I wasn’t sure that what I was seeing was really what I was seeing. All I could manage was “Lorenzo Da Ponte, is that you?” To which he replied “Ha ha!” Followed by “Ha ha!” Then a third “Ha ha!” Then nothing. Then a gust of cold wind, but no other words. Then another “Ha ha!”
Nor could I make head or tail of what Da Ponte meant with his various declarations of hearty “Ha ha!” Was it a good “Ha ha!,” a bad “Ha ha!,” a mocking “Ha ha!,” an enigmatic “Ha ha!”? I wasn’t sure. He had that Italian accent and all, so even here, appearing before me as an apparition, he seemed charming. And definitely dead. And still unmistakable: one of the finest opera librettists who ever lived — the man who wrote Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte, among other works — was floating before me. Real but unreal. Dead but alive. And then, one more time, he jubilantly tormented me with a fifth “Ha ha!,” followed by “I’m back!, I’m back!, I’m back!, I’m back!” Well, that’s a relief, I thought, since he died in 1838. “There’s a play, That True Phoenix, that will receive its performances in the Off-Off-Broadway New York City,” he told me, “and here I appear as proof. I lived! I lived! I lived! Ha ha!”
Oh, he must really enjoy this. Some 179 years after his death, few people outside of opera circles know his name, let alone his wild, complicated life story. Born Emanuele Conegliano — a Jew — in 1749 near Venice, his family converted to Catholicism to enable his father to marry a Catholic woman. He later adopted the surname of the bishop who baptized him. In his 20s, he was a teacher and a priest — one with a mistress with whom he fathered two children. Following a trial, he was banished from Venice for 15 years and thus decamped for Austria, where he acquired arts patrons, lived as a writer, and met composer Antonio Salieri. As anyone familiar with Peter Shaffer’s play (and later film) Amadeus might imagine, where Salieri appears, Mozart surely follows. And so it came to be that Da Ponte began to collaborate with the young genius. Later, after Da Ponte his lost his royal patron, he decamped again, this time to Paris. In opera, they’d call this tragic timing, for he arrived at the dawn of the French Revolution. Next stop: London, where he lived until the early 19th century, when his tenuous financial position inspired him to come to America.
Da Ponte, itinerant and immigrant, was writing, writing, writing all the while — even after arriving in NYC, even after winding up in the middle of Pennsylvania running a grocery store. Upon his return to NYC, he became the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. Reaching his 70s, then his 80s, he became an American citizen and founded an opera company. His final resting place remains unclear. So it’s the kind of life story Voltaire might have appreciated for his Candide, especially with Da Ponte ever questing for the best of all possible worlds.
Something about the man, now as an apparition, caught me eye. He was breathing heavily, audibly. In a single chilling breath, he said:
This is a wonderful occasion, my friend! The best! Some erstwhile playwright, Daniel John Kelley, and a theatrical troupe, Team Awesome Robot, have finally had the brilliant idea to tell the story of my life with a play, entitled That True Phoenix. And what a story it is! It’s all the wild adventures I had over my 89 years of life across Europe and here in America — the successes I definitely earned and the failures that were definitely the fault of my treacherous enemies. If they make it even half as entertaining as it truly was in reality, you are in for a treat! If it’s the full amount of entertaining, however, you may never recover.
He beseeched me to ask him questions and each time I did, in a single chilling breath, he answered me. Here’s the transcript of our chat. That True Phoenix runs at the Access Theater through May 6. To buy tickets, click here.
And now, 5 questions Lorenzo Da Ponte has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
The great Emperor Joseph II of Austria, my good friend, once asked me, “How can you, who have never written words for an opera in your life, possibly think you should be appointed as poet to my new Italian opera?” My answer astounded him, and he gave me the job, but it was a very perceptive question.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
That’s a good question. You know, everyone always asks me what it was like to work with Mozart, but no one ever asks Mozart what it was like to work with me. The glory of dying young is you don’t live long enough for people to ask you stupid questions.
Honestly, when I met him, he was a slob, teaching a few lessons for the kids of a few minor nobles, his halcyon days of being a child prodigy behind him. In your terms, he was like a 20-something Macaulay Culkin, or an older, sadder member of Hanson.
