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Encore! Encore!

Lorenzo Da Ponte was a hit in Europe: a courtier, a cad, the librettist for Mozart's finest operas. But the New World truly tested his creative powers.

Italian to the core, rooted in 18th-century Europe, Da Ponte nevertheless was, when he died at 89 in 1838, a proud American citizen. He was buried not in Venice or Vienna but in New York, where he lies today.

Indeed, what is most striking in the whole Da Ponte saga is how American he became. He lived in the United States longer than in any other country, including Italy. Although he had no quarrel, in principle, with royalty or aristocratic societies, he took to America's democratic spirit. "I felt a sympathetic affection for the Americans," he wrote. "I pleased myself with the hope of finding happiness in a country which I thought free."

His character, for better or worse, displayed many of the traits that we like to think of as distinctively American, starting with his boundless optimism and his endless capacity to reinvent himself. His failings—he was vain and gullible, a schemer and a victim of his passions—were never dishonest or mean-spirited. He was not a cynic like Casanova (who once, when Da Ponte was in a financial scrape, wrote to suggest that Nancy should exploit her charms for money). Warmth, generosity, enthusiasm and an indomitable joy in life were his cardinal qualities.

He never forgot that his primary genius was for writing librettos, and his peak achievement his work with Mozart; but he had a lesser genius for teaching, which yielded the greatest achievements of his American years. The countless men and women who were touched by this gift, wrote Clement Moore, would remember their sessions of tutoring with Da Ponte "as among the sweetest moments of their existence."

Significantly, one of the poems that got Da Ponte in trouble back in Venice was an elegy inspired by the revolutionary fervor that swept the American colonies in the 1770s, titled "The American in Europe." It caused a furor. But in the long run it was nothing compared with the impact of the Italian in America.

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