In 1839, Daniel Sickles, a young New Yorker of good bearing and low tastes, pressured by his father to aspirations beyond drink and fornication, destined to a long and sometimes distinguished career as diplomat, politician, soldier, and murderer, engaged a tutor to prepare him for college. Professor Lorenzo L. Da Ponte, who taught belles-lettres at New York University, invited Sickles to stay in the ramshackle house at 91 Spring Street in Greenwich Village where the professor lived with his wife and their children; his brother and his family; and his widowed father.
The professor was an inspired teacher. But Sickles was fascinated by the professor’s father, also named Lorenzo Da Ponte. Then 89, the elder Da Ponte was tall, handsome, and affable. He might discourse on art, literature, music, and women in any one of a dozen languages. The old rake had been a poet, teacher, priest, professional gambler, playwright, bookseller, grocer, pimp, and Columbia College’s first professor of Italian literature. He’d known many of the noted and notorious men and women of his time, and written the libretti for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte.
Da Ponte had been born Emanuele Conegliano on March 10, 1749, in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda, near Venice. When Emanuele was 14, his widowed father embraced Catholicism together with his surviving sons. As was customary, the Coneglianos adopted the surname of the local bishop, Monsignor Da Ponte. Emanuele took the prelate’s first name, Lorenzo.
Like many contemporaries, Lorenzo entered the seminary for a free education. A brilliant student, he quickly mastered Hebrew and Latin. He became an instructor in 1770, professor of languages in 1771, and vice rector in 1772. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest although the priesthood was “absolutely contrary to my inclination and character.”
Da Ponte first visited Venice in 1771 and moved to the Queen of the Adriatic in the fall of 1773, where the new clergyman took up a life of idleness, gambling, and quite remarkable sexual dissipation.
From 1774 to 1776, he taught Italian literature at the seminary in Treviso. He was a brilliant, witty lecturer, his only critics bores who claimed his style concealed a lack of learning.
Then the Venetian Senate investigated Da Ponte’s alleged use of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences as the basis of his pupils’ recitations during the ceremonies closing the seminary’s academic year. Rousseau believed man in a state of nature was more fully human, whereas civilization “offered only false appearance without reality, without truth.” Da Ponte wrote that the theme, “appeared, or, at least, was made to appear, scandalous, unwise, and contrary to the good order and peace of society.” He was banned from teaching in Venice for life.
Nonetheless, he returned to the city, where he survived by gambling and lived for debauchery. Within three years, his sexual and other delinquencies had become so gross as to compel the authorities of an unusually tolerant city to exile him for “libertinage, blasphemy, sacrilege, adultery, and public concubinage.” He fled to Gorizia, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. There, he cobbled together a translation of a tragedy for the local stage. Its success and profitability persuaded him to live by the pen.
He then traveled to Dresden to stay with an acquaintance, Caterino Mazolá, Court poet (playwright) to the Grand Elector of Saxony. Da Ponte became Mazolá’s unofficial assistant, rewriting scenes, working on productions, and learning the ways of actors and singers.
By the close of 1781, Da Ponte, now far more knowledgeable of stagecraft, was in Vienna with a letter of recommendation to Antonio Salieri, then the Imperial Court’s leading composer. Salieri’s name endures through an unsubstantiated but persistent rumor implicating him in Mozart’s death, immortalized in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, an opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s play of the same name, and renewed in our times by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. The composer realized that Da Ponte was unusual: most librettists were scandalously inept, semi-literate hacks, such that the word “librettist” itself had fallen into disrepute. By contrast, Da Ponte was skillful, witty, and inspired.
In 1783, Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, established a new Italian opera company for the Imperial Theater. Salieri, charmed by Da Ponte’s wit and talent, obtained his appointment as librettist to the Italian troupe, which also granted Da Ponte direct access to the Emperor.
Da Ponte had never written a libretto. This worried neither Salieri nor Da Ponte.
For the next nine years, Da Ponte wrote numerous libretti for Salieri, Vicente Martin y Soler, Vincenzo Righini, and Stephen Storace, leading composers of the day. He also supervised their production, a role analogous to that of today’s producer-director.
While running the Emperor’s Italian opera company, Da Ponte met yet another overworked professional musician in need of a decent libretto. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote music before he wrote words. He had learned the violin without lessons by watching his father play. He began playing the clavier at three by watching his sister’s lessons. The child prodigy had gone on tour at the age of six, becoming one of the most famous performers in Europe.
