“Seldom, if ever indeed, has a more interesting personality come to these shores from Europe.” —Joseph Russo, biographer of Lorenzo Da Ponte
Opera aficionados will know Lorenzo Da Ponte’s name because of his authorship of the libretti of Wolfgang Mozart’s three great Italian comic operas: Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte—and that only because the trio of works are commonly termed, for ease of identification, as “the Da Ponte” operas. But the biography of the Italian-born, and American-buried, poet remains largely unknown to most music lovers.
Lorenzo da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in 1749, the first child of a Jewish family who lived in the town of Ceneda, some fifty miles north of Venice. Illiterate until his father hired a tutor for him when he was eleven years old, Emanuele was known by his friends as “the clever dunce,” for he displayed a quick mind despite his lack of learning. In 1763, his widower-father, at the age of forty, decided to marry a sixteen-year-old Catholic girl, and in order to do so, he had his three sons convert with him to Roman Catholicism. The family took the surname of the bishop who baptized them, Da Ponte, with Emanuele also taking the bishop’s first name. Lorenzo’s new mother, only two years his senior, would eventually bear her husband three boys and seven girls.
In 1773, Lorenzo Da Ponte was ordained a Catholic priest, a typical career route for Italian boys, and one that in Da Ponte’s case may have helped to distract from his Jewish origins, a fact that he concealed when he wrote his memoirs. Da Ponte soon found that he was temperamentally ill-suited to the life of the priesthood, finding especially difficult the vow of chastity. Thus, like many priests of the era, Da Ponte became a renegade clergyman, abandoning church discipline for the career of a poet and Christian morality for the life of a philanderer—with both courses of actions being ignored by church authorities.
Banished from his adopted Venice because of his support for a political dissident, Da Ponte made his way to Vienna, where he found favor with the new, “Enlightened” Emperor, Joseph II, who was an accomplished musician and who promoted the revival of Italian opera in the imperial city. When Da Ponte applied to write opera libretti for the royal theater, he admitted to Joseph that he had not yet authored any plays. The Emperor replied, “Good, good! Then we shall have a virgin muse,” and he employed the Italian as Poet to the Imperial Theaters. Da Ponte went on to collaborate with many of the city’s foremost composers, including Antonio Salieri, Vicente Martín y Soler, and, most significantly, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The meeting with the “miracle that God let be born in Salzburg” proved to be fortuitous for both men. “The best thing,” Mozart would recall, “is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an intelligent poet, that true phoenix.” Of Mozart, Da Ponte recalled in his memoirs, displaying at once a combination of magnanimity and pomposity that was typical of the man:
“Although he was blessed with talents greater, perhaps, than those of any other composer in the world, past, present, or future, he had been prevented by the plots of his enemies from exercising his divine genius in Vienna, remaining unknown and obscure—like a precious stone which, buried in the bowels of the earth, hides the true brilliance of its splendour. I can never remember without satisfaction and joy that Europe and the whole world owe the exquisite vocal music of this remarkable genius largely thanks to my own perseverance and determination.”
In addition to their collaboration on the three great operas Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte—all of which met with only moderate success in Vienna—Da Ponte and Mozart also worked on the aborted opera, Lo sposo deluso (“The disappointed bridegroom”), the oratorio Davidde penitente, and a short cantata, Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”), the last written, in conjunction with Salieri and a third composer, in tribute to the young prima donna, Nancy Storace (who played the lead role of Susanna in the premier of Figaro), who had suddenly lost her voice as a result of a mysterious illness.*
Just when Da Ponte seemed to be achieving a degree of sustained professional success for the first time, his patron the Emperor Joseph died, and Da Ponte, who had made many enemies in the imperial city, made more problems for himself by writing a satire on Joseph’s brother, Leopold, who had succeeded to the throne. “He carries within him,” a friend wrote of the renegade poet-priest, “a canker which eats away all the roots of his good fortune.” Indeed, Leopold banished Da Ponte from Vienna.
The forty-three-year-old Da Ponte next sought his fortune in London, settling there with his new English-born wife, Nancy Grahl, twenty years his junior. Remarkably, the lascivious Da Ponte appears to have stayed faithful to Nancy for the rest of her life; his sexual escapades, unlike those of his friend Giacomo Casanova, seem to have been motivated as much by the Romantic’s transitory feelings of passionate love as much as by pure sexual desire.
In London, Da Ponte endeavored to support himself and his family—which would come to include four children— by writing libretti and producing operas at the King’s Theater. Eventually finding his greatest success as a bookseller, Da Ponte would be undone by his own poor business judgment, involving himself in various bad deals, notably with a shady opera impresario named William Taylor, who would help to ruin him financially.
Hounded by his creditors, the desperate Da Ponte in 1805 embarked for the United States, where his in-laws had settled years earlier. But opera had not yet arrived in the New World, and Da Ponte was forced to find a way to make a living as something other than a librettist. Establishing himself as a grocer in the town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, and dabbling in other business ventures, the Italian enjoyed the greatest prosperity he had yet known. But again, as in London, he trusted the wrong business partners, and soon found himself again in dire financial straits.
In 1825 Columbia College offered Da Ponte the position of Professor of Italian, the first such position created at any university in the United States. Though the position was unsalaried, with Da Ponte having to rely on fees paid by the students who signed up for his class, the self-styled poet at last seemed to find his true calling as a teacher. The arrival of opera in the United States in that same year—Rossini’s The Barber of Seville premiered at New York’s Park Theatre with Da Ponte in attendance, and he arranged the first performance of Don Giovanni in America the following year—added to Da Ponte’s reputation. In 1832, Da Ponte succeeded in convincing a wealthy Frenchman to fund the creation of the country’s first opera company, and though it lasted only two seasons, the Italian-born poet-professor, who had officially become an American citizen in 1828, had succeeded in introducing his fellow Americans to opera.
In addition to his championing of European opera, Da Ponte worked fervently to promote the love of Italian literature—the works of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and many others—among both his students and the New York public. He sold some 600 books of Italian literature to the New York Society Library and another 200 volumes to Columbia College’s own library, and these collections form the nuclei of both institutions’ holdings of Italian writers. Da Ponte efforts, as his first English-language biographer Joseph Russo asserts, rank him “one of the foremost pioneers of Italian culture in the United States.” Still today, Columbia University maintains a Lorenzo Da Ponte Professorship of Italian.
Da Ponte died in 1838 at the age of eighty-nine. Buried somewhere in what is now the Little Italy section of New York City, his remains were subsequently lost when they were transferred from Manhattan to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, and only a lonely gravestone—his named mistakenly misspelled as “Daponte”—marks his final resting place. Lorenzo Da Ponte desired perhaps above all else to be remembered as a great man, as his memoirs, which he repeatedly revised until his final years, make clear. This he was not, despite his interesting biography and worthy accomplishments in promoting Italian culture in America. And yet it was his happy fate to collaborate with one of the foremost geniuses history has known, and his legacy for the world will rest in the contributions he made to some of the greatest musical masterpieces ever composed.
*The musical score of Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia, long thought lost, has recently been discovered, and the video below records its first performance since Mozart’s lifetime:
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