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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
He was now seventy-six, and his life was full. He was teaching, he was writing, and he was head of a large and growing family; at least two sons and a granddaughter were living with Nancy and him, and the house was taking in boarders as well. Along with all this activity, Da Ponte was working to bring Italian opera to America. Six years earlier the Park Theater had presented a truncated version of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville —in English, with popular songs substituted for the more difficult arias. Da Ponte had deliberately ignored it, but the fact that the performance made money didn’t escape him. In 1824 he joined forces with Stephen Price, the manager of the Park, and a wealthy wine importer named Dominick Lynch to import a real Italian opera company. Lynch sailed for London to recruit singers and found the tenor Manuel Garc#237;a and his talented family. García had created the role of Count Almaviva in the Rome production of Barber ; his son, a baritone, would go on to be one of the great vocal coaches of the period; his eldest daughter, a soprano, would become a world-renowned singer; and his youngest daughter would become famous not only as as mezzo-soprano but also as the lover and inspiration of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. Lynch lured the Garc#237;as to America with an offer that the London music journal Harmonicon described as “past belief. We have hitherto been the laughing stocks of Europe,for the preposterous manner in which we pay foreign singers, but the ridicule will now be transferred to the Western continent.”
The opera house he helped build in New York lost thirty thousand dollars its first year.
The Garcías arrived in New York early in November 1825, and shortly thereafter came the melodramatic first encounter between Manuel Garc#237;a and Lorenzo Da Ponte. On November 29, with box seats selling for two dollars and with Joseph Bonaparte, the former King of Spain, in the glittering audience, a performance of The Barber of Seville began the era of Italian opera in America. “Until it is seen, it will never be believed that a play can be conducted in recitative or singing and yet appear nearly as natural as the ordinary drama,” remarked the Post . The Albion reported that the “experiment has proved completely successful.”
Da Ponte mounted an energetic one-man publicity campaign on behalf of Garc#237;a’s engagement and helped train an American woman in Italian cooking so she could run a boardinghouse, called Aunt Sallie’s, to complement the Da Pontes’ own residence. As one of his students remembered later, visiting opera singers dining at the Da Pontes’ were “transported … by magic from Broome Street to the Piazza Vecchia or the Via Condotti.”
That first season—with five more operas by Rossini and two by García—did so well that a second was quickly planned. Da Ponte suggested adding what he always called “my Don Giovanni ” to the schedule, and so that opera received its first American performance at the Park on May 23, 1826, almost thirty-five years after Mozart’s death.
Da Ponte published Italian and English versions of the libretto and sold them in the theater and in bookshops. The proprietor of one of these shops persuaded Da Ponte to buy a lottery ticket. He won five hundred dollars and spent it importing rare books from Italy that are now part of the Columbia library. García wound up the two American seasons with a healthy profit, moved his troupe to Mexico, and lost everything to bandits in Veracruz.
It would be tempting to call the first American performance of Don Giovanni the last high point of Da Ponte’s life; he himself, however, saw it largely as a chance to get something else going. The American public obviously wanted more Italian opera. Da Ponte had a niece in Italy, Giulia, who was reported to be a singer of great talent. He spent a great deal of time and money arranging for her to come to New York, and she made her debut at a “Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music” on March 31, 1830. But Giulia had no great interest in a stage career, and she soon married and sailed back to Europe, without even saying good-bye to her uncle.
In December 1831 Nancy Da Ponte died of pneumonia. She was sixty-two. Da Ponte wrote to his boyhood friend Michèle Colombo in Italy: “That of which I intend to inform you is the untimely and unexpected death of that angel-like woman whom you saw in London. … She was taken away from me in only six days, and what was and is my grief at her death, neither you could imagine, nor I describe.” In her memory he wrote a slim volume of poems, Sonetti per la morte di Anna Celestina Ernestina Da Ponte .
Despite his grief, Da Ponte kept busy—writing pamphlets and articles, opening a bookstore, and continuing his crusade to import Italian opera. He managed to catch the attention of a French tenor turned impresario named Jacques Montrésor, and after almost two years of correspondence, Montrésor brought over a company of singers and musicians.