Now he was 27, “…a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine fair hair, of which he was rather vain…” In 1782, Count Rosenberg-Orsini, the director of the Imperial theatres, asked him to consider composing an Italian opera. The composer leafed through over 100 libretti. All were dreadful.
None came anywhere near Mozart’s idea “…that in an opera the poetry must be without question the obedient daughter to the music… An opera is all the more sure of success when the plot is well worked out and the words are written solely for the music and not added here and there for the sake of some silly rhyme… The best thing of all is when a good composer… comes across a skillful poet, that true phoenix, then one need have no worries even concerning the applause of the ignorant.”
Within two months of their first meeting, Da Ponte had promised Mozart a libretto. The composer had his doubts: Da Ponte "has an excruciating amount of work to do on the theater repertory and at the moment has the urgent charge of writing an entirely new libretto for Salieri, which will take at least two months," wrote Mozart. "He has promised to write a new libretto for me. But who knows whether he will be able to keep his word or will want to?" Da Ponte reshuffled his schedule and a libretto, supposedly from his pen, in fact a ruthless plagiarism entitled The Deluded Bridegroom, landed on Mozart’s desk. The composer had even written part of the music for its first act when he had a new idea.
The Marriage of Figaro by the French adventurer Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais had been first performed in 1784. Figaro was subversive. It questioned the aristocratic social order. It had been banned in Paris and Vienna. Mozart, who liked the subject matter—the play was the sequel to The Barber of Seville, an operatic version of which was a proven success—suggested it to Da Ponte, who promised to persuade the Emperor to change his mind.
I… proposed that words and music should be written secretly and that we should await a favorable opportunity to show it to the theatrical managers or to the Emperor, which I boldly undertook to do. So I set to work, and as I wrote the words, he composed the music for them. In six weeks, all was ready. As Mozart’s good luck would have it, they were in need of a new work at the theater. So I seized the opportunity and… went to the Emperor himself and offered him Figaro.
Having charmed the Emperor into permitting the play’s use for the libretto, Da Ponte edited the text, cutting scenes, characters, speeches, and entire counter-plots to emphasize human relationships rather than politics.
This was only the beginning. His work became far more complicated than editing. Mozart guided Da Ponte in matters of meter, placing vowels, and assigning lines to the appropriate musical genre, whether recitative, aria, or ensemble.
Thus, the music and libretto came to work smoothly as one.
We know this from their correspondence. The composer was an extremely demanding collaborator. Da Ponte’s talent and hard work won Mozart’s respect. They became friends, and between them changed the form of opera forever.
At this time, opera had become “a succession of recitative entrances and aria exits.” Mozart and Da Ponte were not the first to find this dramatically static and utterly boring. Audiences agreed: most performances were overladen by the hum of gossip, the clatter of dishes and glasses, and the noise of card parties in the boxes. Some held that going to the opera would be a lovely experience if it weren’t for the music.
Mozart had been experimenting with new operatic structures as early as 1775. However, Da Ponte’s brilliant libretto, combining wit with management of stage space—getting the singers on and off the stage and reuniting them at the end of each act for the finale—inspired Mozart to go further. Figaro became a continuous succession of animated scenes, each dovetailing smoothly into the next. As Robert Gutman writes, Figaro relies on the ensemble rather than the aria or recitative, weaving “musical lines of individual character and tonal gesture, each strand with a life of its own… (as) the vocal and orchestral lines twine, separate, and reunite in confrontation, opposition, and accommodation.” The singing was transformed into a kind of conversation rather than a series of monologues, building toward finales that transform opera from static costumed oratorios into works of movement and action, each finale becoming, as Da Ponte wrote, “a kind of little comedy or operetta all by itself.”
Da Ponte finished the libretto in November 1785. Mozart finished the score in April 1786. On May 1, 1786, Figaro triumphed at the Burg theatre in Vienna. Some complained of the length or the complicated orchestral writing. But Mozart and Da Ponte had won the single critic who counted. The Emperor thought the opera “divine.”
In Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart had found a collaborator worthy of his genius, a writer whose wit, elegance of expression, and understanding of the human condition matched his own. Besides, they liked each other: Da Ponte’s roguery touched Mozart’s fancy and each man played a mean game of billiards.
But Martin y Soler’s Una cosa rara (also featuring a Da Ponte libretto), the smash hit of November 1786, crowded Figaro off the Viennese stage for two years. The collaborators had to develop a new opera.
