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Librettist for Mozart became the New World’s first Italian professor


Lorenzo Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in Vittorio Veneto in 1749. He was born a Jew but his father who was a widow remarried and converted to Catholicism. His new name became Lorenzo Da Ponte. In 1769 Da Ponte entered the seminary and was ordained a priest. After his ordination he moved to Venice and taught Italian, French and Latin. Shortly after this assignment he became embroiled in a scandal. It was alleged that he was living in a brothel and was rumored to have fathered two children. After this imbroglio he was banished from Venezia for 15 years and landed in Vienna. He became the poet of the Habsburg Court. Due to his notoriety, a friend of his, Caterino Mazzola, wrote an introductory letter for him to the famous composer and Imperial Kapellmeister of Austria, Antonio Salieri.

Thanks to the influence of his new benefactor, Da Ponte obtained a position as a court librettist to the Italian theatre of Vienna and a transformative introduction to Amadeus Mozart. Mozart took an immediate liking to Da Ponte.

As a result of this arrangement, some of Mozart’s most famous operas were penned by him, including Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni. All these works were in the style of opera buffa, depicting the daily life of ordinary men and women and their loves, foibles and struggles.

The spark for Le Nozze di Figaro came from the French composer, Beaumarchais’ Le Marriage de Figaro. This was originally banned by the Napoleonic court due to the peasants’ triumph over nobility. In Mozart’s interpretation, Figaro wins the hand of Susanna in marriage despite the overbearing advances of Count Almaviva.

In rehearsal this bold drama was presented to Emperor Fredrick II of the Habsburg Empire. Like in the 1984 biopic “Amadeus,” the emperor was overjoyed at the antics and cleverness of Figaro to outwit the pompous Count Almaviva in his desire to marry Susanna. He overwhelmingly approved of the production.

After this great success, Da Ponte returned to his former life as a philanderer which led to debt, bankruptcy and a marriage in London. He was ready for a new adventure to the New World and so he sailed to New York with his family and two children.

One day in 1809, Da Ponte dropped into Riley’s bookstore on lower Broadway and happened to overhear the proprietor discussing European culture with a learned young gentleman. They were speaking of Metastasio, and Da Ponte dared to interrupt.

The owner of the bookstore introduced him to Clement Clark Moore, the author of the children’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore in turn introduced him to his father, Bishop Benjamin Moore who was president of Columbia University. A longtime friendship developed between this scholarly member of New York society and Mozart’s librettist. In 1829 Bishop Benjamin Moore offered Da Ponte a position as the fi rst Italian Professor in the New World.

Adesso lo sa.

Lou Thomas

Lou Thomas was born and raised in Philadelphia, in a family with origins in Abruzzo. He is a Temple graduate who has been teaching Italian for 20 years at all levels. He attained a master’s degree in teaching Italian from Rutgers University. The sounds of Vivaldi and Jovanotti fill his classroom. His favorite quote is Il vino e’ la poesia della terra.

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