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January 28, 2011

Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Jewish roots


“Chi crede a sogni e matto, e chi non crede, che cos’e?” (“Believers in dreams are mad, but what about those who don’t believe?”) Lorenzo Da Ponte

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the wives of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, two very successful Broadway musical creators, on meeting for the first time at a cocktail party, without knowing each other’s identities, introduced themselves to each other.

“I am the wife of Richard Rodgers,” said one, “the man who wrote ...” and she recited the name of a very popular song. “No,” Mrs. Hammerstein corrected her. “Your husband wrote ...” and here she hummed the song’s opening melody. “It was my husband who wrote ...” and here she spoke the opening lyrics.

Lyricists are often unnoticed, but they haven’t gotten used to it.

Of the major opera composers, Richard Wagner is the only one who wrote his own words, making sure that, to his satisfaction, they matched the “in your face” heroics of his music. Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Gaetano Donizetti and Georges Bizet all used librettists. Perhaps the most famous one, which still makes him unknown to most people, was Lorenzo Da Ponte, the writer of The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most widely performed operas, the last critically considered the “perfection” of the operatic genre. Altogether, Da Ponte wrote the words of 28 operas in Italian, German, French and Spanish, for 11 different composers, including Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s Viennese rival.

Da Ponte had been Emmanuele Conegliano, born in 1749 to a poor Jewish family living in Venice’s ghetto. The first such enclave in Europe, crowded and unwholesome, it bred tuberculosis and malaria. For all Europe, it was a heady time. Treasuries were being depleted by royal extravagance and costly wars. Failing monetary policies would precipitate the French Revolution. Other expressions of the approaching catastrophe were evident. The 18th century was, perhaps in anticipation of the disappearance of the old order, a mixture of the Enlightenment accompanied by unbridled

libertinism and the notoriety of notably idiosyncratic personalities. Nowhere was this more evident than in Venice, with its nonstop gambling, flirtations and assignations, its pre-Lenten weeks of innumerable and riotous masked balls.

Although Venice, “the Queen of the Adriatic,” was the only major European city that never burned a heretic, it was not that forbearing toward Jews. For centuries, Jews had been totally excluded. After being admitted in 1509, they were forced to wear identifying clothes. They were excluded from the vast piazza in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral. They were barred from professions and business, forced into becoming rag pickers, sellers of used clothing and, because Catholics were not permitted to charge interest on loans, money-lenders. That was a risky, high-stakes business. Enforcing the payment of debts was a difficult undertaking. In much of Europe, profligate nobility would eradicate their debts to Jews by the simple expedient of expelling them. When debtors could not or would not pay back debts to Jews, they vented their displeasure on their creditors. Consider Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; not only was Shylock not re-paid, his daughter became an apostate and cruelly mocked him. Aware of all this, the Venetian Jewish community lived on tenterhooks.

It was only in the next century that Napoleon Bonaparte, assured by the French Jewish community of their loyalty to la Patrie, gave Jews full rights, even appointing a Jewish marshal. Everywhere the Grande Armée went, ghetto walls were torn down. However, after the emperor’s final defeat, they were almost all completely restored by the Congress of Vienna.

Emmanuele’s father, a struggling leather worker, along with a considerable number of other Venetian Jews, had had enough. He converted and so did his children. Emmanuele became Lorenzo Da Ponte, taking the family name of the kindly and generous bishop who had confirmed him in his newfound Catholicism. Conversion offered some relief, but often not in the same community, where converts were known to “still” be Jews.

Da Ponte, embracing his new faith, entered a seminary, emerging as a priest, but his major love was poetry. By 1784, he had already written libretti for some small operas. Maria Theresa had died, leaving as ruler of Austria Joseph II, who far outdid his subjects in overall liberalism and in tolerance toward Jews. Vienna was loosening up, a circumstance of direct benefit to Mozart, who held distinctly advanced views and, in time, to Da Ponte. The two had been sniffing around each other, sensing an opportunity for collaboration. Mozart was working on what was to become The Marriage of Figaro, opening in Vienna in 1786, based on a play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, so daring in its depiction of the foibles of nobility and the cleverness of commoners, that it had been banned in France. In 1787, Don Giovanni, the result of another collaboration of Mozart and Da Ponte, opened in Prague to great applause. Other collaborations followed.

Da Ponte, who by then had enjoyed innumerable affairs, met and fell in love with a woman, who he called Nancy, 20 years his junior and also from a family of converted Jews. As a priest who had taken a vow of celibacy, no church would sanctify his marriage, so he and Nancy were married in the new, elaborate synagogue in Trieste.

Nancy had relatives in America and Da Ponte, always the adventurer, and she ended up in New York, where he organized an opera house and became the first born-Jew on the faculty of Columbia University, teaching Italian.

In 1831, Nancy died from pneumonia at the age of 62. Seven years later, Da Ponte died. Mozart’s Allegri Miserere was sung at his funeral service in New York’s cathedral. He was buried in a downtown Catholic cemetery, but as Manhattan real estate became more valuable, his body, among others, was disinterred and moved to the Borough of Queens. Whether Da Ponte’s actual remains lie in this gravesite is impossible to say. It was only in 1987 that a monument was erected to him.

Da Ponte’s life reflected the turbulence and tarnished brilliance of his times. Even the relatively few opera fans who follow libretti are largely unaware of his Jewish birth. Indeed, no one knows how many families in the Old World (and the New) have Jewish ancestry, the probability being many more than are known and acknowledged.

Eugene Kaellis has written a novel, Making Jews, on the theme of the current basic problem of Diaspora Jewry, which is available from