The Abbe and Amadeus
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The Abbe and Amadeus

From the pen of Lorenzo da Ponte, priest, poet and libertine, emerged Mozart?s three greatest operas.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2007 18:01 IST

The Man Who Wrote Mozart: The Extraordinary Life Of Lorenzo Da Ponte
Anthony Holden
Publisher: Phoenix
Pages: 238
Format: Paperback
Price: Rs 439

Just out in paperback avatar last month on Indian bookshelves, Anthony Holden’s biography of Lorenzo da Ponte’s extraordinary life was released last
year to coincide with Mozart’s 250th birth anniversary.

Da Ponte’s chief claim to fame is that he wrote the libretti or scripts for three of the world’s greatest operas, which were the best works by the European prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Indian opera buffs need no telling about these works: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte (Italian for ‘ Sab Aisi Karti Hain’ ). Nor do Indian theatre/movie fans need reminding of Peter Schaffer’s play, Amadeus, that explored the envy and enmity of Austrian court composer Antonio Salieri for the rising boy genius, Mozart, who took opera to another level between the creative phases of composers ‘Papa’ Hayden and Wagner.

Thematically, it was Mozart and da Ponte who made great music and theatre out of the frail lives of ordinary people,made of very common clay indeed: a barber, a womaniser, unfaithful girlfriends, jealous men, scheming old men and bribable maids.

This llustration of The Marriage of Figaro was made by Erica Chappuis for the Michigan Opera Theatre

Mozart was a struggling composer from Salzburg (the city many of us instantly associate with the old Julie Andrews movie, The Sound of Music). His German opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, had been dismissed by his patron, the Austrian emperor Josef II, as “too fine for our ears; and too many notes, my dear Mozart, too many notes!” Mozart knew he would have to write Italian opera to succeed in the flighty Vienna of that time. In 1783, he met da Ponte, six years his senior.

Together, they wrote the three splendid works in which Mozart’s principle was realised—“In opera, the poetry must be the obedient daughter of the music…The best thing is when a good composer,who understands the stage enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix.”

Da Ponte already had a most curious past when he arrived in Vienna and was recommended by Salieri to imperial favour. Born to a poor Jewish tanner in 1749, in the Venetian hill town of Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto), his real name was Emanuele Conegliano.

He ran about as an unschooled urchin until age 14. Then, when his widowed father wanted to marry a 16-year-old Christian girl, the family had to convert to Catholicism. The boy was named for the bishop who baptised him and became Lorenzo da Ponte. Sponsored by the bishop, da Ponte got a classical education, wrote poetry, ordained as a priest and took to teaching. But academic politics overthrew him and he escaped to Venice.

While the rest of Europe was waking up to a new intellectual vigour with Rousseau and Voltaire and the French Revolution was beginning to stir, Venice, 'La Serenissima', was content to live out its life in one long ridotto (masked ball). Its revels were led by the legendary libertine, Casanova, da Ponte’s friend and role model.

Lorenzo da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano but was baptised when his Jewish father converted to Catholicism

Banished from Venice finally for his unpriestly excesses with hot-tempered married women, da Ponte arrived in Vienna hoping for better. Working overtime, he wrote opera with a bottle of Tokay wine at his right hand, an inkstand in the middle, and a box of scented tobacco at his left.

These comforts were augmented by the landlady’s daughter, instructed to serve his every need, including some unknown to her mother.

But jealous Viennese courtiers soon saw to it that da Ponte was banished from Vienna. Marrying an English girl, Nancy Grahl, on impulse, da Ponte fled to England, where he found work in Covent Garden.

But debt landed him in prison repeatedly. Facing another arrest, da Ponte sent his family away to his wife’s American relatives across the Atlantic and escaped himself one night soon after.

Setting up shop first as a Manhattan grocer, and then as a hatmaker and distiller in Pennsylvania, he went on to become the first professor of Italian in the United States, at Columbia University (then College) in 1825.

He ran a bookshop as well and even set up the first American opera house in Greenwich Village, to introduce Italian opera to New York, especially his own work. He died in 1838, short of 90, having raised a large family and few could guess at his colourful past.

His bones were lost in a graveyard resettlement and today only a gravestone marks his death, right under the flight path of jets at JFK airport. To read his story as told by Holden is that rare, longed for, unputdownable experience, enriched by extracts and translations from da Ponte’s poetry and libretti and carefully researched photographs.

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First Published: Feb 19, 2007 17:53 IST