Da Ponte in New York, Mozart in New York

By Biba, Otto | Current Musicology, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Da Ponte in New York, Mozart in New York


Biba, Otto, Current Musicology


One might be surprised to learn that relatively few of Lorenzo da Ponte's letters have been preserved. In one of these, written in New York in 1824 to an unknown recipient, Da Ponte names what he considered to be five of his most important and successful libretti: La cosa rata, L'arbore di Diana, La capricciosa corretta, Le nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni. Cosi fan tutte is not mentioned, nor does he name the composers of the stated titles--Martin y Soler and W. A. Mozart (Zagonel 1995:228ff.).

When I quote this letter today in order to describe Da Ponte's self-regard, I am always asked the same two questions: Who is Martin y Soler? And why does Da Ponte's letter come from New York? I answer that Martin y Soler was born in Spain, and in the mid-1780s he was, next to Mozart and Salieri, the most successful opera composer in Vienna. Then I am asked whether Da Ponte did not also write libretti for Salieri, or why Da Ponte did not include any libretto for Salieri among his most important and successful. Indeed, he did write libretti for Salieri, and I do not know why he did not mention these. Finally, whereas Da Ponte lived in Vienna for ten years and in London for twelve, he spent thirty-three years in the United States. In fact, he lived one year longer in the US than in Italy, where he was born.

It is not just the fact that Da Ponte spent so much time in New York that surprises even educated music lovers and listeners today--it is also that, contrary to popular belief, Da Ponte did not devote himself to making Mozart, his friend and artistic partner, famous in North America. (1) In fact, the sources show us an entirely different picture.

Lorenzo da Ponte

Allow me to summarize the most important biographical facts in an overview: Lorenzo da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in 1749 in the ghetto of Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto), near Venice. (2) After his family was baptized in 1763, he called himself Lorenzo da Ponte. He studied theology, became a Catholic priest, and taught in a theological seminary. In 1779 he was anonymously accused of leading a lifestyle unfit for a priest. He fled the region and in his absence was sentenced to prison. In 1781 he settled in Vienna. In this city of enlightened absolutism, no one was interested in why he continued to use the title Abbe. In 1783, Emperor Joseph II appointed Da Ponte to the position of court theater poet. It was in these years that Da Ponte famously collaborated with Mozart on Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Cosi fan tutte (1790). After several theater scandals--jealousies, intrigue, love affairs, and prima donna behavior (see Nettl 1953 and 1966)--the police banished Da Ponte from Vienna. Despite petitioning Emperor Leopold II, he was ultimately banished to Trieste (though his debts and travel expenses were paid by the imperial court). In Trieste, Da Ponte continued to fight for his rehabilitation, but when it was granted he decided not to return to Vienna.

Da Ponte married Nancy Grahl in 1792 in Trieste. He and his wife travelled via Prague to London, where they settled and began to raise a family. In time, two daughters and a son were born. Da Ponte worked for the Italian opera in the King's Theatre as a poet, translator, and editor, and he also worked as a bookseller. In 1800 he declared his bookseller's business bankrupt and was arrested. His Italian relatives came to his rescue: his brother Paolo came to London and opened a printing business and bookshop, which the brothers ran under Lorenzo's name. Eventually Da Ponte was again overwhelmed by unpaid debts and London became very uncomfortable for him. In 1804 his wife and their children travelled to the US, where his wife's mother and other family members lived. On April 7, 1805, Da Ponte himself followed on the freighter Columbia. After a crossing lasting fifty-seven days, he set foot on American soil in Philadelphia.

He reunited with his family in New York and opened a grocery shop, but, after only three months, he fled. …

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