After studying music with his uncle, Fortunato Magi, and with the director of the Istituto Musicale Pacini, Carlo Angeloni, he started his career at the age of 14 as an organist at St. Martino and St. Michele, Lucca, and at other local churches. However, a performance of Verdi's Aida at Pisa in 1876 made such an impact on him that he decided to follow his instinct for operatic composition. With a scholarship and financial support from an uncle, he was able to enter the Milan Conservatory in 1880. During his three years there his chief teachers were Bazzini and Ponchielli.
While still a student, Puccini entered a competition for a one-act opera announced in 1882 by the publishing firm of Sonzogno. He and his librettist, Ferdinando Fontana, failed to win, but their opera Le villi came to the attention of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who arranged a successful production at the Teatro del Verme in Milan and commissioned a second opera. Fontana's libretto, Edgar, was unsuited to Puccini's dramatic talent and the opera was coolly received at La Scala in April 1889. It did, however, set the seal on what was to be Puccini's lifelong association with the house of Ricordi.
The first opera for which Puccini himself chose the subject was Manon Lescaut. Produced at Turin in 1893, it achieved a success such as Puccini was never to repeat and made him known outside Italy. Among the writers who worked on its libretto were Luigi IlIica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who provided the librettos for Puccini's next three operas. The first of these, La bohème, widely considered Puccini's masterpiece, but with its mixture of lighthearted and sentimental scenes and its largely conversational style was not a success when produced at Turin in 1896. Tosca, Puccini's first excursion into verismo, was more enthusiastically received by the Roman audience at the Teatro Costanzi in 1900.
Later that year Puccini visited London and saw David Belasco's one-act play Madam Butterfly. This he took as the basis for his next collaboration with Illica and Giacosa; he considered it the best and technically most advanced opera he had written. He was unprepared for the fiasco attending its first performance in February 1904, when the La Scala audience was urged into hostility, even pandemonium, by the composer's jealous rivals; in a revised version it was given to great acclaim at Brescia the following May. By then Puccini had married Elvira Gemignani, the widow of a Lucca merchant, who had borne him a son as long ago as 1896. The family lived until 1921 in the house at Torre del Lago which Puccini had acquired in 1891. Scandal was unleashed in 1909 when a servant girl of the Puccinis, whom Elvira had accused of an intimate relationship with her husband, committed suicide. A court case established the girl's innocence, but the publicity affected Puccini deeply and was the main reason for the long period before his next opera.
This was La fanciulla del West, based on another Belasco drama; it was given its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in December 1910. In all technical respects, notably its Debussian harmony and Straussian orchestration, it was a masterly reply to the criticism that Puccini repeated himself in every new opera. What it lacks is the incandescent phrase, and this is probably why it has not entered the normal repertory outside Italy.
Differences with Tito Ricordi, head of the firm since 1912, led Puccini to accept a commission for an operetta from the directors of the Vienna Karltheater. The result, La rondine, though warmly received at Monte Carlo in 1917, is among Puccini's weakest works, hovering between opera and operetta and devoid of striking lyrical melody. While working on it Puccini began the composition of Il tabarro, the first of three one-act operas (Il trittico) which follow the scheme of the Parisian Grand Guignol - a horrific episode, a sentimental tragedy (Suor Angelica) and a comedy or farce (Gianni Schicchi). This last has proved to be the most enduring part of the triptych and is often done without the others, usually in a double bill.
In his early 60s Puccini was determined to 'strike out on new paths' and started work on Turandot, based on a Gozzi play which satisfied his desire for a subject with a fantastic, fairy-tale atmosphere, but flesh-and-blood characters. During its composition he moved to Viareggio and in 1923 developed cancer of the throat. Treatment at a Brussels clinic seemed successful, but his heart could not stand the strain and he died, leaving Turandot unfinished. (It is usually played today with Franco Alfano's ending.) All Italy went into mourning and two years later his remains were interred at his house at Torre del Lago which, after his wife's death in 1930, was turned into a museum.
Puccini's choral, orchestral and instrumental works, dating mainly from his early years, are unimportant, though the Mass in A-flat (1880) is still performed occasionally. His operas may not engage us on as many different levels as do those of Mozart, Wagner,Verdi or Strauss, but on his own most characteristic level, where erotic passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos and despair meet and fuse, he was an unrivalled master. His melodic gift and harmonic sensibility, his consummate skill in orchestration and unerring sense of theatre combined to create a style that was wholly original, homogeneous and compelling. He was fully aware of his limitations and rarely ventured beyond them. He represents Verdi's only true successor, and his greatest masterpiece and swansong, Turandot, belongs among the last 20th-century stage works to remain in the regular repertory of the world's opera houses.
(Hear Nessum Dorma from Turandot)