Lorenzo Da Ponte
The life of Lorenzo Da Ponte bears little similarity to those of the merchants, peddlers and pioneers who make up this database. In fact, it is safe to say that few biographies—anywhere—read anything like Da Ponte’s.
Born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda in the Republic of Venice, the oldest of Geremia Conegliano and Rachel Pincerle’s three sons, Da Ponte suffered the death of his mother at the age of five. In 1763 the Coneglianos—father and sons—converted to Catholicism so Geremia could marry Orsola Pasqua Paietta, who at seventeen was only three years older than the newly christened Lorenzo Da Ponte. This new name derived from the Bishop of Ceneda who performed the family’s baptism.
To this point, Da Ponte’s education had been largely neglected, though the young autodidact plunged himself into what literature was available, with particular passion for Metastasio, the eighteenth century poet and librettist. The Bishop saw in his namesake a native, if uncultivated, intelligence and arranged for Da Ponte to study at the seminary, putting the Jewish born teenager on a path to the priesthood.
And that’s exactly where he found himself in 1769—ordained and serving on the faculty of the seminary in Portogruaro. Chafing under the restrictions of life at the seminary, Da Ponte traveled to Venice where he became involved with more than a few women—both single and married—and developed a passion for gambling. He stood trial for having published a series of seditious poems, and found himself declared unfit to teach in the republic.
Over the next few years, he would father children with a married woman, befriend the famous Casanova and operate a brothel before finally being charged with public concubinage. Fearing the worst, Da Ponte absconded from Venice. He was tried in absentia and banned from reentry for fifteen years.
Meanwhile, he made his way to Vienna where he established himself in literary and artistic circles, befriending Salieri, his childhood idol, Metastasio, and the young composer with whom he would most fruitfully collaborate, Mozart. Da Ponte used his still unworn out connections to secure for himself the position of official poet for the Italian Theatre, which the Emperor opened in 1783. His first commission, a libretto for a composition by Salieri, Il ricco d’un giorno, was such a failure that the latter remarked that he would sooner cut off his fingers than compose to lyrics by Da Ponte.
Success did follow, however, with Vincenzo Martin y Soler’s Il Burbero, which premiered in 1786 and proved tremendously popular. His next project, however, was far riskier, adapting Beaumarchais’ controversial Marriage of Figaro with Mozart, who had not written an opera in four years for lack of a competent librettist. Figaro too proved phenomenally popular. Yet, despite the eventual status it would achieve within the operatic repertoire, that year it was eclipsed Martin y Soler’s Una Rara Cosa, the reception of which was so enthusiastic, the ladies of Viennese society began appearing in public dressed as characters from the opera. This too was a Da Ponte libretto.
During his eight years in Vienna, he wrote libretti in Italian, German, Spanish and French. He continued to collaborate with Martin y Soler, managed to get Salieri to retract his threat of self-mutilation, writing for him two libretti, and, most famously, worked with Mozart on Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. In 1790 Emperor Joseph II, who had been a great patron of Da Ponte, died. This was followed by the emergence of the sort of amorous intrigues and scandals that had haunted Da Ponte in Venice. The last straw, however, came when he circulated a defamatory poem concerning a major public official. He was given twenty-four hours to leave Vienna.
The next years of life were marked by uncertainty, debt, and frequent moves. Da Ponte went to Trieste and then to Prague. He married Ann Celestine Grahl with whom he had four children. They moved to London where Da Ponte first continued to write and work with the opera, but eventually opened an Italian bookshop. In 1805, to escape debt, he set sail for America.
He spent the next twenty years running a grocery, first in Manhattan and then in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. These pursuits too all ended in bankruptcy. Only in 1825 did things start to turn around—again—for Da Ponte, now in his mid-seventies. New York had begun to cultivate a greater interest and institutional apparatuses for opera. In 1825 Don Giovanni was performed there for the first time as part of a visiting season of Italian opera. That same year, a friend managed to secure for Da Ponte an appointment as a professor of Italian at Columbia University. The man who had run from the seminary in his early twenties—after an extraordinary and bizarre life—had returned to the classroom.