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Composer Giacomo Puccini was born on December 22, 1858 in Lucca, Italy into a family that had been providing organists and composers to the city of Lucca for four generations. Following the family tradition, he started work as a professional organist at the age of 14.
At the age of 18, upon attending a performance of Verdi's Aida, Puccini decided to study operatic composition. In 1880 he began his studies at the Milan Conservatory where one of his instructors was Amilcare Ponchielli (composer of the opera La Gioconda, 1876).
In 1882 Puccini entered his opera Le villi into a competition run by publishing firm Casa Sonzogno. It didn't win but it garnered the attention of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, with whom Puccini was to enjoy a lifelong association.
Puccini's first great success was Manon Lescaut, which premiered in Turin in 1893. His librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who were to work with him three more times.
La Bohème (1896) was not a great success when first produced but has since become Puccini's best-known work and one of the most loved and performed operas in the world; Tosca premiered successfully in Rome in 1900 and Madama Butterfly followed in 1904 at La Scala, at first disastrously, but was later revised and became a huge success. Audiences to this day love Puccini's soaring and impassioned orchestrations, dramatic intensity and beautiful melodies.
There was a long break before his next premiere, partly due to a tragedy in his domestic life. Puccini had begun living with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani, only able to marry her himself when her first husband died.
Their marriage was not an easy one and eventually Elvira accused Puccini of having an affair with a servant girl. The tension in the household became intolerable and the girl committed suicide.
A court case determined that she had not had an affair with Puccini and Elvira was jailed for five months. The resulting publicity caused Puccini to withdraw for a while and also separate from his wife. They later reconciled but their marriage was damaged permanently.
Inspired early in his career by Verdi and Wagner, Puccini began to explore new composing territory with La fanciulla del West, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910.
This shift in style, which involved more innovative and challenging orchestration and harmonies, alluded to Debussy and Strauss and silenced some of his critics who considered him incapable of artistic growth. Now he was hailed as the true heir of Verdi.
While working on La Rondine (1917) with librettist Giuseppe Adami, Puccini began composing his collection of three one-act operas (Il trittico), which comprised Il tabarro (again with Adami), Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.
Puccini's last work, Turandot, was unfinished when the composer died on November 29, 1924 in Brussels, Belgium, after a battle with throat cancer. This last work is usually performed today with the ending written by Franco Alfano.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.