Biography of Italian Opera Writer Lorenzo da Ponte Part 1

About the famous Italian opera writer or librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, his biography and how he helped Mozart finish the works Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

LORENZO DA PONTE (1749-1838). Italian librettist.

It takes a great libretto to make a great opera, but, ironically, few persons have gained fame writing operatic libretti. In producing his 3 greatest operas--The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte--Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart collaborated with the most talented librettist of his time, Lorenzo da Ponte. Oddly, he was a "facile, mediocre poet," according to his biographer April Fitz-Lyon, and a "very inexperienced dramatist." It boggles the mind to realize that he is the man who, "above all others, succeeded in providing Mozart with the perfect framework for his music." And yet Da Ponte's libretti were but one of his accomplishments: He was, at various times, a Catholic priest, a poet, a scholar, a storekeeper, and one of the most colorful rouÈs who ever lived. But Da Ponte died in obscurity and even the whereabouts of his bones is unknown. Surely history owes him more.

He was born Emmanuele Conigliano in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda, Italy, in 1749. However, his father, a tanner, was converted to Catholicism along with his 4 sons in 1763. The old man thought it fitting to rename his boys after the bishop who baptized them all--Msgr. Lorenzo da Ponte--and while 3 of them took only the cleric's surname, young Emmanuele became his namesake.

Fourteen years old and full of mischief, Lorenzo was enrolled in the seminary in Ceneda immediately, the pleased bishop paying the bill. As far as the boy was concerned, the priesthood seemed as good a line of work as any other, and he prepared his lessons diligently, showing a particular talent for writing in both Latin and Italian.

Ordained in 1771, he was appointed to the chair of rhetoric at the seminary of Portoguaro. His colleagues were angered by this quick promotion, which seemed to them to be eminently unfair. They'd doubtless have been even angrier had they known that he was not the very model of ecclesiastical decorum he let on to be: Whenever he could, he would slip out of the seminary and off to Venice, where he dallied with Angela Tiepolo, a down-and-out young woman from a once wealthy Venetian family.

In 1773, Father da Ponte left the school altogether and moved to Venice, where he was free from the celibacy vow and no longer had to endure the jealous taunts of his rivals on the faculty. Angela, a penniless shrew, made life difficult for Da Ponte. She was amorous, but petulant; generous, but jealous. And when she suspected her lover of being unfaithful, she threw a bottle of ink in his face and cut off all his hair. For Da Ponte, life in the city seemed to be an unbroken string of robberies and swindlings--even Angela's brother had extorted money from him--it was the proverbial last straw. He gathered his belongings and left.

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