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The Man Who Knew Mozart
Lorenzo Da Ponte, New York bookseller and Pennsylvania grocer, was a charming ne’er-do-well in the eyes of his fellow Americans. He happened, also, to have written the words for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro .
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
It was to be a historic moment, the opening of the very first authentic production of an Italian opera in America, in November 1825. A tall, gaunt old man, with dark eyes, a hawklike nose, and sunken cheeks, nervously approached the New York hotel room of the Spanish tenor who would lead the performance, Manuel García. The old man had done great service to the cause of opera: He had written thirty-six librettos for the leading composers of Europe, including the words to three of the greatest operas of all time, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte , and The Marriage of Figaro . But that had been long ago, in another life; for twenty years he had been living in relative obscurity in America. Perhaps García was no student of musical history.
García answered the old man’s knock, and the man introduced himself: ”I am Lorenzo Da Ponte.”
“Da Ponte? The man who wrote Don Giovanni ? Alive, here in America?” Tears filled the Spanish singer’s eyes; he clasped the seventy-six-year-old librettist in his arms and danced him around the room, singing “Fin ch’han dal vino,” the immortal drinking song from Don Giovanni .
This operatic-sounding encounter is entirely in keeping with the rest of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s long life. It is but one of many moments of high drama that seem almost too good to be true, perfect examples of life imitating art. The son of a poor Jewish tanner, Da Ponte was born forty miles north of Venice in 1749. He converted to Catholicism as a child when his father remarried, became first a priest, then an abbé, then an infamous adulterer, and then, like his good friend Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, a forced exile from his native Venice. He was subsequently appointed the official theater poet to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna and became the librettist for Mozart’s three greatest Italian operas—and, incidentally, a prime supplier of words for lesser composers, including Antonio Salieri. His collaboration with Mozart is widely considered the most brilliant in the history of opera. After all this he ended up in New York and embarked there on an epic American journey marked by academic honors, literary fame, and years of struggle as a grocer in rural Pennsylvania.
Lorenzo Da Ponte’s first fifty-six years, all spent in Europe, have been chronicled in some detail by historians; his last thirty-three, after he had come to America, are far less known. Yet he initiated the study of Italian language and literature in this country and played a major role in introducing Italian opera to America—then as now basically a labor of love rather than of profit. In the words of the leading American Da Ponte scholar, the late Arthur Livingston, Da Ponte “made Europe, poetry, painting, music, the artistic spirit, classical lore, a creative, classical education, live for many important Americans as no one, I venture, had done before.”
Little of this was on Da Ponte’s mind when he boarded the American packet boat Columbia at Gravesend, England, on April 7, 1805. During his thirteen years in London, he had written and staged Italian operas at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket and had become a publisher and bookseller and the friend of London’s social and cultural leaders. But he had also ignored the best advice Casanova had ever given him—“Never back another man’s note”—and a dozen creditors were now ready to send him to debtor’s prison. His wife, Nancy, and their four children—the oldest twelve, the youngest still a baby—had sailed for Philadelphia to join her relatives eight months before; Da Ponte now borrowed a hundred guineas from a friend and spent forty-four of them on a boat ticket. He lost the rest playing poker on the voyage with the only other paying passenger, a Philadelphia merchant from whom he had to borrow back thirty-two dollars on landing in Philadelphia to pay the customs duty on his luggage.
The trip took fifty-seven days; it grew in his imagination each time he wrote or talked about it until it became, in his Memoirs , an eighty-six-day journey full of all sorts of horrors. In Philadelphia he learned that his family had moved to New York City, so he followed them there. “I well knew that my dramatic talents would avail me but little in this country, in which the knowledge of the Italian language was so limited; but I felt a sympathetic affection for the Americans,” he later wrote. “I had, besides, suffered so much in aristocratical republics, and monarchial governments, that I pleased myself with the hope of finding happiness in a country which I thought free.”
He was certainly right in realizing how little his “dramatic talents” would be worth. New York in 1805 was a busy village with just one theater, the Park, which offered “melo-dramas” (short plays accompanied by incidental songs), abbreviated versions of English operas like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera , and evenings of recitations from Shakespeare. As for music, Mozart and Italian opera were still largely unknown; much more popular was a woman called Madame de Seze, who played the harp while her seven-year-old daughter accompanied her on the pianoforte.
For lack of any better opportunity, Da Ponte persuaded his wife to let him invest a six-thousand-dollar nest egg from her family in a New York grocery store. There, for several months, the former theater poet to the Holy Roman Emperor measured out chewing tobacco and morning drams of whiskey and rum.