Meet Lorenzo Da Ponte

Feb 2, 2017


Born in the Jewish ghetto of Venice in 1749, a young Lorenzo Da Ponte was baptized Roman Catholic in 1763, setting him on a path towards eventual priesthood. Indeed, he studied at the Ceneda Seminary with his brother before moving to the seminary at Portogruaro in 1769. It was here that the young Italian took his Minor Order in 1770 and acquired additional qualifications as a Professor of Literature. His ordination as a priest occurred in 1773, whereupon Da Ponte moved to Venice to act as a priest of the church of San Luca. As priesthood was not exactly a lucrative means of income at the time, Da Ponte made most of his living as a teacher of Latin, Italian, and French, and found some spare time to practice writing poetry in these languages. Unfortunately, Da Ponte’s tendency for freethinking—that is, questioning the doctrine of the Church—and his pursuit of an adulterous relationship brought an end to his time in Venice. At his trial in 1779, Da Ponte was accused of living in a brothel and charged with “public concubinage” as well as “abduction of a respectable woman”. The penalty for his charges was a fifteen-year banishment from the Venetian state.


Luckily for us, this exile eventually brought Da Ponte to the Viennese court in 1781, where Emperor Joseph II had just created an opera company. Despite having never before written a script or libretto, Da Ponte managed to successfully persuade the court to take him on as the “theatre poet”—in other words, as a librettist. It is here that Da Ponte collaborated with numerous composers from across Europe, namely Antonio Salieri, Martìn y Soler, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In addition to work on the libretto for Martìn y Soler’s 1787 opera Una cosa rara, Da Ponte composed the text for three of Mozart’s most highly regarded productions: The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Cosi fan tutte (1790). The overwhelming success of Da Ponte’s librettos during this period is often attributed to his newly refined ability at interweaving tragic and comic elements into a single, cohesive unit. Unfortunately, Da Ponte’s time in Vienna lasted only a decade, as the death of Joseph II in 1790 left the librettist without a patron in the court. This occasioned yet another uprooting of Da Ponte’s lifestyle, sending him in search of new employment. At first he set out for Paris, hoping to appeal to the Queen Marie Antoinette for whom he had obtained a letter of introduction from the late Emperor. Learning about the tumultuous political situation in France, however, Da Ponte wisely set his sights elsewhere. Arriving in England, he took work first as a grocer and Italian teacher, before finally gaining a post as a librettist at the King’s Theatre in London in 1803. This position would be short-lived.


Debt and bankruptcy prompted Da Ponte to immigrate to the United States in 1805. Once again he took on small jobs as a grocer, Italian tutor, and bookstore clerk before gaining a permanent and more esteemed position. Thanks to his friendship with Clement Clarke Moore (author, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) Da Ponte was introduced to Columbia College, where he gained an appointment as a Professor of Italian Language and Literature, the first Roman Catholic priest to gain admittance to the college’s faculty. Readily establishing himself in New York, Da Ponte made great efforts to introduce opera to the city. He produced a performance of Don Giovanni in 1825 and undertook a concert tour with his niece to promote the music of Gioachino Rossini. It wasn’t until 1828, at the age of seventy-nine, that Lorenzo Da Ponte became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Just a handful of years later, at the age of eighty-four, he founded the short-lived New York Opera Company, predecessor to the New York Academy of Music and New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1838 Lorenzo Da Ponte passed away in the city that, after many travels, had become his home. The old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street hosted an enormous funeral ceremony for the man who was a professor, poet, and priest.

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