Gaetano Domenico Donizetti was born on 29 November 1797 in Bergamo, in northern Italy. Coming from poor parents, he was fortunate to have his talent recognized early. At the age of nine, he was admitted as a free student to attend the charitable music school established by Simon Mayr, a respected composer and music director of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, who took a personal interest in Donizetti’s musical education. As teacher, mentor and protector, Mayr gave the young musician caring guidance and assistance in launching his career.
Donizetti established his reputation as an opera composer with Zoraida di Granata, first performed in Rome in 1822. This early work was successful enough to attract the attention of the influential impresario Domenico Barbaja, who offered him a contract that brought him to Naples. The next eight years proved to be a period of experimentation and intense productivity, during which time Donizetti composed 22 operas to varying degrees of success.
The turning point of Donizetti’s career was the triumphant success of Anna Bolena, premiered in Milan in 1830, which won him commissions from all the major Italian theatres and spread his fame throughout Europe. There followed another period of eight years, during which this most industrious artist produced a further 24 operas including such masterpieces as L’Elisir d’Amore, Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda, and Lucia di Lammermoor.
Italy in the post-Napoleonic era was a dismembered nation under despotic rule severely controlled by papal, aristocratic and foreign powers. Throughout his career up to the late 1830s, Donizetti had to struggle hard with the censors for his works to be performed on stage. Many of his most powerful dramas involving historical royal or catholic personages were refused permission unless drastically revised. With his Poliuto banned by order of the King of Naples in 1838, Donizetti decided to move to Paris, where higher prestige, richer reward and greater creative freedom awaited him.
La Fille du Régiment is the first opera Donizetti composed in Paris, then the cultural capital of Europe. Its premiere at the Opéra Comique on 11 February 1840 was an enormous success and its overwhelming popularity has been on the rise ever since. La Favorite opened at the Paris Opéra in December of that same year. Donizetti was 43 years old and at the height of his powers. Two years later, he accepted a commission to compose a work for Vienna and produced his mature masterpiece, Linda di Chamounix, which was so successful that the Emperor of Austria immediately appointed him Court Composer and Master of the Imperial Chapel, positions once held by Mozart.
For the next three years, Donizetti divided his time between Paris and Vienna, with occasional trips to Milan and Rome to present new works or Italian adaptations of his French works. In 1843, he created his final comedy of lasting appeal, Don Pasquale, for the Italian Theatre of Paris.
The final years of Donizetti’s life saw a painful decline of his mental and physical health. In 1846, further deterioration forced his confinement to a sanatorium. He was later brought home to his native Bergamo, where death released him in April 1848.
Of Donizetti’s total output of 65 operas, half a dozen has always remained on top of the permanent international repertoire. Since the 1950s, there has been a great resurgence of interest in reviving his works, strongly encouraged by important scholars, conductors and great singers such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballé and others of the present generation.
Today, Donizetti is justly recognized as one of the most important opera composers in the history of western music.