonic language and sensuous orchestration. Expressive melody is continuous, either sung in soaring arias that climax at the top of the singer’s range or shifted to the orchestra during passages of vocal recitative. Puccini roles require singers with tremendous vocal strength, technical virtuosity, and emotional projection.