October 1, 2009


One reader commented upon my review of Disgrace, the film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's Nobel-winning novel with John Malkovich as a South African literature professor and aging Don Juan who retires in disgrace to the countryside to write an opera about the Italian adventures of Lord Byron, author of Don Juan:
"OK, that was the most depressing movie review I've ever read."

So, let me recount a happier story.

Coetzee almost certainly found some inspiration for the main character in Disgrace, David Lurie, the Cape Town Casanova, a literature professor who wants to write an opera about a a great lover, in the amusing career of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), a rogue who constantly found himself banished in disgrace, only to re-emerge triumphant in a new city. But Da Ponte's life is much too upbeat a story for a man of Coetzee's misanthropic temperament to cite directly. So, Lurie lives out the miserable inverse of Da Ponte's absurdly buoyant life story.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano, son of a Jewish tanner in a ghetto in the Republic of Venice. Da Ponte converted to Roman Catholicism and took the name of the bishop who baptized him at age 14. He was ordained a Catholic priest, but, even by 18th Century Venetian standards, Father Da Ponte's piety was suspect: he hung out with Casanova, had three children by a lady of dubious virtue, and opened a brothel. The pimp priest was banished in disgrace from Venice.

He arrived in Vienna and talked himself into the job of royal Poet to the Theaters. He struck up a working relationship with Mozart, and wrote the librettos for The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. (Casanova appears to have offered suggestions to his old friend Da Ponte for this last and greatest effort with Mozart). Although we don't know much about the inner workings of their collaboration, it appears that da Ponte had the good sense to let Mozart take the lead.

With the deaths of Mozart and the Emperor, Da Ponte's popularity in Vienna waned, especially after running off with another man's wife. He wound up in London, where he may or may not have married a Jewish lady with whom he had five children. They presented themselves as Anglicans. Da Ponte went broke in England. To stay out of debtor's prison, he fled to the new American republic, where he went into the grocery business.

But, even in old age in provincial America, he still had a knack for making friends who were culturally influential. Granted, Clement Moore was a less glittering figure than Casanova or Mozart, but the author of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (which codified the American Santa Clause) got the 76-year-old Da Ponte the job of Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia. Da Ponte is sometimes said to have been Columbia's first Jewish professor and its first professor who had been a Catholic priest. He was definitely the last Columbia professor to share in the creation of Don Giovanni.

He was a popular and influential figure, introducing New Yorkers to the glories of Dante and Rossini. At 79, Da Ponte became an American citizen, and at 85 he was instrumental in the construction of the first dedicated opera house in the U.S.

Although the dying Don Giovanni, like Coetzee's David Lurie at his sexual harassment hearing, had refused to repent, Da Ponte was more prudent. A 1957 Time review of a Da Ponte biography says:
Da Ponte died in 1838 at 89 and his passing was a grand operatic spectacle: with his magnificent head upon a sea of pillows, he lavishly blessed a weeping troupe of opera singers who knelt around his bed. At the very last moment he summoned a Roman Catholic priest, who received the old Jewish-Catholic-Anglican back into the fold.

He was given a huge Catholic funeral at old St. Patrick's Cathedral.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


robert61 said...

Actually, I think it was the 1994 Tim Allen movie that "codified the American Santa Clause".

dearieme said...

V droll - like an Opera, really.

Dutch Boy said...

Coincidentally, I was just reading a biography of John von Neumann, the brilliant Hungarian-Jewish mathematician who also was a deathbed convert to Catholicism (to the shock of his friends). To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the imminent prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully.

albertosaurus said...

Yes, yes. My other favorite web columnist Mark Steyn writes that opera, unlike his beloved Broadway Musical, only recognizes the musician not the librettist. Or as the title to Salieri's opera says Prima la musica poi le parole.

That's not so. Mozart had five hits and three of them were from the pen of Da Ponte. Da Ponte also wrote the libretto for Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara which ran Le Nozze off the boards in Vienna. That work is largely unknown today - that means it's not on YouTube - but I've been trying to get someone to mount a local production.

Why were the Da Ponte operas so popular? One reason is that they they were sexy. Another is that they had rich and colorful characters and situations - unlike most of Mozart's earlier works.

Malcolm Gladwell claims that Mozart wasn't a prodigy. He says Mozart never wrote anything of any originality until he was into his twenties. He couldn't be more wrong. Mozart wrote Mitridate, Re di Ponto when he was just fourteeen. He didn't just crank it out. He adjusted it to the singers he had available. d'Ettore - the lead tenor - made him rewrite one aria five times. The music he wrote at fouteen is genius but it is not popular.

Mozart needed Da Ponte. Mitridate was written for castrati. Today sometimes they use countertenors but usually just female sopranos. This means that the opera has essentially one tenor and four sopranos. No baritones, no basses, no contraltos. There are also no comic characters, no choruses, and no ensembles (duets or trios). It is just a succession of solos sung by high voices. One other thing, uncut Mitridate is six hours long.

Da Ponte gave Mozart the libretti that made him an immortal.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but many thanks to whichever iSteve reader pointed us towards Second City Cop - that site might be even more addictive than iSteve.

Those guys are on the front lines of the demographics war [which we are in the process of losing, and losing badly] - and wow, to a man, they are some of the most straightforward, forthright, brutally cynical SOBs that I have ever read in my life [and that's even after their Komment Kontrol has censored out the best -er- the "worst" of them].

Grumpy Old Man said...

A true picaresque novel.

Made my day.

Anonymous said...

"Malcolm Gladwell claims that Mozart wasn't a prodigy. He says Mozart never wrote anything of any originality until he was into his twenties"

Good God there goes my plan to read anything that fool ever wrote.

Of course the vast majority of Mozart's production was not particularly original, before or after his twenties. What bearing does that have on whether or not he was a prodigy? All composition consists primarily in copying one's predecessors. The only consistently original of the great composers was Haydn, though perhaps Beethoven too, to a lesser degree.

Besides which, Mozart was I believe nineteen when he wrote the Turkish violin concerto, are we supposed to believe that one is "unoriginal"?