Leoncavallo's fame rests entirely with his opera Pagliacci, written in response to that other great verismo opera Cavalleria rusticana. Indeed, such is the similarity in style that these two works are often performed together.
The plot is based on an actual incident in which an actor murdered his unfaithful young wife. Leoncavallo's father had been involved with the law case, and the composer drew on the memory of it for his versimo masterpiece.
Originally intended to be a one act opera with a prologue, the extended applause after Vesti la giubba turned it in effect into a two act opera. The Intermezzo, based on Mascagni's example in Cavelleria rusticana, thus became the Act II prelude.
Pagliacci was given its first performance at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, conducted by Toscanini. Like Mascagni's work two years earlier, it was an instant success and made Leoncavallo an international celebrity.
Ruggero Leoncavallo was born in Naples and was admitted to the conservatory there in 1866. He studied composition under Rossi and graduated ten years later, continuing his studies in Bologna. An interest in both Wagner and the Renaissance led to plans for a trilogy of operas based on Renaissance themes - the planned title of the trilogy, Crepuscule, intimates Wagner's own 'Twilight of the Gods', and the completed operas were frequently perceived as pastiche. The first of these, Chatterton, was finally finished in 1876 and Leoncavallo put up his own money for a performance. However, he entrusted his funds to a mercenary impressario who defrauded him and disappeared. Embittered by this experience, Leoncavallo travelled to Europe and Egypt, scraping a living as a café pianist.
In 1882 Leoncavallo was introduced to Italian publisher Giulio Ricordi, who expressed an interest in Chatterton and in the libretto for his next planned opera, I Medici. It was the libretto that especially caught the publisher's eye, and in 1889 he engaged the composer to write a libretto for Puccini after the play Manon Lescaut. As we know, Puccini received his libretto and completed the opera, but not with Leoncavallo's texts. This rejection, coupled with Ricordi's refusal to publish I Medici, angered Leoncavallo severely and desparate for fame he began work on an opera inspired by the verisimo style of Mascagni's recent success, Cavalleria Rusticana. Pagliacci (1892) was pointedly offered to Ricordi's rival, Sonzogno, who immediately saw its potential and arranged a premiere conducted by Toscanini. It was Leoncavallo's first and greatest success, and it enabled him to complete and put on I Medici the following year. This opened to general derision, except from the Kaiser who was sufficiently impressed to commission the obsequiously themed Der Roland von Berlin (1904).
Although newspaper reports of the two projects came out almost simultaneously, Leoncavallo claimed to have planned an opera on La Bohème before Puccini. The element of competition did not favour Leoncavallo - Puccini brought his opera out in 1896, a year before Leoncavallo, and although Leoncavallo's had a modicum of success it was largely eclipsed by the other version, which has since entered the standard operatic repertoire. Alongside further operatic efforts, he was one of the first composers to seriously record for gramophone. He and Caruso recorded his song Mattinata in 1904, and in 1907 he recorded Pagliacci, the first complete opera to be recorded in Italy. In later years he travelled widely, even as far afield as America, to promote his works and to compose operettas. His final work, Edipo Re, was not performed in Italy until 1958, 39 years after his death.