Cropped Don Gio­van­ni. Image cour­tesy of author

Loren­zo Da Ponte is the sin­gle most impor­tant Jew in the his­to­ry of opera, yet few peo­ple know the name of the writer who made it pos­si­ble for Mozart to be revered today as the great­est opera com­pos­er of all time. With­out Da Ponte’s con­tri­bu­tions as libret­ti — that is to say, the sto­ry and words — Mozart would have nev­er been able to com­pose the three musi­cal scores Don Gio­van­ni,” The Mar­riage of Figaro,” or Cosi Fan Tutte,” that led to his eter­nal fame.

Nonethe­less, for all Da Ponte’s bril­liance in cre­at­ing these works and his efforts to bring opera to ear­ly mod­ern New York City, he was deroga­to­ri­ly referred to as Mozart’s Jew­ish Priest” behind his back.

Who was Loren­zo Da Ponte?

My lat­est nov­el, Meet­ing Mozart: From the Secret Diaries of Loren­zo Da Ponte, explores who exact­ly Da Ponte was and how his mod­ern-day descen­dants endured the anti­semitism of Europe, nine­teenth cen­tu­ry New York City, and the Holocaust.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in 1749, into work­ing class pover­ty in the Jew­ish ghet­to of the vil­lage of Cene­da; Cene­da was in the Vene­to, locat­ed not far from Venice. Da Ponte was a gift­ed poly­math, and, being unable to afford a for­mal edu­ca­tion, he was entire­ly self-taught. Con­se­quent­ly, he was known as the Spir­i­toso igno­rante — the igno­rant genius.

A year after Da Ponte’s bar mitz­vah at age thir­teen his father, a wid­ow­er, mar­ried a Catholic woman. In order to do so, his father had to con­vert the entire fam­i­ly. This trans­for­ma­tion from Jew to Catholic had severe con­se­quences for Da Ponte and his younger broth­ers. In an instant, Da Ponte was torn away from his Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and his friends, who remained behind in the ghet­to. Like all such Con­ver­sos, Da Ponte was for­bid­den to have any con­tact what­so­ev­er with any Jew — on the penal­ty of death, impris­on­ment, or a life of servi­tude in the gal­leys of the Venet­ian Navy.

Da Ponte tried to make the best of a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion, a sur­vival­ist trait that would serve him well through­out his life. He took the name of the bish­op doing the con­ver­sion and thus became Loren­zo Da Ponte. Desirous of an edu­ca­tion, Loren­zo con­vinced the bish­op to allow him to attend school at a sem­i­nary. He did not under­stand that becom­ing a priest was the end route of his stud­ies there. Loren­zo ini­tial­ly accept­ed this bar­gain to gain the edu­ca­tion he sought after.

Da Ponte was assigned as an abbé at the Church of San Luca in Venice after he fin­ished his stud­ies. Despite his great intel­lect and writ­ing abil­i­ties, he was unin­ter­est­ed in Church doc­trine and made for an uncom­mit­ted priest. In Venice, he count­ed the infa­mous Casano­va among his clos­est friends. And so it came to be that on Sun­days Da Ponte would hear con­fes­sion, but on the oth­er six days of the week, he would gam­ble, drink, write risqué poet­ry, and engage in roman­tic affairs. For a time, he end­ed up liv­ing with Angela Tiepo­lo — the first of his many mis­tress­es — a mar­ried woman from one of the wealth­i­est fam­i­lies in Venice.

He was ulti­mate­ly denounced as a Jew­ish heretic by anoth­er lover’s estranged hus­band and was ordered to stand tri­al. Casano­va, who under­stood the forces that were being aligned against Da Ponte, urged him to flee Venice rather than risk being tossed into the infa­mous prison beneath the Bridge of Sighs.

In an instant, Da Ponte was torn away from his Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and his friends, who remained behind in the ghet­to. Like all such Con­ver­sos, Da Ponte was for­bid­den to have any con­tact what­so­ev­er with any Jew.

Once more rein­vent­ing him­self — this time as a pro­fes­sion­al writer — Da Ponte turned up in Vien­na in 1781, with a let­ter of intro­duc­tion to Salieri, the Court Com­pos­er for the Haps­burg emper­or. He was then hired as the Court Librettist.

Vien­na, the Hapsburg’s Impe­r­i­al Cap­i­tal, was not par­tic­u­lar­ly wel­com­ing to Jews, and so Da Ponte hid his her­itage as best he could behind his priest­ly façade. Vien­na had been the scene of one of the most bru­tal destruc­tions of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in 1421, dur­ing what would be known as the Vien­na Gesera; the Hebrew Tem­ple was burnt to the ground and the entire Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that did not flee was mas­sa­cred. In Da Ponte’s time anti­semitism remained rife in Vien­na. Through anoth­er sym­pa­thet­ic Con­ver­so, Baron Raimund Wet­zlar von Planken­stern, Da Ponte was intro­duced to a strug­gling but bril­liant com­pos­er des­per­ate to break into the world of opera, Wolf­gang Amadé Mozart. The two equal­ly matched genius­es became fast friends.

