Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838)

Librettist, Professor, and the Father of Italian Opera in the United States

He was born "Emanuele Conegliano" in Ceneda (now the Italian city of Vittorio Veneto) in the Venetian Republic. His widowed Jewish father converted the family to Catholicism to marry a Catholic and Emanuele was duly renamed "Lorenzo Da Ponte" in 1759. His early career saw him ordained as a priest (1773) and in the same year he moved to Venice where he taught Latin, Italian and French. While priest at San Luca he took a mistress, fathered two children, and at his subsequent trial in 1779 he was charged with "public concubinage" and "abduction of a respectable woman", it being alleged that he had been living in a brothel and organizing entertainments there. Found guilty, he was banished from Venice for fifteen years and headed to Gorz in Austria.

From 1781 in Dresden, he first translated libretti (the written text in an opera) and was given a letter of introduction to the composer Antonio Salieri who obtained for him the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna. His benefactor there (Raimund von Plankenstern) also happened to be the benefactor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Described as, "a man considerably larger than life," as Vienna's court poet and librettist Da Ponte collaborated with Mozart, Salieri and Soler and went on to write the words for 28-operas by 11-composers. He wrote the libretti for Mozart's most popular Italian operas - The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790) - and achieved his greatest popular success with the libretto to Soler's Una Cosa Rara (1787). Most of Da Ponte's works were adaptations of existing texts, but "the quality of his elaboration gave them new life". His version of the Don Juan legend has had a lasting literary influence.

In 1790, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II died and with that loss of his patron he left Vienna armed with a letter of introduction to the Emperor's sister (Queen Marie-Antoinette) in Paris. But, on hearing of the fate of the Royal family in France he changed course for England. In London, he struggled to make ends meet as a teacher and a grocer before securing a position as librettist to the King's Theatre in 1803. Dismissed, within just two years (1805) debt and subsequent bankruptcy forced him to escape to America.

In Sunbury, Pennsylvania, he ran a grocery shop, worked as a distiller, and gave private lessons in Italian and French before opening a book store at 342 Broadway, New York, in 1819. There he came to the attention of Clement C. Moore whose father was President of Columbia College. Through him, he was appointed to the unpaid but prestigious position as Columbia's Professor of Italian Language & Literature (from 1825 until his death).

In 1825, he introduced opera to the United States by putting on the country's first full performance of Don Giovanni in which the world-famous soprano Maria García sang Zerlina. He introduced Rossini's music to Americans through a concert tour with his niece Giulia Da Ponte, and opened Americans to Italian literature by increasing the New York Society Library's collection - that consisted of one tattered copy of Boccaccio - to over a thousand volumes of “the flower of our literature in all the useful arts and sciences" as well as selling his own library of Italian literature (26,000-volumes) to Columbia College.

In 1833, he founded America's first opera house, the New York Opera Company, and raising the necessary $150,000 among his wealthy friends he built the Italian Opera House on the northwest corner of Leonard and Church Streets in New York. Former Mayor Philip Hone hailed it as, "the neatest and most beautiful theater in the United States, and (enthusiastically if naively) unsurpassed in Europe". Excessive running costs and his lack of business acumen saw it sold to cover debts just two years later, but it was the predecessor of the New York Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera. When Da Ponte died four years later at the age of ninety his contribution to the arts was irrefutable.

Before his marriage at Trieste in 1791 to the German-Jewish Nancy Grahl (by whom he had six children), he had at least three serious mistresses and in Venice he'd been friends with the most renowned Lothario of them all, Casanova. In Vienna in 1782, his affect on women cost him dearly: an abscessed gum led him to seek relief from one Dr Doriguti who, unbeknown to Da Ponte, was in love with a woman who preferred the Librettist. Seizing upon the opportunity to eliminate his handsome rival, the doctor prescribed a mouthwash of nitric acid and within the week all of Da Ponte’s teeth had fallen out!

Da Ponte was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1829. He often spent his summers at Massena, the home of his "dear friend" John R. Livingston and it was also there that he and Nancy went to mourn the loss of their eldest son in 1821. From 1831, he almost certainly played a role in the design of his beloved son-in-law's - Henry J. Anderson's - Doric Mansion at Throgg's Neck, New York. His funeral attracted an enormous crowd of New York's most cultured names, from the richest to the poorest. As was the custom, he was buried without a marker in the Catholic Cemetery, the site of which is lost today.

Columbia's Professor Joseph Russo (1884-1971) said of Da Ponte: “Seldom, if ever, indeed, had a man of more interesting personality come to these shores from Europe.” Arthur Livingston wrote in 1929 that, "Da Ponte made Europe, poetry, painting, music, the artistic spirit, classical lore, a creative classical education, live for many important Americans as no one, I venture, had done before". The Royal Opera House has surmised: "Da Ponte’s ease at writing in verse, his wit and his brilliance at languages made him the ideal librettist, and are evident in the brilliant librettos he wrote for Mozart". His friend, Clement C. Moore, correctly predicted that, "so long as there remains a spark of taste among us for belles lettres, the name of Da Ponte will be held in veneration".
Contributed by Mark Meredith on 26/10/2021 and last updated on 25/01/2024.