His early life, as told so interestingly by himself in the North American Review for November, 1902, is as follows: "I was born in Naples in March, 1858, my parents being the late Cavaliere Vincenzo Leoncavallo, President of the High Court of Justice, and Virginie d'Auripn, daughter of a celebrated Neapolitan painter, many of whose works are now in the Royal Palace at Naples. I studied first at Naples, where I entered the Conservatory as a day scholar at the age of eight, and received my diploma when sixteen; my professors of composition were Serrao and de Piamcesi; a cantata was the work I wrote on leaving the Conservatory. Afterwards, I went to Bologna to complete my literary studies at the University, under the direction of the great Italian poet, Corducci; and I received my diploma as doctor of letters at the age of twenty. I was not obliged to do any military service, as, at the time of conscription, my brother was in the army. So I began my peregrinations as a concert pianist in Egypt, where at that time I had an uncle, Leoncavallo Bey, who was director of the press at the Foreign Office. There I played at court, and Mahmoud Hamdy, the brother of the Viceroy Tewfik, appointed me as his private musician. I was driven out of Egypt by the war with the English, Mahmoud having sided with Arabi Pasha, who had promised officially to give me the appointment of head of the Egyptian military bands, with a liberal salary. Instead of this fine promise being fulfilled, I was fortunate in saving my life after Tel-el-Kebir, by means of a twenty-four hours' ride in Arab costume to Ismailia. There I resumed European dress; but being penniless, I was obliged to give a concert at Port Said in the house of M. Desavary, representative of M. De Lesseps. The proceeds of this concert amounted to five or six hundred francs, with which I was enabled to take an English boat, the ' Propitious.' I recalled this episode to Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, when I had the honor and happiness of seeing her, a few years ago, at Nice. Arrived at Marseilles, I immediately took a train (not de luxe nor, alas, express!), which brought me to Paris, where, in the depths of want, I was forced to begin my career as an accompanist in cafe concerts."
His talent, however, soon enabled him to leave the cafes and he obtained pupils in singing. He went to Milan with the libretto of Medici, the first section of a vast trilogy dealing with the Renaissance period in Italy. It was accepted by M. Ricordi, but the production was delayed and Leoncavallo was obliged to take up teaching again. Disliking the task, he desperately set to work en the words and music of Pagliacci, which was completed in five months, accepted by M. Sonzogno and produced in Milan in 1892. I Pagliacci is based upon an incident in Leoncavallo's own life: When a child he was under the care of a peasant, named Silvio, when a traveling circus troupe came to the city, led by one Canio, and his beautiful wife, Nedda. Silvio and the wife plot to elope, which the husband discovers, and he kills them both. The occurrence made a deep impression on the boy and he never forgot it. Probably his work of next importance is Roland of Berlin, the libretto of which was furnished him by the versatile Emperor of Germany. The Emperor, having heard I Medici which celebrated the glory of the great Florentine family of that name, considered its author worthy of doing a like service for the house of Hohenzollern. But in spite of its magnificent production, Der Roland made no permanent success. Leoncavallo's other operas include Chatterton, La Boheme and his later ones, La Tosca, Trilby and Zaza which is based on the well-known play by Berton and Simon and which has become very popular in Italy, Germany, France and Holland. He has produced a symphonic poem, Serafita, founded upon Balzac's novel, and a ballet, La Vita d'una Marionetta.