Born in Padua, Boito studied music at the Milan Conservatoire. The premiere of his only finished opera, Mefistofele, based on Goethe’s Faust, came on March 3, 1868, at La Scala, Milan. The premiere was badly received, provoking riots and duels over its supposed “Wagnerism”, and it was closed by the police after two performances. Boito withdrew the opera from further performances to rework it, and it had a more successful second premiere, in Bologna, April 10, 1875. Boito’s revised and drastically cut version that also changed Faust from a baritone to a tenor is still frequently performed and recorded today. Other than this work, Boito wrote very little music, completing but later destroying another opera, Ero e Leandro, and leaving incomplete a further opera, Nerone, which he had been working at, on and off, since 1877. Excluding the last act, for which he left only a few sketches, it was finished after his death by Arturo Toscanini and Vincenzo Tommasini and premiered at Il Teatro alla Scala, 1924. Mefistofele is the only work of his performed with any regularity today.
Boito’s literary powers never dried up. As well as writing the libretti for his own operas, Boito wrote them for other composers. As “Tobia Gorrio”, an anagram of his name) he provided the libretto for Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. His rapprochement with Verdi, whom he had offended in a journalistic piece shortly after they had collaborated on Verdi’s Inno delle Nazioni (“Hymn of the Nations”, London, 1862), was effected by the music publisher Ricordi. Boito successfully revised the libretto for Verdi’s unwieldy Simon Boccanegra, which premiered to great acclaim in 1881. With that, their mutual friendship and respect blossomed and, though Verdi’s projection for an opera based on King Lear never came to anything, Boito provided subtle and resonant libretti for Verdi’s last masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). When Verdi died, Boito was there.
Boito was director of the Parma Conservatoire from 1889 to 1897. He died in Milan and was interred there in the Cimitero Monumentale.