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Who was Giacomo Puccini?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 March 2014
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Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was an Italian composer of opera. He is often cited as one of the most influential and beloved opera composers of Italy, after Giuseppe Verdi. Giacomo Puccini composed a large number of operas during his lifetime, including the immensely popular Manon Lescaut (1893). His work continues to be widely performed in Italy and abroad, with many opera companies including at least one Giacomo Puccini opera in their seasonal repertory.

Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, on the 22nd of December 1858. As a child, he studied the pipe organ with his uncle, Fortunato Magi. He composed numerous pieces for the organ before attending a performance of Verdi's Aida in 1876 and being inspired by the piece. Aida is an opera on a grand and mythic scale where emotions run high and the events push the boundaries of believability. Entranced by this melodramatic piece, Giacomo Puccini decided to try his hand at composing opera.

In 1880, Giacomo Puccini enrolled at the Milan Conservatory to study music. In 1889, he debuted Edgar at La Scala, where the opera met with a frosty reception. Despite his disappointment with the piece, he pushed on and four years later won popular acclaim with Manon Lescaut. During this period, he also carried on a love affair with Elvira Gemignani, who gave birth to Puccini's son in 1886. In 1904, the couple married after the death of Gemignani's husband.

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The next three operas of Giacomo Puccini were composed in less than ten years, and captured a broad scale of locales and human emotions. In 1896 the world was introduced to La Boheme, followed by Tosca in 1900 and Madame Butterfly in 1904. These three operas are among the most widely performed of Puccini's works, demanding talent from the singers and orchestra alike.

Giacomo Puccini composed several pieces inspired by exotic locations, including Madame Butterfly, set in Japan. In 1910 he turned to the wild west for inspiration, composing La Fanciulla Del West, a lesser known opera. At the time of his death in 1924 he was completing Turandot, an ambitious opera set in China. Franco Alfano finished the piece, which takes over three hours to perform in full.

The work of Giacomo Puccini is distinctive for several reasons. In his exotic operas, he incorporated instrumental techniques and musical sounds unique to the region in which the opera was set. Turandot, for example, has a distinctly Chinese flavor despite being sung in Italian and performed by an Italian orchestra. He also wrote challenging arias, and often pushed the envelope instrumentally. His compositions are haunting accompaniments to the libretto which capture human emotion stunningly well. Listeners may not always be able to understand what is being sung, but the emotion of the music is clear.

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