Poet, priest, and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano on 10 March 1749 at Lorenzo Da Ponte in Ceneda, Veneto region, into a Jewish family. In 1764 his widowed father converted the family to Catholicism in order to re-marry.
Lorenzo studied at the Ceneda seminary and was ordained a priest in 1773 (with a keen interest in poetry and wine). That same year Da Ponte moved to Venice, where he was employed as a teacher of languages. He was unable to resist the city’s temptations. While priest of the church of San Luca, he took a mistress, with whom he had two children.
At his 1779 trial, where he was charged with public concubinage and abduction of a respectable woman, it was alleged that he had been living in a brothel, organising the entertainments there. He was also accused of circulating a poem in which a criticised a corrupt Venetian government. He was found guilty and banished for fifteen years from Venice.
By 1781 he was in Dresden where his friend Caterino Mazzolà, the poet of the Saxon court, gave him a letter of introduction to Antonio Salieri. The latter helped him in obtaining the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna. There he collaborated with Mozart, Salieri, and the Spanish ‘sensation’ Vicente Martín y Soler. He was responsible for Mozart’s three celebrated operas Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte.
With the death of Austrian Emperor Joseph II in the winter of 1790 (after Così had been staged only five times), Da Ponte lost his patron and was dismissed by the new Emperor Leopold from the Imperial Service. Banned from Venice, he decamped to Trieste where he met Ann [Nancy] Grahl, a young woman who worked as tutor to the children of a prosperous Dutch family. Known around Trieste as la bella inglesina, and twenty years his junior, he fell for her charms.
Nancy was born in London, the daughter of a German Jewish merchant and a French mother. Her father, a chemist and moneylender, had spent many years in London where had converted to the Anglican Church. In August 1790, her father gave permission for them to wed. Lorenzo and Nancy set off for Paris in August 1792, travelling via Prague and Dresden.
The growing political chaos in France made him change his mind and he headed for London instead. There he took on a number of jobs, including that of grocer, teacher, and librettist at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1803. He then set up as a bookseller at no. 5 Pall Mall, but remained in debt. With bankruptcy looming ahead, in 1804 he encouraged his wife to take the children to her parents, now settled in Pennsylvania. In 1805, as creditors were threatening him, he boarded the packet boat Columbia for Philadelphia and never saw Europe again. Lorenzo Da Ponte died in August 1838 in New York.