Lorenzo Da Ponte: An Operatic Casanova

Today, the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte is best known for his three collaborations with Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1789). Yet his biography is as colorful and exciting as anything he placed on the opera stage. The son of a tanner born in 1749 in the Veneto region of Italy (which includes Venice), Da Ponte was trained as a priest. Not long after his ordination, however, his penchant for liberal opinions and married women led to his expulsion from religious orders and banishment from Venice.

Only a few years later, he was insinuating himself into the literary elite of several European capitals and finding a comfortable home in Vienna, where he was the official theater poet at the Habsburg court under Emperor Joseph II (his patron). There, he specialized in writing Italian opera texts for the court composers Antonio Salieri and Vicente Martín y Soler—and for Mozart, although the latter enjoyed no court appointment. Before long, however, Da Ponte’s weakness for courtly intrigue, arrogant selfpromotion, and the public mockery of his rivals made him unpopular enough to be dismissed from his position following the death of Joseph II.

Still banished from Venice, Da Ponte tried his fortune in Paris, although the unstable political situation in France soon pushed him to move again. Together with his commonlaw wife, he made his way to London, where he worked for some years adapting the texts of Italian operas (one of the most popular forms of entertainment among London’s elite) for the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Once again, however, Da Ponte’s erratic behavior and his considerable debts caught up with him. With his operatic legacy and bank account in shambles, he left Europe for the United States.

Arriving in New York, Da Ponte made his living as a grocer, supplementing his income by teaching Italian lessons and selling books in Italian. At the same time, he began writing his autobiography, a work that informs much of what scholars know of his life, but which also indulges in frequent flights of fancy, tirades against his rivals, and descriptions of youthful adventures in the style of Casanova (who was in fact a personal friend). Increasingly committed to the cause of promoting Italian culture in his adopted country, Da Ponte became the first professor of Italian at Columbia College (today’s Columbia University), teaching courses there from 1825. He died in New York in 1838, at the age of 89. Even at the end of his long life, he never found the public acclaim that he craved, but his operas with Mozart stand as an enduring testament to his artistry.