Librettist Profile: The Tumultuous Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Man Behind Mozart’s MasterpiecesBy David Salazar
Lorenzo da Ponte, born on March 10, 1749, would go on to become one of the great librettists in the history of opera.
He was born Emanuele Conegliano, but when his father converted from Judaism to Catholicism to marry a Catholic woman, he took the name of Lorenza da Ponte. He studied at the Ceneda seminary and eventually moved to the seminary at Portogruaro, receiving Minor Orders in 1770 and becoming a Professor of Literature. He was ordained a priest in 1773.
In 1773, he moved to Venice and led a life that went against priesthood, taking a mistress and having children. At a subsequent trial he was found guilty of public concubinage, abduction of a respectable woman, and was thus banished from Venice for 15 years.
He moved to Austria and started his life as a writer. He eventually met with Salieri who helped him obtain the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna. It was during this time that he collaborated with Mozart, Salieri, and Martin y Soler.
In 1790, he lost his patronage upon the death of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. From there he set off for Paris, but eventually set off to London where he worked as an Italian teacher and grocer. He eventually became librettist at the King’s Theatre. However, debt and bankruptcy caused him to leave to the U.S. with his family.
In the U.S. he ran a grocery store, gave Italian lessons, opened a bookstore in New York and eventually became an unpaid professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. He introduced New Yorkers to opera with the first full performance of “Don Giovanni” in the U.S. in 1825. He also introduced Americans to the music of Rossini.
In 1833, he founded the New York Opera Company at age 84. In 1836, it became the National Theater. While it was ultimately destroyed in a fire twice, it became the predecessor for the New York Academy of Music and Metropolitan Opera.
He died in 1838 and was buried in New York.
While Da Ponte wrote his fair share of libretti for 11 composers, there is no doubt that his most renowned works are the three operas he wrote for Mozart. For many, these three operas are at the core of the repertory due to their shifting tones, fascinating characters, and intriguing plot structures.
For many “Le Nozze di Figaro” is arguably the greatest opera ever created, and Da Ponte is a major reason why.