The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Though he is best known as a writer of opera libretti (lyrics), Lorenzo Da Ponte’s life itself could well provide the subject of an opera for some enterprising composer and librettist. Born March 10, 1749 in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda, Italy under the name Emanuel Conegliano, Da Ponte lost his mother at age 5, and when his father chose a Catholic woman for his second wife, the entire family converted to her religion. While Da Ponte failed to mention his Jewish origins in his memoirs and therefore does not comment on his feeling about this change, it appears that he welcomed it not so much out of religious fervor but rather because it opened for him the world of Western culture and education, which was closed to non-Christians at the time. To express his gratitude for these opportunities, he changed his name to that of the bishop who baptized him.

Recognized early as a gifted student, Da Ponte recognized that the best way to obtain a liberal education in his day was to study for the priesthood (he apparently went as far as to become ordained), though he had no intention of serving in that capacity (or, for that matter, of adopting a celibate lifestyle). In fact, prior to his move to Vienna in 1781, his addictive gambling and affairs with married women were well known.

Vienna at the time was a true cultural center. Emperor Joseph II was especially devoted to Italian opera, and he had worked to bring the finest creators and performers of that genre to his court. He was also known for his tolerance of Jews, and he would not have held DaPonte’s origins against him. Da Ponte was appointed poet to the Italian theatre, and he soon was writing libretti for such major composers as Martin y Soler and Antonio Salieri. Mozart immediately recognized his genius and sought him out to collaborate on his adaptation of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro. Following the success of that work, Da Ponte proposed the subject of the Don Juan legend for the subject of their next work, a suggestion which Mozart embraced enthusiastically. They were to work together once more, on Così fan tutte, before the two moved on to other ventures.

In 1792 Da Ponte met a young Englishwoman named Nancy Grahl, and it appears that the two entered into what in effect was a common-law marriage; it has been speculated that Da Ponte’s status as a priest prevented them from marrying. Under chaotic circumstances, he moved to London to work with an Italian opera company there, and in 1805, one step ahead of his creditors, he and Nancy departed for the United States, where he spent his remaining years as a merchant, bookseller, and professor of Italian at Columbia University. He devoted much of his time to promoting Italian opera in the United States. He was greatly encouraged in his endeavors by scholar and poet Clement Moore, best known today as the writer of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Da Ponte eloquently expressed his theory of opera as follows: “The success of an opera depends, first of all, on the poet….I think that poetry is the door to music, which can be very handsome, and much admired for its exterior, but nobody can see its internal beauties, if the door is wanting.” While some critics tend to downplay the importance of DaPonte in the creation of the three operas on which he collaborated with Mozart, it is best to say that the two men brought out the best in each other. None of DaPonte’s other works have stood the test of time; yet no other works of Mozart have the same depth of characterization as these three. These three operas represent the integration of text and music at its finest.

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