Ruggero Leoncavallo

Portrait of Ruggero Leoncavallo

Ruggero Leoncavallo was an Italian Opera composer and librettist. He was born on 23rd April 1857 in Naples, Italy and died on 9th August 1919 in Montrecatini Terme, Tuscany, Italy aged 62.

Major Works

Pagliacci” (Clowns or Players) (1892)
La Bohème” (The Bohemians) (1897)
“Zazà” (1900)
“Zingari” (1912)

Biography Timeline

Ruggero Leoncavallo was born on 23rd April 1857 in Naples, Italy. His father was Vincenzo Leoncavallo, a magistrate and judge. As a child the family lived in Montalto Uffugo in Calabria where he was schooled but he returned to Naples to be educated at the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory and gave concerts in cafes and taught piano and singing to earn some money. He later went to Bologna University where he studied literature with the poet Giosue Carducci.

1879: His uncle Giuseppe, who works at the Foreign Ministry in Cairo, asks him to come to Egypt to show off his skills on the piano. He becomes a piano teacher and works for the new Khedive (ruler) Tewfik Pasha playing the piano.

1882: Armed rebellion breaks out in Egypt in support of Ahmed Urabi and he has to leave Cairo abruptly and returns to France. He lives in Montmartre in Paris and becomes an accompanist for artists who play at Sunday concerts in cafes and other venues. He meets his future wife, Berthe Rambaud, one of his students.

1886: He becomes inspired by the French romantics and Alfred de Musset in particular and writes a symphonic poem based on his poetry called “La Nuit de Mai” (May Night).

1887: “La Nuit de Mai” receives to great acclaim and with the money earned he and Berthe travel to Milan to begin his operatic career.

1890: Having seen the great success of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni and sets about writing his own verismo opera (real or modern life story) called “Pagliacci”.

1892: “Pagliacci” (Clowns or Players) premieres in Milan on 21st May conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It is an immediate success due to its mixture of humour and violence. He claims it is based on the actual events of a murder trial in Montalto Uffugo at which his father had been the judge.

1893: He produces “I Medici” (The Medici) in Milan but it does not have the same reaction from the audience as his previous work. He writes his own librettos for his operas and also writes libretti for other composers such as “Manon Lescaut” for Giacomo Puccini, first performed during the year.

1895: He finally marries Berthe Rambaud.

1896: The four-act “Chatterton” is premiered at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. It is based on the life of the English poet Thomas Chatteron and was largely written in 1876 but the performance is not a success.

1897: He premieres “La Bohème” (The Bohemians) on 6th May at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice but it is overshadowed by Puccini’s version from the year before which audiences much prefer.

1900: His next opera “Zazà” on 10th November at the Teatro Lirico in Milan is more successful.

1904: The Emperor of Germany, Wilhelm the Second, commissions him to write “Der Roland von Berlin” to glorify the Hohenzollern dynasty. It premieres at the Konigliches Opernhaus in Berlin on 13th December but is a complete failure.

1906: He tours to New York and elsewhere in the United States of America with performers from La Scala Milan which is a great success. 

1910: His next opera “Maïa” is premiered at the Teatro Contanzi in Rome on 15th January and one of his later operettas, “Malbrouc” is given on 19th January at the Teatro Nazionale in the city.

1912: His operetta “La Reginetta delle Rose” (The Rose Queen) is given in Rome in June. His next full scale opera is also a success. “Zingari” is first performed in London at the Hippodrome Theatre on 16th September and has a long run and then tours the USA.

1913: His two-act farce “Are You There?” appears at the Prince of Wales theatre in London but the rowdy audience hate it and there is almost a riot.

1915: The Operetta “La Candidata” (The Candidate) is performed on 6th February at the Teatro Nazionale in Rome.

1916: His last major opera “Mameli” premieres on 27th April at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, Italy. The operettas, “Goffredo Mameli” is performed on 27th April at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa and “Prestami tua Moglie” (Lend me your Wife) at the Casino delle Terme, Montecatini on 2nd September.

Ruggero Leoncavallo died on 9th August 1919 in Montrecatini Terme, Tuscany, Italy. Hundreds attended his funeral including Pietro Mascagni and his rival Giacomo Puccini. He was buried in the Cimiterio delle Porte Sante in Florence. After a campaign both his and his wife’s remains were transferred seventy years later to Brissago in Switzerland where he once had a villa. He liked the village but did not stipulate it his will. An opera often attributed to Leoncavallo, “Edipe Re” was premiered in Chicago, USA in 1920 but this is now heavily disputed. 

Further Information

List of works by Leoncavallo.