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Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) wrote the words for 28 operas by 11 composers, including three of Mozart's greatest - Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. But this librettist's own life was scandalous enough to make an opera in its own right.
Lorenzo Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Republic of Venice. He was Jewish by birth but in 1764, his widowed father converted himself and his sons to Roman Catholicism in order to remarry. Emanuele took his new name of Lorenzo Da Ponte from the Bishop who baptised him.
Da Ponte took Minor Orders in 1770 and was ordained a priest in 1773. He began at this period writing poetry in Italian and Latin, including an ode to wine. In 1773 he moved to Venice, where he taught Latin, Italian and French.
Although he was a Catholic priest, Da Ponte took a mistress with whom he had two children. He was charged with 'public concubinage' and 'abduction of a respectable woman'. It was alleged in court that he had been living in a brothel and organizing the entertainments there. He was found guilty and banished from Venice for 15 years.
Da Ponte received a letter of introduction to the composer Antonio Salieri from his friend Caterino Mazzolà - the poet of the Saxon court. With the help of Salieri, Da Ponte applied for and got the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna. As court librettist, Da Ponte was able to collaborate with Mozart, Salieri and Soler.
Da Ponte wrote the libretti for Mozart's most popular Italian operas - 'The Marriage of Figaro' (1786), 'Don Giovanni' (1787), and 'Così fan tutte' (1790). His version of the Don Juan legend, in particular, had a lasting literary influence. During the same period Da Ponte achieved his greatest popular success with the libretto to Soler’s 'Una cosa rara' (1787).
Most of Da Ponte's works were adaptations of pre-existing plots with the exception of 'Così', which he began with Salieri, but completed with Mozart. Pictured is the 2006 Victorian Opera production of 'Cosi' at Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne.
Amid debt and bankruptcy, Da Ponte left Europe and settled in the United States. Da Ponte moved to New York first, then Sunbury, Pennsylvania, where he briefly ran a grocery shop, worked as a distiller, and gave private Italian and French lessons. He returned to New York to open a book shop.
He gained an appointment as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. He was the first Roman Catholic priest to be appointed to the faculty, and also the first to have been born a Jew! In New York he introduced opera and produced a performance of 'Don Giovanni'. He also introduced Rossini's music to Americans, through a concert tour with his niece Giulia Da Ponte.
In 1828, at the age of 79, Da Ponte became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Five years later, he founded America's first opera house - the New York Opera Company. Owing to his lack of business acumen, however, it lasted only two seasons before it was disbanded and the theatre sold to pay the company's debts. It was, however, the predecessor of the New York Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera.
He died on 17 August 1838 in New York. An enormous funeral was held in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Da Ponte is immortalised by his works with Mozart, in which his sharp characterization, humour and satire, brought out all of the composer's strengths.