It is oddly appropriate that one of the greatest librettists in history should have led a life that was part grand opera, part opéra bouffe.
Lorenzo da Ponte was born on March 10, 1749 in Ceneda, Italy. His birth name was Emmanuele Conigliano, but when his family converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1763, his father gave him the name of the bishop who performed his baptism.
At the age of fourteen, da Ponte was enrolled in the local seminary. He developed a passion for Italian literature, particularly poetry, which he wrote copiously, if not particularly well. When he was nineteen, he was told he could only continue his education if he became a priest. He had no religious leanings, and saw the priesthood as “wholly contrary to my temperament, my character, my principles, and my studies.” This would become quite spectacularly correct, but at the time his superiors evidently did not see lack of religious principles as any particular handicap for serving God. After his ordination, he quickly rose in the ranks to the position of vice-rector in the seminary of Portoguaro, but his new eminence took a back seat to his true occupation: Women. In 1773 Father da Ponte threw over his uncongenial job, and even more uncongenial, if completely nominal, celibacy for the dissolute charms of Venice. He moved in with a pretty, alluringly disreputable noblewoman, Angiola Tiepolo, and resolved to devote himself to “cards and love.”
He did not have an easy life with either pastime. Tiepolo was the sort of hot-blooded character that can make for excellent brief dalliances, but are impossible to take in sustained doses. (On one occasion when he displeased her, she doused him with a bottle of ink and cut off all his hair.) Making matters worse is the fact that da Ponte was one of nature’s easy marks: Throughout his life, he was a veritable magnet for crooks of all sorts, and Venice’s thieves and con men found him to be a gold mine. When Tiepolo’s own brother managed to rob of a considerable sum of money, da Ponte decided it was time to seek his fortunes elsewhere.
He made his way to the seminary of Treviso. He taught there for two years, until he was thrown out for writing some most unholy poetry. He moved on to Padua, where he found a precarious living as—seriously—a professional checkers player. He gave one more shot at living in Venice, where he took up with the married Angioletta Bellaudi. (Da Ponte was simultaneously sleeping with the mistress of Angioletta’s husband.) Their affair gained a certain amount of notoriety when she suddenly went into labor on a public street, with da Ponte himself delivering their child. The pair found lodgings in a brothel, with da Ponte—still garbed in his clerical cassock—providing violin music for their clientele. The priest created other entertainment with his poetry, particularly some verses describing certain local dignitaries as “whoremongers” and worse. He was clearly having just too much fun for the authorities to tolerate, so they charged him with “public concubinage,” and banished him from the city.
For the next couple of years, da Ponte wandered aimlessly around Europe, indulging in his two main pastimes: The ladies, and being swindled in various ways. He eventually wound up in Vienna, where his eccentric fortunes suddenly began to blossom. He won the patronage of Emperor Joseph II, who installed him as librettist for his newly-formed Italian opera company. It was through this job that in 1783, he made the acquaintance of his greatest artistic partner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Their first collaboration was an operatic version of Beumarchais’ wildly popular—and wildly scandalous—play, “The Marriage of Figaro.” The results became even more popular, and certainly more enduring, than the source material. The wandering priest and libertine had finally found his niche. For the next few years, da Ponte worked nonstop, with his most notable successes being Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”—he probably liked to think of it as semi-autobiography—and “Cosi Fan Tutte.” Da Ponte later wrote of his legendary collaborator, “Although [Mozart] was blessed with talents greater, perhaps, than those of any other composer in the world, past, present, or future, he had been prevented by the plots of his enemies from exercising his divine genius in Vienna, remaining unknown and obscure—like a precious stone which, buried in the bowels of the earth, hides the true brilliance of its splendour. I can never remember without satisfaction and joy that Europe and the whole world owe the exquisite vocal music of this remarkable genius largely thanks to my own perseverance and determination.”
Da Ponte’s period of prosperity and—almost—respectability did not last long. After the Emperor’s death in 1790, the librettist was soon out of a job. Da Ponte had an arrogant manner that rankled many people. After Joseph’s death, da Ponte’s enemies and/or competitors had little trouble persuading the new Emperor, Leopold II, to send the Italian priest with the notorious reputation on his way. Da Ponte was so devastated by how he had been “sacrificed to hatred, envy, the profit of scoundrels!” that he briefly considered suicide.
He moved to Trieste, where he found the one stable relationship of his life, with a charming, level-headed Englishwoman twenty years his junior, Ann “Nancy” Grahl. There is some question whether or not the pair legally married—da Ponte was, after all, still technically a priest—but theirs was a loving and—rather astoundingly in da Ponte’s case—mutually faithful relationship. (Unlike his friend Casanova, da Ponte seems to have placed romantic love above sexual variety.) The couple and their growing brood—they would eventually have five children—moved to London, where da Ponte found dull employment writing for now long-forgotten operas for the King’s Theatre. After he was fired six years later, da Ponte tried his hand at opening a printing shop, promoting a piano factory, starting an Italian bookshop, and writing quite scurrilous pamphlets insulting his many detractors. (He once memorably described his enemies as “men who made their way into my compassionate heart with the usual weapons of the hypocrite and the fawner and then ended their jest in the cry: ‘Death to him! Death to him!’ spitting in my face the blood they had sucked with cunning from my veins!”) For variety, his continuing predilection for being victimized by grifters regularly got him arrested (at least thirty times in all.)
By 1805, da Ponte had had it with the Old World, and probably vice-versa. What else was there for him to do but try the New? He and his family settled in New York City, where the artist once patronized by kings became a boardinghouse-keeper, a bookseller, and a grocer. (“How I must have laughed at myself every time my poet’s hand was called upon to weigh out two ounces of tea.”)
Da Ponte, even more so than most creative types, was peculiarly unsuited for the role of businessman. For all his failings, he was a generous, oddly trusting man who simply couldn’t bear pressuring customers to settle their debts, with the inevitable result that he repeatedly found himself broke. In 1807, he made the acquaintance of poet Clement Clarke “Twas the night before Christmas” Moore and Moore's father, the president of Columbia College. Da Ponte and Clement Moore opened the Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen. It was advertised as dedicated to the “moral uplift” of their students.
Moral uplift was clearly not da Ponte’s strong point, and he soon moved to rural Pennsylvania. He again tried his hand at shop keeping, and again quickly went bust. Then it was on to Philadelphia, where he opened a millinery store and general delivery service.
Da Ponte was unable or unwilling to stay in one place for long. In 1819, the seventy-year-old librettist was once again on the move. He moved back to New York, where he turned to literary matters. He opened a bookstore, taught Italian, lectured, translated Byron, and published his cheerfully semi-fictitious memoirs, where he managed the considerable feat of making his life sound even more romantic and turbulent than it really was. The old rake achieved enough respectability that, thanks to his friendship with the Moores, he became professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. He proved to be a brilliant teacher, who was generally loved by his pupils. In 1833, he even successfully led a campaign to launch New York’s very first opera house. He was justifiably proud of that achievement. Although (true to form to the last) his project lasted only two seasons—Americans had not yet taken to opera---it became the predecessor for the famed Metropolitan Opera. The wandering, often penniless, usually disreputable poet had managed to write his own triumphant epilogue.
Da Ponte died at the venerable age of eighty-nine on August 17, 1838, and he was given an appropriately operatically grand funeral. His burial site has long been lost, but some years ago a stone marker was placed in New York's Calvary Cemetery in his memory.