Composers of opera and ballet come from all nationalities, religions, and social statures. Still, one culture that has a long history of producing some of the best operatic music and interludes this world has ever had the pleasure of viewing, and listening, come from Italy. In the year 1600 musical theater, or opera was first performed in Italy and although many composers after this time consisted of Englishmen and Germans, many times even their operas were written in Italian. It is the unofficial language of the opera. So who better to write operas in the romantic language of Italian than Italian composers themselves? This list highlights some our favorite composers of Italian opera who are widely known in the world of opera.
1. Gioacchino Rossini 1792 – 1868
Born in February, Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born to a poor musician father and mother who was a singer. As fate would have it Rossini grew up in the theater. Singing and music came easy to Rossini while his other school subjects were uninteresting to him. He began studying music at Bologna’s Philharmonic School where he composed Demetrio e Poliboio, his first opera seria. By the age of fifteen Rossini could play the violin, horn, and harpsichord all while continuing to sing in public, including some theaters, to earn money.
Once his voice changed his singing career was over so Rossini accompanied musically and then became a conductor. Rossini appreciated the German’s influence on opera composition, especially that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Rossini found himself drawn to the comic opera, or opera buffa, composing his first titled La cambiale di martimonio (The Bill of Marriage). It was performed in Venice in 1810 and was an instant hit. After a few more hits Rossini decided to sway from traditional attempts of composing opera buffe, which resulted in lively finales and unorthodox rhythms.
In 1813 Rossini broke away from comedy and tried his hand with opera seria, or serious opera. As with his comedies, works like Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri were instant successes.
It was in 1816 that Rossini composed il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), which is arguably his most notable opera. Doing very well in every other Italian city besides Rome, il barbiere di Siviglia is still performed and adored to this day.
After barbiere Rossini composed many operas, concertos, piano pieces and more until 1829 when he premiered William Tell, which first introduced the unmistakable William Tell Overture. This musical piece has been used in films and cartoons throughout history since it was first scribed.
Rossini settled in Paris in 1855. Wealthy, retired, and happily married Rossini relaxed into old age by having famous friends for dinner and amusing anyone who would listen with his astounding wit.
2. Vincenzo Bellini 1801-1835
Catania, Sicily boasts the birthplace of our next Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini. Since he was born into a musical family Bellini began producing works while still studying composition at the Naples Conservatory. Bellini became a favorite of an important person at the school and he was commissioned to create Bianca e Fernando for production at the Naples opera. This was a success, which led to more commissions until by 1831 he had written a great number of operas. His opera semiseria, written with serious subject matter but the ending is happy, La sonnombula grew to be very popular in England.
He moved to London a few years later but didn’t stay long and finally settled in Paris. It was here that Bellini wrote the last of his nine operas I puritani in 1835. Some consider Norma Bellini’s best work and it still entertains audiences today, although it was a failure when it was first premiered.
Bellini deprived us all of more brilliant musical works by dying while in Paris from peritonitis at the young age of thirty-three.
3. Gaetano Donizetti 1797-1848
Our next operatic composter from the beautiful country of Italy is Gaetano Donizetti, who began his studies with Giovanni Simone Mayr, who was the musical director of Bergamo’s main church Sta. Maria Maggiore. While singing in the choir Donizetti did not stand out from the other boys by Mayr recognized his musical talent and helped him get into music school in Bologna. His father wanted him to compose religious music but Donizetti followed his passion toward theater and opera.
Enrico di Bourgogne premiered in 1818 and was where Donizetti found his initial success. Composer of seventy-five operas, sixteen symphonies, nearly twenty string quartets and nearly two-hundred songs Donizetti was known to be amazingly prolific when it came to writing. Some say he could compose a three act opera in ten days’ time. His personal life was not so wonderful having lost his wife after only ten years of marriage. All of his three children also died due to illnesses or accidents. The sadness that brought to his life would never go away.
Among other composers like Rossini and Bellini, Donizetti was known to be kindhearted and helpful. The three Italian opera composers we have listed so far were known as masters of the “bel canto” style of composing.
Donzietti’s most notable works include Lucia di Lammamoor, L’Elisir d’Amore, Polluto, and Don Pasquale. You can watch the full The Elixir of Love here.
By the age of forty-five Donizetti began to suffer some serious health issues. He began to show symptoms of syphilis and bipolar disorder. Three years later Donizetti suffered a stroke, which led to paralysis while showing signs of dementia. He was then committed to an insane asylum in Paris. At the age of 50 he returned to his hometown Bergamo where he died.
4. Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901
Born in Roncole, Italy, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi showed a very early interest in music. His father was in innkeeper while his mother was a spinner so training at a music school was not in the budget. Still, by seven he was playing the organ in his church and by age sixteen he became the apprentice of the church organist in Bussetto, a town nearby.
At the age of twenty he attempted enrollment at the Milan Conservatory but was not allowed because he was considered too old. Instead he trained with Vincenzo Lavigna who played with La Scala. He was married to Margherita at age twenty-three. She was the daughter of his benefactor and also one of his music students.
They moved to Milan a few years later so he could compose the opera Oberto although this was followed by the birth and death of their daughter Virginia. The next year Oberto premiered but this success was overshadowed by the birth and death of their infant son Icilio. As if these tragedies weren’t enough, Verdi’s wife died the next year from an inflammation of the brain.
Several years later Verdi remarried and began composing a great deal of work. Some of his most famous pieces include La traviata, Rigoletto, and the legendary Aida.
Aida is still considered one of the greatest operas of all time. It premiered when Bellini was fifty-eight years old and was commissioned for the Suez Canal opening. Later that same year Bellini was elected to the Chamber of Deputies.
At the ripe age of eighty-four Bellini premiered his final opera Otello. With his success he founded a health care facility for musicians who couldn’t afford medical treatment. Three years later Bellini suffered a stroke in Milan and died.
5. Giacomo Puccini 1858-1924
Our final Italian composer has penned some of the most notable operas of all time. Born in Tuscany to an organist father Puccini was one of seven children. He began his musical training with is uncle Fortunato Magi. By the age of fourteen he was appointed organist at Lucca’s San Martino and San Michelle. Puccini studied at the Milan Conservatory and this is where he wrote his first opera Le Villi, which premiered in Milan in 1884. Its instant success helped move along Puccini’s career. He had an illegitimate son with a local merchant’s wife with whom he was having an affair. Puccini married the woman years later after her husband died. The next opera he would pen would be Edgar and it was a box office failure. Still his next opera Manon Lescault was his next attempts and found great success when premiering in Turin – click here to watch it free today!
Between the ages of thirty-six and forty-eight Puccini would compose his most successful and historical operas. La Boheme in 1896, Tosca in 1900, and Madame Butterfly in 1904. All three of these pieces are still considered masteries of opera and composition today. They are produced, reproduced, and parodied in countless works of art all over the world.
At the age of fifty-one there is a scandal when one of his servants commits suicide after his wife falsely accuses him of having an affair with the young girl. At the age of sixty-five Puccini was diagnosed with throat cancer after years and years of smoking tobacco. At this time, he was working on his final opera Turandot. Only one short year later a heart attack would take the life of the composer of some of the most beautifully written operas of all time.
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