Meanwhile, Figaro had opened in Prague to universal acclaim and sold-out houses. Mozart went to the Bohemian capital in January 1787. He performed in concert on January 19 and conducted Figaro on January 22, each to wild applause. He left for Vienna on February 8 with a commission for a new Italian opera from Pasquale Bondini, the director of Prague’s Nostitz Theater. Da Ponte proposed Don Giovanni, derived from the legend of Don Juan. Both men were in a rush: Mozart was short of money, as usual, and Da Ponte had committed himself to simultaneously writing three libretti: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Salieri’s Tarareor Axur, re d’Ormus, and Martin y Soler’s L’arbore di Diana. Da Ponte later claimed he worked 12 hours a day for six months to deliver them all on time.
The libretto for Don Giovanni is a work of genius, though the sweat was not all from Da Ponte’s brow. Giuseppe Gazzaniga, another composer, had recently seen his version of Don Giovanni produced in Venice with a book by Giovanni Bertati. No one remembers it now. Da Ponte simply stole Bertati’s libretto, padding it with further thefts from Tirso de Molina, Goldoni, and Moliere. He even tossed in some ideas of his own.
Mozart composed most of the music during the summer of 1787. As usual, he was working on several projects at once—Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was composed and first performed that summer—and grieving his father’s death. He didn’t complete the score until nearly the last possible minute. Legend claims the overture was written two days before opening night.
Da Ponte joined Mozart in Prague to polish the libretto in October 1787. Legend claims the two men, lodged in hotel rooms on opposite sides of a narrow street, shouted lines and suggestions to one another out the windows as they worked on the last act.
Yet the opera betrays nothing of its stressful composition. The collaborators had created a work with shimmering, subtle changes of mood, pace, and emotion that nearly fuse comedy and tragedy. Mozart created “an extraordinary series of ensembles,” culminating in one of the finest ballroom scenes in all theater. Don Giovanni endures because Mozart and Da Ponte had created a new form of opera, almost perfect on its own terms: fast-moving, sardonically humorous, lyrical, grave, and profoundly human.
When Don Giovanni opened in Prague on October 29, 1787, the audience went wild, as audiences have since.
It flopped in Vienna. The Emperor gently said, “…I would say it is even more beautiful than Figaro; but it is not a meat suitable for the teeth of my Viennese.” Mozart supposedly replied, “Give them time to chew on it.”
Nearly two years later, in August 1789, Joseph II commissioned a new opera. The premiere was set for January 1790. Da Ponte quickly wrote Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti—"All women are like that, or The School for Lovers." Of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas, Cosi alone has an original libretto, albeit one using traditional dramatic elements: disguises, mock poisonings, and men and women testing one another's fidelity. Da Ponte’s libretto takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Marivaux’s Le Fausses confidences, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccacio’s Decameron, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, Tirso de Molina’s El Amor medico and Lacelsosa de si misma, and numerous Da Ponte libretti.
For an opera created by two men who liked women as much as they loved them, Cosi has a touch of misogyny: Don Alfonso, the opera’s master manipulator, compares trust in the female heart to “plowing the sea, sowing the sands, and gathering the wind in a net.” He wagers with Guglielmo and Ferrando, two young officers, that their respective sweethearts, Fiordlilgi and Dorabella, will betray them. To prove the point, each man must disguise himself as a foreigner and woo the other’s betrothed. Each succeeds. All is revealed. The women realize they have been duped. The couples form up again as at the start, but without illusions. “Take them as they are,” Don Alfonso advises: “Women are like that.”
Though richly comic, Cosiis not trivial. Da Ponte subtly explores and questions the very nature of truth, falsehood, fidelity, and betrayal. The poet’s “elegant words… (range) from elevated rhetoric to the most delicate shades of intimate emotion,” all within a marvelously balanced, symmetrically structured libretto.
The three Mozart-Da Ponte operas have never left the repertoire because the music is perfect, the verse brilliant, and their theme eternally fresh: the need to cleanse one’s mind of accepted truths in a society content with taking illusion for reality.
Cosi Fan Tutte opened in Vienna on January 26, 1790. Although no one quite understood it, the commentators knew it was a work of genius—of two geniuses.
The triumph was overshadowed by the death of Joseph II. He’d been an ideal patron, admiring Da Ponte’s wit and skill while serenely overlooking Da Ponte’s notoriety as an amorist surpassed in his day only by Casanova. Carlo Ardito, in his biographical play Da Ponte’s Last Stand, reiterates the librettist’s legendary simultaneous attachment to two young ladies. And their mother. And the girls’ French governess. And their “frisky Dalmatian housekeeper.”
