Among the world’s favorite operas, we find three of them with a libretto penned by Lorenzo Da Ponte and music by none other than the astonishingly delightful Viennese ear-confectioner Mozart. The list is a delight in itself: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovann, and Così Fan Tutte.
We learn in the new book, The Librettist of Venice, by Rodney Bolt, that Da Ponte grew so close with the unequalled Mozart – both of whom, we learn, were not only talented but vain, insecure and ambitious – that while writing Don Giovanni, they worked in adjoining lodges and shouted to each other through their windows.
Da Ponte even dared to contend with Mozart, who believed the text should be subservient to the music, while Da Ponte was certain that the words should be primary, in fact, that without his poetry even Mighty Mo’s music would be nothing.
Yet how Da Ponte tumbled from the heights. Hard as it may be to imagine, he wound up in New York, running, at one time, a grocery store on the Bowery.
Brilliant as an artist, he was apparently, in his personal life, a managerial moron. Or, said another way, while talent flies, practical reason just plods along, like a relative moron.
Da Ponte, born Jewish, was, as a result of his father’s having decided the family should become Catholic for the easement of a life of trade, ordained a priest. But his real vocation was married women. His exploits, we learn, rivaled Casanova, who became his pal and, if we believe such a thing is possible in the category at hand, his mentor.
Da Ponte himself admitted a shortcoming in comparison with his rival for insincere relationships: he didn’t have Casanova’s purported talent for fleecing the women he falsely wooed. In fact, Da Ponte claims he actually loved the ones he made out with.
He also considered himself adroit politically, but his moves were disastrous. He upset the successors of Joseph II so much he was exiled from Vienna.
Now,still technically a priest he was married to a younger but more wisely practical woman named Nancy Grahl, but even she was unable to keep the man out of bankruptcy in London and again in America, where they moved in 1805, because her family had settled here.
He attempted to establish Italian opera companies when English-speaking audiences had little interest in them. To add onions to opera, the grocery business failed.
He finally became a teacher, bookseller and wannabe impresario.
On the positive side, New York turned out to be the most agreeable spot for him. It was relatively liberal, and Da Ponte found himself a favorite of the cultural elite.
He became the first professor of Italian at Columbia University. While the position was pretty much ceremonial, Da Ponte has the double distinction of having been the first Jew and first priest on the school’s faculty.
He lived on into his 80’s, revered but regarded as eccentric.
He was charming man who made a profession of being European when such a state was still considered novel.
Yet when one compares his everyday doings with his winged collaboration with Mozart, one can only shake his head with the recognition of how quicksilver brilliant the remarkable syntheses of talent are, way up in mental processes we can only hope will drop answers into our expectant consciousness, compared to the “first we do this and then we do that” plodding of the practical but still invaluable mind.