Dur­ing this time in Mozart’s career, he was stymied in his strug­gles to com­pose an Ital­ian lan­guage opera for the Haps­burg Court The­ater. Fol­low­ing his move to Vien­na, also in 1781, Mozart was con­sid­ered a bril­liant pianist and com­pos­er for the key­board, but few con­sid­ered him wor­thy as an opera com­pos­er com­pared to those Ital­ian lan­guage com­posers dom­i­nat­ing the stage at that same time such as Salieri, Paisiel­lo and Mar­tin Y Sol­er. No one want­ed to work with him, and that includ­ed the Emper­or Joseph II — who owned the the­ater — and his Lord Cham­ber­lain, Count Franz Orsi­ni Rosen­berg, who ran the Court Theater.

It has long been a false axiom of the opera world that great operas come about because of the com­posers who cre­ate the music and the singers who bring them to life. It is a con­ve­nient fic­tion and one that has long dimin­ished the work of the writer, the libret­to. With­out a strong and sol­id sto­ry and lyrics set before them, even the best opera com­posers would be star­ing at a blank page.

Mozart final­ly got his first shot at com­pos­ing an Ital­ian lan­guage opera for the Haps­burgs only after Da Ponte per­suad­ed Emper­or Joseph II that his adap­ta­tion of a banned French play, The Mar­riage of Figaro,” would make a per­fect opera. Da Ponte had the fore­sight to take out all of the offen­sive polit­i­cal ele­ments. After read­ing the libret­to, the emper­or agreed to have the opera staged.

Not only was Figaro” a grand suc­cess, but to this day it is the old­est con­tin­u­ous­ly per­formed opera in the world and ranks in the top five of most crit­ics’ lists. Figaro” led to a com­mis­sion for Don Gio­van­ni,” also con­sid­ered one of the great operas of all time; Don Giovanni’s” suc­cess encour­aged Joseph II to com­mis­sion Cosi Fan Tutte,” an ever pop­u­lar sex­u­al farce that mim­ic­ked not only Da Ponte and Mozart’s actu­al lives, but that of the Emperor’s as well.

Don Gio­van­ni

How­ev­er, Da Ponte’s real life escapades — and Jew­ish her­itage — con­tin­ued to get him into trou­ble with the Haps­burgs. When Joseph II died and his broth­er, Leopold, took over the throne, the out­spo­ken Da Ponte found him­self in trou­ble and was once more forced to flee. In 1791 at age forty-two, and after twen­ty years of phi­lan­der­ing, he snuck back into the Vene­to and was mar­ried to Nan­cy Grahl, anoth­er Con­ver­so, by a rab­bi. They would remain faith­ful to each oth­er for the next forty years of their lives.

It was not safe for Da Ponte, a Jew­ish Con­ver­so priest, to remain in the Vene­to, and so he and Grahl emi­grat­ed, first to Lon­don, and then to New York in 1805. Ear­ly mod­ern New York was no haven for Jews and so Da Ponte con­tin­ued his pre­tense of being Catholic. Ever the sur­vivor, Da Ponte first opened up a dry goods store in New Jer­sey and then, lat­er, he start­ed an Ital­ian book­store in low­er Man­hat­tan. It was here he met and became friends with Clement Moore, a pro­fes­sor whose father was the Epis­co­pal Bish­op of New York and the head of what became Colum­bia University.

Moore — also the author of The Night Before Christ­mas” — intro­duced the Da Pontes to the elite soci­ety of New York City, includ­ing James Fen­i­more Coop­er, Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing, Samuel F. B. Morse, Williams Cullen Bryant, Hen­ry Wadsworth Longfel­low, and Joseph Bona­parte (Napoleon’s broth­er, who was then liv­ing there in exile).

The Moore’s engaged Da Ponte as the first teacher of Ital­ian at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. To this day, the Ital­ian Lan­guage Library at Colum­bia is named for Da Ponte​.In the 1820’s and 1830’s, with the finan­cial help of his friends, Da Ponte start­ed the first two opera com­pa­nies in New York City. These the­aters paved the way for the most pre­em­i­nent opera the­ater in Amer­i­ca today, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

Inspired by Casanova’s epic auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Da Ponte used his time in New York City to write his own account of his life; how­ev­er, one vol­ume of this is pur­port­ed to be missing,the secret diary that is thought to describe his life as a Jew­ish Converso.

Da Ponte passed away in 1838 at the age of eighty-nine and was buried in a Man­hat­tan Catholic church ceme­tery. But his grave has dis­ap­peared, leav­ing us to won­der if in fact his cof­fin was not per­haps rein­terred in some Jew­ish grave­yard under the name Emanuele Conegliano.

Howard Jay Smith is the award-win­ning author of Beethoven In love: Opus 139, and Meet­ing Mozart: From the Secret Diaries of Loren­zo Da Ponte. Smith serves on the board of direc­tors of the San­ta Bar­bara Sym­pho­ny and is a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Beethoven Soci­ety. He is cur­rent­ly at work on a new nov­el about Giuseppe Verdi.