Gaetano Donizetti was born into a poor family with no particular interest in music. He was introduced to his craft at a musical academy in his home town of Bergano, set up by a charitable foundation to provide free education. The driving force behind the project was Johannes Simon Mayr , who was so impressed by the progress made by Donizetti that he paid for the student to transfer to Bologna, where he made his first attempts at opera. Returning in 1817, Mayr arranged for his contraction to theatrical impressario Zencla, for whom he wrote four operas.
Donizetti's first major success was Zoradie di Granata, which was performed in Rome in 1822. The opportunity was again thanks to Mayr, and led to further works being performed in Naples. Here Gioachino Rossini had been active, and was an inescapable stylistic influence. Donizetti's compositions in Naples included Anna Bolena (1830), which is still an operatic staple today. Although productive, he was hampered by poor libretti and obligations to prepare and conduct works by other composers. Despite further success with L'elisir d'amore (1832) and Lucrezia Borgia (1833) he was overshadowed by Vincenzo Bellini until his death in 1835. From then until the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco (1842), Donizetti was considered the leading light of Italian opera.
Donizetti made his first attempt at a career in Paris in 1835, but returned unsuccessfully the same year. The influence of Giaccomo Meyerbeer encouraged him to write in a grander style in late operas such as Dom Sébastien (1843). A subsequent residency in Paris from 1838 was more productive, much to the consternation of local competition such as Hector Berlioz. Hoping to earn enough money to retire, Donizetti worked obsessively, bringing on a nervous condition which eventually made it impossible for him to compose or conduct. By 1844 he could only bring himself to work on brief pieces and in 1846 he was placed in a sanitorium for treatment of a nervous disease thought to be a result of syphilis. At the request of his family he was brought back to Bergamo, where he died in 1847.