The new emperor, Leopold II, possessed neither his older brother’s tolerance nor compassion for artists. In 1791, Leopold dismissed Da Ponte and forced him from Vienna, although Leopold paid the poet’s moving expenses. Da Ponte briefly lived in Trieste, where in 1792, though still a Catholic priest, he married Ann Celestine Ernestine (“Nancy”) Grahl, the young English daughter of a German merchant in the city. The marriage was successful, despite the husband’s unconventional understanding of his vows of chastity, and they had five children.
In 1793, they settled in London. After some months of poverty working as a tutor of Italian, Da Ponte became librettist to the Drury Lane Theatre. He continued writing Italian operas until he fell out with his colleagues in 1799. In 1803, he wrote and independently produced two more operas, which pushed him only deeper into debt.
Hence, in April 1805, the Da Pontes suddenly departed for the United States, narrowly avoiding his creditors’ bailiffs seeking his imprisonment for debt. On June 4, 1805, 57 days out of Gravesend, the sailing packet Columbia landed Da Ponte in Philadelphia. The local press described him as “a remarkably handsome older gentleman,” tall and well-built, and though “well past middle age… still youthful and vigorous.”
Da Ponte never returned to Europe. The rest of Da Ponte's life was a struggle to put bread on the table. Finding no market in America for his services as a librettist and insufficient income in giving private lessons in Italian language and literature, Da Ponte spent nearly twenty years bouncing from one business to another. He became a grocer, first in New York City, then in Elizabethtown, NJ, and finally Sunbury, PA. All his stores failed.
In 1819, he returned to New York and once more accepted private pupils of Italian language and literature. Da Ponte found New York a combination of welcome and incomprehension. But the passage of 14 years had allowed his reputation as Mozart’s co-creator to make a difference: his charm and extensive learning did the rest. From 1819 to 1825, he taught over 2000 students. He also met and charmed the Reverend Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, who began pulling strings for him. Thus, as Thomas Bergin wrote, the man who had been the friend of Mozart and the confidante of Casanova became “the protégé of the author of 'The Night Before Christmas.'”
In 1825, he was appointed professor of Italian language and literature at Columbia College (later Columbia University). The college also provided him with spot cash by purchasing his library, which became the nucleus of Columbia’s collection of Italian poetry and miscellaneous literature. Still a brilliant and witty lecturer, his classes were popular. He became the first teacher in America to lecture on Dante's Divine Comedy.
Meanwhile, he wrote his Memoirs. He sought to "…speak of things… so singular in their oddity as in some manner to instruct, or at least entertain, without wearying." He succeeded: though a blend of fact and fantasy, the Memoirs is a classic of Italian literature, drawing its narrative effects from the adventure novels of the Spanish tradition. Picaresque, engrossing, entertaining, and instructive, they portray a man of enormous talent and unsurpassed flair who was, above all, an indefatigable survivor. In the book as in life, modesty remained foreign to Da Ponte.
As Charles Rosen writes in his introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of Memoirs published in 2000, “All autobiographies lie, by commission as well as omission. We do not read them for their accuracy but for their vivacity, and Lorenzo Da Ponte is among the most vivacious.” What makes the Memoirs fascinating is his energy and bravura, combined with his flair for describing the world of intrigue in an arts bureaucracy and how to produce operas despite the government that funded them. He’s also refreshingly frank about his main interest: making money from culture. Few memoirists have written about this as openly and as amusingly.
Yet even now, he couldn’t resist playing the impresario. In 1832-33, Da Ponte financed a company of singers for a season of Italian opera in New York and Philadelphia. The venture flopped. Nevertheless, he raised still more money to build New York’s Italian Opera House. It was the first building in this country to be specifically planned as an opera house, housing the first attempt to permanently establish Italian opera in the United States. Da Ponte produced 28 performances of Italian opera during the 1833-34 season. He lost still more money and then the opera company itself. The opera house burned down in 1839.
By the 1830s, Da Ponte was living contentedly, though in poverty, with his sons and their families on Spring Street. He remained tall, handsome, and distinguished, with flowing white hair, and walked with a cane. Ardito’s play suggests he remained as attractive to women in old age as in youth.
In the summer of 1838, in his 90th year, Lorenzo felt death’s approach. He faced it with regret but without fear. In August, he took to his bed. On August 17, 1838, he called for pen, ink, and paper. Propped up on pillows, the old poet wrote an ode on his own death, Parti de la Vita. He revised the draft and wrote a fair copy. Then the master lay down his pen.