The poet Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) is likely the most famous creator of operas who never composed a note of music. He wrote the libretti for three of Mozart’s greatest works: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. But if a present-day classical-music buff knows anything at all about his life story, it would probably be the fact that Da Ponte was born a Jew. A particularly well-informed enthusiast would also know that Da Ponte converted to Catholicism, was ordained as an abbé, and, after an unusually turbulent and colorful existence, eventually landed in America—where he spent his last decades as, among other things, the first professor of Italian at Columbia. His Jewish origin was almost entirely unknown until the 20th century. How this fact was handled over the centuries constitutes a history of concealment, rumor, discovery, denigration, and exploitation.
Da Ponte himself was at pains throughout his life to hide his Jewish background. His Memoirs (first published in New York, in Italian, in 1823) begin with a fair warning on the first page. He declares, “I shall speak but little of my family, my neighborhood, my early years, as of matters …of scant moment to the reader….I was born on the tenth day of March in the year 1749 in Ceneda, a small but not obscure city of the Venetian State. When I was five years old, my mother died. Fathers, as a rule, give little heed to the early years of their children.”1 Neither here nor anywhere else in the Memoirs does Da Ponte name his parents or mention that they were Jewish.
It is not clear whether Mozart ever knew that Da Ponte was a converted Jew. The composer moved to Vienna in March 1781; Da Ponte arrived later that same year. The two apparently met for the first time in early 1783 at the home of Raimund Wetzlar (1752–1810), Mozart’s sometime landlord, one of his patrons, and the godfather of his firstborn son. In letters to his father, Mozart referred to Wetzlar variously as “the rich converted Jew,” “a rich Jew,” “an honest friend.”
One assumes that both Wetzlar and Da Ponte were aware that the other was a Jewish convert and that their shared background played a role in establishing their relationship, but that is not known for certain. A similar question arises regarding the relationship between Da Ponte and the emperor. Da Ponte claims in his memoirs that, from the beginning, he was a particular favorite of Joseph II—who had appointed him (instead of other ambitious aspirants) poet of the newly revived Italian court opera beginning with the April 1783 season. Just three months earlier, Joseph had issued an Edict of Tolerance. The Edict emancipated the Jews of Vienna and allowed them to practice their faith openly. Could it be that Joseph was aware of, or at least suspected, Da Ponte’s Jewish origins and that this fact had predisposed the enlightened despot in favor of the newly arrived and quite inexperienced poet?
Joseph II died on February 20, 1790—just after the premiere of Così fan tutte. His successor, Leopold II, proved to be just as antagonistic to the poet as Joseph had been benevolent. In March 1791, Leopold dismissed Da Ponte from his post at the opera. By the end of May, as the consequence of a series of intrigues by his enemies but mostly on account of diplomatic missteps by Da Ponte himself, the new emperor ordered him to leave Vienna. In 1805, after more than a dozen years in England, a bankrupt Da Ponte fled to America, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The earliest reference, in print, to Da Ponte’s Jewish origins—one in which, to be sure, the claim is presented as a rumor—appears in the Reminiscences (1826) of the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (1762–1826). Kelly sang in the premiere of Figaro and knew both Mozart and Da Ponte personally. He notes, “It was said that originally [Da Ponte] was a Jew, turned Christian, dubbed himself an Abbé, and became a great dramatic writer.”
Da Ponte himself, in his published writings, made a single reference to his origins. In a verse addressed to a friend and patron of his youth, one Pietro Zaguri, the poet recalls an incident when his enemies cried out, “Let him be crucified….Let us stick him back in the ghetto, whence came his guilty race.” Otherwise, as his biographer Sheila Hodges notes, “when he mentions Jews, which he very rarely does, it is always from a distance, without reference to himself or his background, and sometimes in a faintly derogatory way.” Indeed, on one occasion in his Memoirs, Da Ponte refers to “the fat-pursed descendants of Abraham.”
Who, then, could have been spreading the rumors of Da Ponte’s Jewish origin? As we have just seen, Da Ponte himself had confirmed the fact of his Jewish background to Pietro Zaguri, whom he got to know in Venice in the mid-1770s—and through whom he made the acquaintance of Giacomo Casanova. About a year after Da Ponte’s marriage in August 1792, Zaguri wrote to Casanova—falsely and no doubt mischievously—claiming that Da Ponte had married a Jewess “in a synagogue according to Jewish rites.”2 Strong evidence that Zaguri, Da Ponte’s longtime friend and sometime antagonist, was happy to not only spread but embellish a surely false rumor.
It was not until the turn of the 20th century that the facts were established. Della Vita e delle Opere di Lorenzo Da Ponte, a comprehensive biography of Da Ponte, published in 1900, definitively presented specific information about the poet’s Jewish origins. The book’s opening sentences read: “Lorenzo Da Ponte was born…into a Jewish family. His father’s name was Geremia Conegliano, his mother Ghella (Rachele) Pincherle.” The second paragraph informs us that the boy’s name was originally Emanuele.
