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LORENZO DA PONTE

An American wrote the libretto to Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'

Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote three of Mozart's most celebrated operas. Born in Italy, he became a U.S. citizen at the age of 79

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Engraving of Lorenzo Da Ponte by Michel Pekenino after Nathaniel Rogers. Circa 1822.  

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, a librettist, first met in Vienna in 1783. They shied away from the staid Greco-Roman mythologies, used frequently in opera until then, choosing to collaborate on human interest stories. Musicologists rightly praise Mozart’s ability to "draw" a character in very few bars. In 1786 "The Marriage of Figaro" was their first collaboration.

It was a huge success in Vienna. "Don Giovanni," of 1787, was next. It premiered in Prague. Based on reprobate and seducer, Don Juan, of Seville, Spain; a story Da Ponte worked on with Composer Bertati in 1782, The manager of Prague Opera wrote, "A most brilliant audience for Don Giovanni! Long live Da Ponte. Long Live Mozart! While they live, no manager shall know distress." Another great opera was born.

As librettist Da Ponte is often overlooked, maybe because he had a life similar to Don Juan, it will amuse you to know. Born Emanuel Colegiano, he was Jewish by birth. His father remarried, a Roman Catholic lady, and converted his family to do so. They had three sons, and six daughters in Ceneda in the Republic of Venice (now Vittorio Veneto, Italy). The local bishop educated the boys. One became a gardener, one a bookseller and Emanuel took the bishop’s name, as was custom, became a priest at 24.

A womanizer, he was chased out of parish after parish by irate husbands in Northern Italy. He gave up the priesthood, becoming a poet and scholar and at 34 and was chosen to become librettist to the newly formed Italian Opera at the Burgtheater in Vienna, writing for Jean-Baptiste Lully, Vicente Martin y Soler and Antonio Salieri. Many of the leading ladies became amours and one became his mistress. His last collaboration with Mozart was "Cosi Fan Tutte" (Women are Fickle) of 1790. Within a year Mozart was dead. Vienna’s Italian Opera disbanded.

Leaving for Trieste, Italy, in 1791, at 43, he was asked to check out Nancy Grahl, fiancee of an arranged marriage to a rich friend. Instead, Da Ponte marries the lovely Nancy, eloping in London in 1792 where he became poet to the Italian Opera at the King’s Theatre. He opens a bookstore, getting Italian books from his bookselling brother, Paolo. Nancy bears him three children. Louisa in 1794; Fanny in 1799 and Lorenzo in 1804. In the interim, her family had emigrated to Sunbury, Penn. She takes the children to America for a year’s visit, but decides to stay. Da Ponte sells his bookstore, pays off his debts and with his last 100 guineas buys passage to New York, arriving in June of 1805. A happy reunion ensues. A son Carlo was born in 1806. Da Ponte was 57.

He opens a grocery store in New York City with borrowed money; a disaster. A wash house in Pennsylvania is a failure. A book store in New Jersey fails; nothing worked. As a patron, he invites an Italian Opera company to New York: an artistic success but a financial disaster. He gives Italian lessons. Finally, at 75, thinking he may retire he bundles up his books, sells them to a Broadway bookseller and meets Clement Clark Moore in the store, 30 years his junior, author of "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Now Bishop Moore, Clement’s father, is president of Columbia University. The Moores acted swiftly. Da Ponte became the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia in 1825. Retirement could wait.

Da Ponte was held in high regard during his 22 year tenure. It’s estimated he taught over 2,500 students. He opened a bookstore, again, selling over 25,000 volumes. This time it was very successful. For the 1825 season, he brought over an Italian Opera Company from Naples with financial help of a grateful wine merchant, Dominick Lynch. Naturally they performed "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni." In 1828, at 79, he became an American Citizen and wrote a memoir that was banned in Vienna, Venice, Naples and Trieste. He then brought over Giacomo Montresor's Opera in 1832. They gave 35 performances in the Hill Street Theatre, renaming it the "Italian Opera House."

And most remarkable of all, he alone raised $30,000 to build a Manhattan theatre in one year and dedicated it to opera. It opened on Nov. 18, 1835 when was 86. Boxes were selling for $6,000 a season. It was so popular that lots had to be drawn to make purchasing fair. After two years, Da Ponte was given the receipts of a performance and retired to his Broome Street home, at 88, where he served refreshments to all who stopped by. As a librettist he wrote 55 operas. In America he wrote 35 plays. He died at 91. An inspiration and indomitable spirit in what one person could achieve with drive, enthusiasm, intellect, love and a little luck. He was an American! Tell your friends …

Rex Hearn founded the Berkshire Opera Company, which operated from 1985 until 2009. He is the author of "Berkshire Opera: Act I: The beginning years."

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