About the Composer

Gaetano Donizetti’s considerable reputation rests on his operas, of which he wrote roughly 70. The exact number is in dispute but that’s more operas than Rossini and Verdi put together. Beyond that, a list of his non-operatic works — symphonies, oratorios, chamber works, cantatas and songs — fills 31 pages of his biography.

The man was simply a composing machine. Told that Rossini turned out The Barber of Seville in only three weeks, Donizetti replied: “Ah, but then he always was a slow composer.”

Donizetti’s prodigious output is all the more amazing since it was the product of a man born in poverty who died at age 50, having spent his last years in a sanitarium for the mentally ill.

He’s on everyone’s list of Top Ten Opera Composers. He could do it all. For powerful tragedy, there’s Maria Stuarda. Gothic horror? Lucrezia Borgia. Comedy? You can’t beat Don Pasquale. Consider just one aria, the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a monument in the legacies of such soprano greats as Adelina Patti, Lily Pons, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. In our time, the Met Opera’s 2008 production of The Daughter of the Regiment, (La Fille du Régiment), catapulted the careers of two young singers, soprano Natalie Dessay and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flores, who nails an amazing nine high Cs in his signature aria.

Donizetti is forever linked with Rossini and Bellini. This threesome dominated Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century. Their bel canto operas with tuneful roles requiring great vocal virtuosity were wildly popular throughout Europe. They also paved the way for the more lush, dramatic works of Verdi.

Born in 1797 in a cellar in Bergamo, in northern Italy, the son of a pawnshop janitor, young Donizetti by good fortune found a brilliant music teacher and mentor who jump started his composing career. His early work, cranked out in enormous volume, may have been slapdash and of little lasting value, but it laid the groundwork for masterpieces to come.

He wrote 30 operas before his first box office hit, Anna Bolena, in 1830. This was followed two years later by the work that cemented his reputation, Elixir of Love, (L’Elisir d’Amore) an enchanting bitter-sweet melodrama that Vashon Opera presented in 2015. Something of a rebel, Donizetti often touched on delicate social issues that caught the attention of censors in Italy’s Catholic hierarchy. To skirt the problem, he cleverly plotted some of his operas — Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda and Lucia di Lammermoor — in Protestant Tudor England. Frustrated when his opera Poliuto was banned by Italian authorities, he decamped for Paris in 1835 where he had huge success.

Donizetti was described by many as a good and generous friend. In private, his life was tragic. His three children died days after birth. His wife died in a cholera epidemic at age 29. Heartbroken, he never remarried. His comic masterpiece, Don Pasquale, was written less than a year before mental illness, brought on by syphilis, made him permanently infirm. Thankfully, his profound musical legacy survived. At the time of his death in 1848, an estimated one of every four operas produced in Europe was one of Donizetti’s.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson