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.

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Meanwhile, Da Ponte's frailties took what was becoming their accustomed toll. He had more affairs and fathered an illegitimate child (his third, after two in Venice). He lost his footing in a shifting political landscape, and his career began to have more downs than ups. When he was finally sacked from the opera house, he went to Trieste, where the new emperor, Leopold II, was traveling, to plead for reinstatement. He lost his case but found a wife.

She was Nancy Grahl, whose German-Jewish father and French mother had lived for years in England and embraced Anglicanism. Spirited, attractive and like Da Ponte an accomplished linguist, she was 20 years younger than the 43-year-old reprobate. The wedding ceremony, if there was one, was probably Jewish, an ironic closing of the circle for Da Ponte, who had long abandoned his priestly garb and vocation. Nancy would be his staunch, patient wife for 40 years and bear him six children.

They spent the first decade or so of their marriage in London. Again, Da Ponte wangled a job as poet to the local Italian opera company. But in contrast to Vienna, he had few opportunities to write new librettos, being relegated largely to the tasks of cutting, patching and revising works for revivals.

He remained, as always, a prolific versifier, translator and polemical writer, but his literary work was not lucrative. In London, he branched out to become a seller of Italian books and a publisher of librettos. Nancy opened a stylish coffee room in the opera house. She prospered; he didn't. When financial storm clouds gathered, she went on ahead to America, where several of her relations had settled. As soon as Da Ponte arrived in Philadelphia almost a year later, and presumably after borrowing more money for the fare, he hurried to New York City to join her.

Da Ponte immediately had to face up to a fundamental difference between his new home and England or Austria: the raw, young United States had no opera world for him to latch onto. "I well knew that my dramatic talents would avail me but little in this country," he wrote. And he quickly proved, once more, that his other talents did not include running a business. Using Nancy's savings, he made two disastrous ventures, first as a grocer in New York and Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and later as a dealer in medicines and general merchandise in Sunbury, in central Pennsylvania.

"Imagine how I must have laughed at myself," he wrote, "every time my poet's hand was called to weigh out two ounces of tea, or measure half a yard of 'pigtail' [plug tobacco], now to a cobbler, now to a carter, or pour out, in exchange for three cents, a morning dram." Yes, but it was no laughing matter.

Salvation—and the discovery of a new mission—came from an encounter in a New York bookstore with a cultivated young man who was captivated by Da Ponte's firsthand knowledge of Italian literature. The man, who would prove a loyal friend and benefactor, was Clement Moore, later to achieve a sort of immortality as the author of "The Night Before Christmas." He gave Da Ponte entree to his patrician circle of friends and family.

The old rogue was launched again—as a teacher. Never mind that Italian language and literature were, as Da Ponte put it, "about as well known in this city as Turkish or Chinese." Here was another cannon-mouth for him to rush against. On and off for the rest of his life, he tutored, he established schools and took in boarders, he staged "assemblies" at which his charges spoke only Italian and performed short comedies and operas. He even had some success in another fling at bookselling, numbering among his customers the Library of Congress.

In short, he established himself, in the words of pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, as "the unofficial ambassador of Italian culture in America."

At the behest of Columbia University's board of trustees, one of whom was Moore, Da Ponte became, at 76, the university's first professor of Italian. The post was largely honorific, and after the first year he attracted no students. Still, it was a milestone in Italian studies in America. Da Ponte also had a hand in establishing New York's first opera theater. Typically, he was outflanked by his fellow entrepreneurs and ended up with no management role; he also went so far into hock that he had to sell his private collection of books. The venture folded after four years, but it laid important groundwork for the Metropolitan Opera, which came along 50 years later.


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