I tell you, if he hadn’t met me, there would be no “Mozart” at all! I brought out the best in him (I mean, have you seen Idomeneo?). I talked him up to all the people to know in Vienna, I made his talent thrive once again, but somehow, in all the biographies ever written about Mozart — and there are quite a few — no one ever takes that angle. What can I say? People fear the truth.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Silence! My son Joseph died in 1821, and at that very same time I read Lord Byron’s Prophecy of Dante and was so moved by it and how it spoke to me of loss (even in English) that I, unprompted, wrote an Italian translation to improve it and sent it to him. I had never met Lord Byron, but one would think that a figure of Italian letters such as I cut at that time would have at least warranted a response, especially for something as necessary as an Italian translation of an English poem based on an Italian subject.
You died in 1838. Until 30 years ago, when various books began examining your life and the opera buffa you wrote with Mozart, you were pretty much forgotten; your memoirs went out of print. Would your life story make a good opera? Would it be comic or tragic?
My life would make an extraordinary opera, thank you very much. Adventure? Check. Romance? Check. Tragedy? Check. Hilarity? Check. But the thing about life, my life included — and which I tried to reflect in the works I created — is that it is neither all tragic nor all comic. Moments of great pathos are followed immediately by the most ridiculous occasions imaginable, and it is an unconscionable sin against creation to construct artificial narratives that separate the two.
You were an early pioneer of the American immigrant tradition. So we’ll ask the same question: Is your immigrant experience the stuff of opera or musical theater? How would you structure the story? Who would compose the music to the libretto you’d write of your life — and why?
Once again, I would say yes, definitely, my story could take on any genre, even your musical theater, which I quite enjoy for the degree to which you actually understand the words people are saying and singing, for the most part.
I would structure it thusly:
I arrive on the shores of America, penniless, lost, searching, yearning, hoping for my family! I find them in New York! We go into business! It’s marvelous! But then, through the cruelty of my enemies, the business fails and we’re forced to move to New Jersey. We start a distillery! It’s marvelous! But then, through the cruelty of my enemies, that business fails too and we’re forced to move to western Pennsylvania. We go through all the many business ventures and positions I tried in this fair country — dreams and hopes and wonderment, then the crashing despair of terrible people making life miserable for me and my family. The 11 o’clock number is my cousin Louisa, who comes to New York from Italy to make splash singing opera music on the stage in New York City. I produce her efforts, rent the largest theater in New York, promote her nonstop, promise to make her a star! The day arrives and she fails: no one likes her singing; she really wasn’t very good at singing to begin with; she moves back to Italy; she raises a lovely family. There would be three more hours of materials after that.
But, ah! Who would be the composer? Failing the genius Martin Y Soler — really the best composer of my time, if you ask me — failing that, if I had my druthers, I’d choose that fellow Dave Malloy who wrote Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. He seems very contemporary, and my story would need to be contemporary, forward looking — no dreary nostalgia, thank you very much. He also seems to work very well with deceased librettists.
A talented medium has been made available to channel Mozart — much as you’ve been channeled for this interview from the dead. What three questions should he be asked? Want to offer any insights as to his answers?
I’d be like, “Lorenzo Da Ponte — big influence on your work or the biggest influence on your work?”
He’d be like, “The biggest!” (if he’s not being a liar).
I’d be like, “Then why the fuck am I not in Amadeus at all?! The story of your life captured on film for eternity and played on stages across the globe, and I’m not there? How did you not haunt that playwright forever about this?!
He’d be like, “Oh, Lorenzo! It’s a scandal! I am haunting him forever! It’s all I’m doing! Now that he’s dead, I will do nothing else, because it’s such a terrible injustice — really, how could they do that to you? Imagine the movie stars who would have played you in the film. Robert Downey, Jr.! Matthew Broderick! Eddie Murphy!”
I’d be like, “But, old enmities aside, Mozart, it seems as though the country I love — America — is in peril. The ruler of the government is a tyrant and bully, and his henchmen seem intent on moving the country backward while antagonizing foreign powers who could do harm to its citizens. What do you say, Mozart? Shall we unite once again and write an opera that turns the world on its head?”
He’d smile slyly at me and say, “It worked for the French!”