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
Montrésor’s company gave thirty-five performances at the Richmond Hill Theater in New York in 1832, then moved on to Philadelphia for twenty-four more. The schedule included operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Mercadante—and nothing by Mozart or Da Ponte. The company was well received, but it finished the season with a large deficit. Montrésor and Da Ponte split with a quarrel.
Undaunted by the losses, part of which he himself sustained, the eighty-four-year-old Da Ponte decided in 1833 that what was needed to make opera succeed in New York was a real opera house. So he joined with a friend named Riva Finoli and a conductor named Salvioli to raise $150,000 for the construction of one at Church and Leonard streets. The gorgeous white, blue, and gold theater, with a tier made up entirely of boxes and a magnificent chandelier showing off the elaborately painted dome and walls, opened in November 1833. Twenty-eight performances, including operas by Rossini and Cimarosa, were given in its first season. The season ended with a thirty-thousand-dollar deficit, and Da Ponte was gently edged out as manager. After a second losing season, the Italian Opera House was turned into a dramatic theater, the National. Then, in 1836, it was destroyed by fire.
Da Ponte’s last few years contained much bitterness. After Nancy’s death he went to live with his son Lorenzo, Jr. Money was probably short; Lorenzo, Jr., was ill and would die in 1840. The old man lashed out in print against those who had caused his opera house venture to fail (“I had hoped that … my name might become immortal. It was just the opposite. My name was given instead to scorn, calumny, indigence and oblivion!”). He moaned that his students had deserted him, and he wrote to a friend, “If Fate had led me to France instead of America, I would not now fear that my remains might become food for the dogs.”
But there were also moments of pleasure. His family was growing, and most of his old friends still came to see him. After Nancy’s death Da Ponte had begun a correspondence with his old acquaintance the patriarch of Venice. The monsignor hoped that Da Ponte “might some day settle his affairs,” and so, when Da Ponte fell ill in August of 1838, he summoned a priest to make his confession and receive absolution. During his brief illness, the old poet composed a set of Italian verses for his physician.
Lorenzo Da Ponte died of old age on August 17,1838, seven months short of his ninetieth birthday. He had been born seven years before Mozart; when he died, Verdi was beginning his career in Milan. Three days later Da Ponte was buried at a Catholic cemetery on East Eleventh Street. A journalist who was present wrote: “The obsequies of Da Ponte were impressive. Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ was performed over his remains. … The pall-bearers were his countryman Maroncelli, his old friend Clement C. Moore, and two eminent citizens.…” The coffin carried a banner with a long Latin inscription lauding LAURENTIUS DA PONTE as “Litterarum, Reipublicae, et Musis Dilectissimus.” But when the noted music critic and historian Henry Krehbiel went to look for Da Ponte’s grave in 1887, he could find no trace of it. Either the grave had never been marked, or the original headstone had been removed.
So Lorenzo Da Ponte’s final resting place, like Mozart’s, is uncertain. The graveyard itself was demolished around the turn of the century, and all the remains at it—including several unidentified bodies—were removed and reburied, without stones, at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. A local history organization, the Native New Yorkers Association, has determined the approximate location at Calvary where Da Ponte’s remains probably reside and has held three small memorial services there, in 1967, 1981, and 1985. The most recent was attended by six people.
Da Ponte is little remembered in America except through his work. But his greatness, like Mozart’s, is reconfirmed every time one of their operas is performed or listened to. And that will happen as long as there is music.