The book’s author, Monsignor Angelo Marchesan (1859–1932), occupied the same post at the prestigious seminary in Treviso that Da Ponte himself had held as a young man. Marchesan’s work in the archives finally put many facts of Da Ponte’s early years on a firm basis. With respect to his earliest religious upbringing, however, we still know nothing beyond the fact of his Jewish birth and lineage. Specifics begin to take form only in connection with the events of August 29, 1763, the day on which the 14-year-old Emanuele, along with his brothers and widowed father, were baptized in the Cathedral of Ceneda by the local bishop, Monsignor Lorenzo Da Ponte. The family took on “Da Ponte” as the family name. Emanuele, the oldest son, took the bishop’s given name as well. Six weeks earlier, Emanuele had written a letter to the priest who had been instructing him for the upcoming ceremony. In the letter, which survives, the young man declared that he “recognized the falseness of Judaism” (conoscere la falsità dall’Ebraismo).
Less than two months after the baptism, Lorenzo and his brother began training for the priesthood. Ten years later, the 24-year-old was ordained as an abbé and celebrated his first Mass. Before the end of 1774, Lorenzo was teaching at the seminary in Treviso.
While his father became a pious Catholic, the depth of Lorenzo’s commitment to the faith is unclear. As he confessed in his memoirs: “My father …was thinking of turning me to the Altar; though that was utterly contrary to my vocation and my character. I was therefore trained after the manner of the priests, though inclined by taste and, as it were, made by nature for different pursuits.”
The Mozart biographies that appeared in the early decades of the 20th century often briefly mention Da Ponte’s Jewish background—as little more than a piquant detail. By the time the Nazis took power, Da Ponte’s Jewish roots were completely familiar and clearly presented a significant challenge for anyone in Germany professionally involved with Mozart. Erik Levi has documented the history of this in his Mozart and the Nazis: How the Third Reich Abused a Cultural Icon (2010). One solution was to remove Da Ponte’s name altogether from discussions of the works. Another was to claim that only Mozart’s genius compensated for the weaknesses and moral failings of the texts—understood to be the inevitable product of the librettist’s Semitic race. Most troubling for the regime: The Mozart–Da Ponte operas were invariably sung in German, the standard translation was by a Jew, Hermann Levi, and singers were reluctant to learn new texts. The entire enterprise became moot after the war when the operas were increasingly performed in the original Italian.
The scholarly treatment of Lorenzo Da Ponte since World War II, not surprisingly, has been varied. Alfred Einstein’s Mozart: His Character, His Work (1946) became one of the most widely read studies of the composer. His brief summary of Da Ponte’s career through his meeting with Mozart is complete and balanced: neither ignoring nor exaggerating the importance of his Jewish parentage, conversion, or the adventures and misadventures of his youth.
A massive French Mozart biography by Jean and Brigitte Massin, first published in 1959, provides a good example of the new normalization governing the treatment of Da Ponte’s origins. It reports that his original name was Conegliano; a footnote adds that he was “d’origine juive.”
In recent decades some important publications have been silent about Da Ponte’s Jewish roots—not, this time, because the facts were unknown but rather because they were known well enough to be taken for granted. Other writers, however, have pursued the matter quite passionately. Volkmar Braunbehrens discovers in them a crucial key to his character, arguing, in Mozart in Vienna: 1781–1791 (1990), that “Da Ponte profited from the abilities that an oppressed and persecuted people develop early on: self-assertiveness, …fortitude, …inventiveness to cope with a humiliating outsider’s existence.”
Wolfgang Hildesheimer (1916–1991), like Braunbehrens, German-born, but unlike Braunbehrens (born 1941), a Jew who fled Germany in 1933, writes with touch of bitterness in his Mozart (1982), “Who was Da Ponte? …He is always described as ‘without scruples,’ an opportunist….Somewhere, …anti-Semitic feeling usually crops up.” Robert W. Gutman’s Mozart: A Cultural Biography (1990) emphasizes Mozart’s friendly relations with Jews and does not fail to mention that he met Da Ponte “in a circle of converted and ennobled Jews.”
A remarkable development in the years since the war has been the proliferation of full-length biographies devoted explicitly to Lorenzo Da Ponte. This development attests that Da Ponte himself has captured the imagination of posterity. After countless previous incarnations—Jew by birth, Catholic convert and priest, adventurer, libertine, classicist, poet, bookseller, grocer, pedagogue, professor, impresario—Lorenzo Da Ponte has assumed one last identity. The gifted writer of opera texts is no longer relegated to play forever, like Leporello to Don Giovanni, a supporting role in the life of the immortal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has, finally, become the leading protagonist in his own ambiguous drama.
1 Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte. Translated from the Italian by Elisabeth Abbott, originally published in 1929.
2 The details of Da Ponte’s wedding—formal or informal, religious or secular, if any at all—are unclear.
Photo: Detail of Lorenzo Da Ponte by Samuel Morse, 1830
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