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The Man Who Knew Mozart

July 2024
15min read

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 .

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.

Like every other commercial enterprise to which Da Ponte ever put his hand, the store was soon saddled with bad debts and legal squabbles. He later wrote this self-serving but basically accurate description of himself as a businessman: “Sometimes deceived by feigned distress, sometimes by false promises, I sold my goods to those who were never prepared when their payments came due. I lent my money, my credit, my effects to persons who studied at night how they might overreach me in the day.”

At the end of his first summer, Da Ponte moved his family and his business across the Hudson to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where, in 1806, his fifth and last child—a son, Charles—was born. The partner he set up with there turned out to be a “licentious wastrel” and soon fled to Jamaica, leaving Da Ponte to settle his debts with what was left of Nancy’s money.


Back in New York in 1807 and looking for work, Da Ponte wandered one day into a bookstore on Broadway and engaged the proprietor in conversation. Despite his absence of teeth (lost, he claimed, when he took the advice of a rival in love and bathed his gums with acid) and his pronounced Venetian lisp, Da Ponte spoke faultless English. Their talk was interrupted by an earnest young man who expressed an interest in Italian literature. Da Ponte asked if the young gentleman would like to read Dante and Tasso in the original Italian, and if there were any other gentlemen of his acquaintance who might require the services of a qualified teacher of that language. The young man, Clement Clarke Moore, answered yes to both questions.

Moore, twenty-eight, was the son of the president of Columbia College. He would later start the General Theological Seminary, become a Columbia trustee, and write the first Hebrew and Greek lexicon published in America. He would also become Da Ponte’s friend and champion for the rest of the older man’s life. But history remembers him for the set of verses that begins ” Twas the night before Christmas. …” He dashed it off in 1822 to amuse his children.

Da Ponte plunged into language teaching with vigor. Notices for his Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen began to appear in newspapers in January 1808: “Mr. Da Ponte informs his friends and the public that he has opened his academy nearly adjoining the Manhattan Bank up Broadway Road where he will instruct young gentlemen in the French, Latin and Italian languages. Every attention will be paid to the morals of those entrusted to his care.” His wife offered lessons to young ladies.

Word of Da Ponte’s talents as a teacher soon attracted the sons and daughters of prominent New York families, who found themselves reading the Italian classics and performing Italian plays in the Da Ponte living room. Da Ponte mingled with his students’ parents, who certainly found the elegant and lively Italian gentleman interesting: he could talk about a meeting with the poet Pietro Metastasio at one moment and invite someone to invest in his new distillery in the next.

In 1811 Da Ponte became an American citizen. The same year, he made a surprising decision: He elected to give up his successful and satisfying life as a teacher and cultural tastemaker in New York and become a grocer once again—this time in the small town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, about 120 miles from Philadelphia. The reasons he gave in his Memoirs included a decline in pupils, but what probably really drove him to Sunbury was the hope of getting his hands on some of the money belonging to his wife’s family, the Grahls.

Nancy Da Ponte was the daughter of a German businessman named John Grahl. After the Da Pontes moved to London, the Grahls went to America. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and finally Sunbury, they bought and sold property, dealt in groceries, worked as chemists and distillers, and made money. The family fortune lured Nancy’s older sister to America; it was the reason Nancy and her four children set sail in 1804; and it was very probably the beacon that guided Da Ponte himself first across the Atlantic and now down to the banks of the Susquehanna.

Da Ponte found Sunbury beautiful; in his Memoirs he wrote of streams “clear, cool and sweet,” of “majestic solitude,” of the “amusements of gentle company,” and his descriptions are more detailed and lyrical than those of the Venice of his youth or the Vienna of his middle years. The townspeople in general took to Da Ponte; one of them later described him as a “perfectly honest man, a delightful companion, unsuspicious and often led into trouble by rogues …”

It seemed for a few years as if the Sunbury venture might succeed. Da Ponte worked hard—making and selling brandy; peddling groceries and sundries; teaching Italian to the daughter of a prominent lawyer, Charles Hall; even thinking about setting up a branch of his Manhattan Academy in the wilds. The wagon with which he delivered goods between Philadelphia and the outlying towns became a familiar turnpike sight. In 1814 and 1815, Da Ponte was the town’s second-largest taxpayer, after Hall.

But eventually the old combination of poor judgment and misplaced trust caught up with him again. He was cheated roundly, according to writs and legal claims; no one who owed him could pay, and the people to whom he owed money wanted him in jail. In 1816 he sold off all his business possessions for $1,203.38—not enough by half to settle all his debts.

