Donizetti was educated in Bergamo, the town of his birth, studying with the opera composer Simon Mayr from 1806 to 1814. His youthful works include chamber operas, religious works, and some chamber music. Donizetti's first opera of note was La Zingara, which was premiered in Naples in 1822. He continued to work in Naples throughout the 1820's and 1830's, where he was active as both a conductor and composer.
In 1830, Donizetti finally achieved international fame with his opera Anna Bolena; notable for its expressive music and more extended scenes, it established Donizetti as one of the leading contemporary opera composers. The comic opera L'elisir d'amore (1832) and the tragic Lucrezia Borgia (1833) came shortly after. Donizetti's next work was Maria Stuarda, followed the same year by Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), which became an internationally recognized masterpiece. The Elizabethan tragedy Roberto Devereux (1837) completed his trilogy of operas that chronicle the English court from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.
Donizetti's operas from the late 1830s were unable to match the success of Lucia, and when Donizetti was passed over for the directorship of the Naples Conservatory in 1840, he moved to Paris. There he composed the opera comique La fille du Régiment (1840), which was celebrated immediately for its charm and virtuosity. Later that year he completed La favorite (1840), another major contribution to the French repertoire. In 1842 Donizetti was appointed Kapellmeister of the Austrian court in Vienna, but retained his association with Paris.
Among Donizetti's last operas are Maria di Rohan (1843), an important historic opera, and his French tragedy Dom Sébastian (1843). Caterina Cornaro (1843) is also one of his finest works for its strong dramatic content. These late operas, although rarely performed, are serious works that set the standard for Verdi.