Piero Cappuccilli was one of the premier baritones of his generation, most closely associated with the music of Verdi. His wide range, of more than two-and-a-half octaves, and his near-legendary breath control were perfectly suited to even the most demanding roles. While his physical acting was generally limited, he was a fine vocal interpreter who eschewed extra-musical effects in favor of lyrical nuance.
Cappuccilli had no interest in music while he was growing up, and it took the combined persuasion of several family members—opera lovers who had been impressed by the quality of his untrained voice—to convince him to consider music as a career. He auditioned at a local opera house in 1949, where Luciano Donnaggio (a retired singer beginning a second career as a teacher) heard him and urged him to study. Cappuccilli was still reluctant, believing he had a better potential career as an architect, and even briefly discontinued his lessons, until Donnaggio's urging and the offer of free lessons persuaded him to resume studies in 1950. Cappuccilli's wide range was largely innate, and he had developed excellent breath control due to his enthusiastic sports participation, particularly diving and swimming. Donnaggio and he worked on applying that breath control to singing, sustaining a phrase and developing the technique of messa di voce.
In 1955, Cappuccilli auditioned for La Scala in Milan, where the auditioners, deeply impressed, encourage him to enter the Viotti competition. After his first place award, the Teatro Nuovo engaged him to sing Tonio in Pagliacci, and in 1957 he made his debut. In 1958, he sang Monforte (I Vespri Siciliani) in his Palermo debut under Tulio Serafin, who invited him to sing Enrico in his upcoming recording of Lucia di Lammermoor with Maria Callas. He was soon engaged to sing at other houses in Italy and abroad, making his Met debut as Germont in 1960, and his La Scala debut in 1964. He made his Covent Garden debut in 1967 as Germont in La Traviata, and his United States debut in 1969 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in a relative rarity—Verdi's I due Foscari.
Through the 1970s, he developed his repertoire carefully, balancing the Verdi with bel canto roles, such as Rossini's Figaro, and waiting to add the heavier roles, such as Simon Boccanegra.