The Italian Jew Who Wrote Some of Mozart’s Most Famous Operas

March 17, 2023 | Robert Marshall
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The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte are some of the greatest works in the Western musical tradition, and did much to build the reputation of their composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But the man who wrote their libretti, Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838)—an Italian poet who spent the last years of his life teaching Italian at New York City’s Columbia University—was generally forgotten by non-experts. He was also born a Jew, as Robert Marshall writes:

Da Ponte himself was at pains throughout his life to hide his Jewish background. His Memoirs (first published in New York, in Italian, in 1823) begin with a fair warning on the first page. He declares, “I shall speak but little of my family, my neighborhood, my early years, as of matters . . . of scant moment to the reader.” . . . Neither here nor anywhere else in the Memoirs does Da Ponte name his parents or mention that they were Jewish.

It is not clear whether Mozart ever knew that Da Ponte was a converted Jew. The composer moved to Vienna in March 1781; Da Ponte arrived later that same year. The two apparently met for the first time in early 1783 at the home of Raimund Wetzlar (1752–1810), Mozart’s sometime landlord, one of his patrons, and the godfather of his firstborn son. In letters to his father, Mozart referred to Wetzlar variously as “the rich converted Jew,” “a rich Jew,” “an honest friend.”

One assumes that both Wetzlar and Da Ponte were aware that the other was a Jewish convert and that their shared background played a role in establishing their relationship, but that is not known for certain. A similar question arises regarding the relationship between Da Ponte and the [Austrian] emperor. Da Ponte claims in his memoirs that, from the beginning, he was a particular favorite of Joseph II—who had appointed him (instead of other ambitious aspirants) poet of the newly revived Italian court opera beginning with the April 1783 season. Just three months earlier, Joseph had issued an Edict of Tolerance. The Edict emancipated the Jews of Vienna and allowed them to practice their faith openly. Could it be that Joseph was aware of, or at least suspected, Da Ponte’s Jewish origins and that this fact had predisposed the enlightened despot in favor of the newly arrived and quite inexperienced poet?

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