My history hero: Katie Derham chooses Lorenzo Da Ponte

"He was a priest, lover, libertine and friend of Casanova – and that's all before he became the co-creator of three of the most sublime operas ever written." BBC presenter Katie Derham explains why she chose the brilliant poet and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte as her history hero

A c1830 portrait of the scandalous but sublimely talented Lorenzo da Ponte. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Lorenzo da Ponte, born Emanuele Conegliano, was an Italian poet and librettist (a writer of words for musical works), who famously collaborated with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on several important pieces. Born into a Jewish family, he was baptised in his teens and briefly served as a priest, but was expelled from the Venice in 1779 for his controversial views and scandalous personal life (after fathering two children with a mistress, he was charged with “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman”). He then moved to Vienna to become official poet to Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and went on to write several acclaimed librettos. Following the emperor’s death in 1790, he travelled to London and later to America, where he taught at Columbia College.

When did you first hear about Lorenzo da Ponte?

Lorenzo da Ponte is one of those intriguing also-rans of classical music history. He’s a name that few would recognise, but I bet many would recognise his work. He wrote the librettos for three of Mozart’s greatest operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. I’d heard his name over the years, but had always been much more dazzled by his musical pal Wolfgang Amadeus… until I read his biography by Rodney Bolt, which blew my mind.

What kind of person was he?

Don’t get me wrong, Lorenzo da Ponte isn’t particularly heroic in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, he probably was a complete nightmare to live with – flaky at best, duplicitous and vain at worst. But what a life! By the time he was 40, he had been a poet, priest, lover and a libertine, a friend of Casanova, a collaborator then enemy of (the celebrated Italian composer) Antonio Salieri – and that’s all without mentioning three of the most sublime operas ever written.

Da Ponte’s rackety life took him from Venice to Vienna, to George III’s London and finally to Thomas Jefferson’s America, where he ended his long life as a bookseller and professor of Italian at Columbia College.

What made Da Ponte a hero?

There’s much to criticise, and perhaps not too much you’d want to emulate on a human level from Da Ponte’s life, but his librettos to those three operas are so wonderful, and goodness me, what stories he could have told!

What was his finest hour?

There wasn’t one finest hour, but he was just such a survivor. There were so many times he could have thrown in the towel, but his powers of reinvention were extraordinary. And that’s what led him to take on so many different guises throughout his life.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Much, but he definitely wasn’t dull, was he?

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I think his favourite cities are also mine. Beyond that, though, I’m not sure I should be aspiring to most of his life choices!

If you could meet Da Ponte, what would you ask him?

I’d buy him several bottles of good claret, and prod him into reliving and retelling tales from his riotous youth, spent with some of the most colourful characters in musical history.

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Katie Derham is a broadcaster who presents In Tune on BBC Radio 3 and Discovery Concerts as part of Our Classical Century on BBC Four.