Da Ponte, Lorenzo

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Da Ponte, Lorenzo

Lorenzo Da Ponte (lōrĕnt´sō dä pôn´tā), 1749–1838, Italian librettist and teacher, b. Ceneda as Emmanuele Conegliano. Born Jewish, he converted to Catholicism at 14, became (1773) a priest, and shortly after ordination moved to Venice. A freethinking liberal and sometime libertine and gambler, he was banished from Venice in 1779 due to several scandals. He lived briefly in Dresden, then settled (1781) in Vienna, where Emperor Joseph II named him (1783) poet of the imperial theaters, a post he held until 1790. During his tenure Da Ponte wrote the librettos for numerous operas. The most notable of these were for three Mozart masterpieces—The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790)—for which he contributed elegant, witty, and eminently singable words and created or adapted powerful plots and characters. Driven from Vienna after the emperor's death, Da Ponte wandered through Europe, married in Trieste, and settled (1792) in London. There he worked as a tutor of Italian, a bookseller, and a librettist to an Italian opera company until he went bankrupt in 1804.

A year later Da Ponte immigrated to America, where he failed in attempts to be a grocer, at selling medicines and drygoods, and at running a distillery. After a chance meeting with Clement Clarke Moore, however, he soon began a more successful career, spending most of the rest of his life in New York City as a celebrated teacher of Italian. A pioneer in the dissemination of Italian culture in the United States, he taught (1805–25) nearly 2,000 private pupils and in 1830 was appointed Columbia College's first professor of Italian language and literature (and the first such professor in the United States). His library, bought by Columbia in 1825, was the nucleus of its collection of Italian poetry and miscellaneous literature. In 1833 he helped establish the Italian Opera House in lower Manhattan, the first attempt to create a permanent American home for Italian opera. Da Ponte's last years were marred by poverty and the failure (1836) of the opera house.

See his memoirs (1823–27; tr. 1929; ed. by A. Livingston, tr. 1955, repr. 2000) detailing his extraordinary life; biographies by J. L. Russo (1922, repr. 1966), A. Fitzlyon (1955, repr. 1982), L. J. Hetenyi (1988), S. Hodges (1985, repr. 2002), R. Bolt (2006), and A. Holden (2006); A. Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas (1988); M. Du Mont, The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas: An Annotated Bibliography (2000).

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