He went to Pennsylvania in hope of getting his hands on some of his in-laws’ money.

Da Ponte never did see any Grahl money. When old John Grahl died, his son Peter managed the estate so badly there was soon nothing left. When Nancy’s sister died, she left money to Nancy and the five Da Ponte children but not a cent to Lorenzo. She obviously recognized his talent for losing money. Years later Da Ponte kept her memory alive in his Memoirs with invective and insinuation.

In 1818 Da Ponte moved to Philadelphia. A letter from Nancy to Charles Hall dated June 12, 1819, says, “Mr. Da Ponte has a very good prospect in this city but the expenses are great. …” The “good prospect” never materialized, and by the end of the year Da Ponte was back in New York.

He was seventy years old. He had two serious accidents on the road between Sunbury and Philadelphia but was lucky enough to receive treatment for his broken bones from the American medical pioneers, Dr. Philip Syng Physick and Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, and his health was now excellent. Friends like Moore had been sending small loans and urging him to take up teaching again. When Da Ponte arrived back in New York, he donated sixty volumes of Italian classics to the New York Public Library. They became the foundation of the country’s first Italian collection. He enrolled his son Joseph at Columbia College and began the work of recruiting new pupils.

Da Ponte returned to a New York markedly different from the one he had left eight years before. For one thing, there were many more Italian émigrés, and several of them were making their living by teaching their native language. They couldn’t help looking upon Da Ponte as a serious rival, so he blamed one of them when a libelous anonymous pamphlet was circulated to the parents of his pupils. The pamphlet accused Da Ponte of, among other things, ill-treating and starving to death one of his former students—a young woman who Da Ponte was quickly able to prove was alive and the mother of five children.

New York had now become something of a cultural capital, home to writers and artists such as James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F. B. Morse (who later painted a portrait of Da Ponte), Richard Henry Dana, and William Cullen Bryant. Da Ponte flourished, and his sense of purpose as chief spokesman for Italian culture in America seems to have been fully restored. In 1821, when King George IV of England brought a divorce action against his queen, naming an Italian as one of her lovers, a New York City councilman tried to defend the queen in print by violently attacking the character and accomplishments of Italy. Da Ponte hired a public lecture room to blast back. In front of what one daily newspaper called “one of the most numerous assemblages of wit and fashion which ever graced a lecture room in this city,” Da Ponte spoke eloquently about Italian art, poetry, and music.

“I was, as may be believed, at the peak of happiness when the bitterest of human disasters plunged my family into despair and tears,” Da Ponte wrote in his Memoirs . His son Joseph fell ill with consumption and died in June 1821 at the age of twenty. Unable to continue his classes, Da Ponte was invited by John R. Livingston, the father of one of his pupils, to spend some time at his summer home on the Hudson. There Da Ponte read Byron’s “The Prophecy of Dante,” which had just been published. He later wrote, “A certain analogy which, allowing for due proportions, I seemed to find between Dante’s vicissitudes and my own gave me the desire to translate that work into Italian verse.” His Italian translation, one of the first ever made of Byron’s work into another language, was published in New York at the end of 1821. It was highly praised in Italy, but whether the poet himself ever saw it is not known.

Da Ponte’s next important books were his four volumes of Memoirs , published in New York, in Italian, between 1823 and 1827. He had begun writing them in 1807, partly to better establish himself as a literary and cultural personage and partly to provide a textbook that his students would be required to buy and read. He had also been eager to settle a few scores.

These decidedly mixed motives produced a very odd narrative, almost totally unreliable as history and recounted in a whining tone that combines self-congratulation with paranoia His work with Mozart (whose name he almost continuously misspells as “Mozzart”) gets extremely short shrift; the Irish singer Michael Kelly, who had no literary pretensions and employed a ghost for his own memoirs, tells us much more about Mozart and the first performances of Figaro than does Da Ponte, who wrote its libretto. Yet the Memoirs are often curiously moving. In the words of Arthur Livingston, they show Da Ponte “ever in the strange predicament of being as honest at heart as he was shrewd and scheming of will.” The struggle between heart and will is present on every page of the Memoirs , and more often than not, the scheming will wins.

On September 5, 1825, Da Ponte was appointed professor of Italian at Columbia College—the first person to hold that title. The Moores helped him get it, and though he was proud of the honor, he soon found it to be largely ceremonial. Like most language professorships at the time, it carried with it no salary; he still had to go out and recruit paying pupils.

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.

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.


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