Donizetti Biography

At the time of Donizetti's death in 1848, more than a quarter of the Italian operas being performed were ones he had composed. He is known for his development of comic opera and his kind and compassionate temperament, which shine through in his best works. Donizetti is recognized as being one of the most influential composers in Italy's history.

Gaetano Domenico Maria Donizetti was born in Bergamo, Italy in November 1797. Despite their extreme poverty, his father sent the boy at age nine to attend a charity choir school established by Johann Simon Mayr, an influential Italian Opera composer during the beginning of the 19th century. Here Gaetano received voice, keyboard and string lessons as well as training in theory and the science of music. Though his voice was nothing special, he was an outstanding student. His excellence in the classroom caused him to become vain and critical of his peers. To overcome this, Mayr created a parody which he made Donizetti perform for the public. The experience of having to sing in public humbled him, and from then on Donizetti was known for his modesty, becoming well liked by his peers and fellow composers. It is thought that this farce, which Mayr used to teach the young Donizetti a lesson, may have been an inspiration for Donizetti's last and most popular buffo opera, Don Pasquale.

The title character, a wealthy old bachelor, is convinced that he can have anything and everything he wants. He is tricked into believing he is married to a much younger woman who proceeds to spend all his money and make him so miserable that he will allow his nephew to marry. Little does Pasquale know that the woman his nephew wants to marry is his own bride. This last opera is said to be the one which most closely reflects Donizetti's kind and sympathetic nature. Though the title character is obviously the one out to cause trouble and be an obstacle for young love, audiences find there really is no villain in Don Pasquale through laughter and sympathy. The similarities in this plot to the farce Mayr made Donizetti perform shows that, even decades later, the lessons about modesty, humanity, and sympathy his teacher had passed on were a part of him and his work.

Recognizing his ability, in 1815 Mayr sent Donizetti on to the famous music academy at Bologna where he studied for two years. Donizetti began composing constantly. He wrote three operas before one was actually produced in Venice in 1818. Extreme poverty led to a continuous stream of productions that were barely ever revised and never abandoned. In 1827, Donizetti was commissioned to produce twelve new operas to be performed in Naples, one of which, Anna Bolena, was his first international success. Some criticized Donizetti for his seemingly careless ways, but his steady composing led to the great works that are still being performed.

In 1832 Donizetti was invited to compose a new opera in Milan for an impresario who wanted an opera in a hurry for the Teatro della Cannobia. Already the creator of 39 operas (at the rate of at least two per year) Donizetti was the ideal candidate. He and his librettist Felice Romani found their story in Le Philtre, a libretto written by Eugene Scribe for Daniel Auber's opera of the same name (few comic opera plots of the nineteenth century were original). Names were changed, a few alterations made, and The Elixir of Love was composed in only eight days! Donizetti wasn't particularly optimistic about his opening night cast, but the opera was lavishly praised at its May 12, 1832 premiere.

More successes followed Elixir; however, in 1837, his wife Virginia died and he was never able to recover. He moved to France to escape her memory. After struggling to gain acceptance and having difficulties with censorship, he broke through with some of his best works including The Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale.

Acting as a bridge between the great Italian composers Rossini, who retired in 1829, and Verdi, whose works became known after 1851, Donizetti carried Italian opera with his development of comedy and the morality of his characters. In 1843, Donizetti's health began to deteriorate. He was institutionalized for a time and in 1848 he returned to Bergamo where his death was mourned by friends and colleagues.

Donizetti was a direct inspiration for Verdi and continued to influence composers such as Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan. Despite his influence on composers who followed him, many of his 67 operas were no longer performed after he died. Many were discarded due to the haphazard way they were composed while others disappeared because of the loss of interest in earlier works when Verdi and Wagner came into favor. In recent years, however, many of his works have been recorded and staged, proving the continuing value of the operas that were so popular in their own time.

The Story | Donizetti's World | Geology | Timeline | Electrical Illusions | Censorship
Elixir of Love Home Page
Cleveland Opera On Tour Home Page |Cleveland Opera Home Page