THE AMERICAN IN EUROPE: ossia l’europeo negli Stati Uniti
HGO Dramaturg Jeremy Johnson explains why The Phoenix—Tarik O’Regan and John Caird’s new opera about the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte—is essentially an American story.
BY JEREMY JOHNSON
Most people who have been going to the opera for a few years know that “the Da Ponte operas” were written by Mozart. But perhaps we should be more precise: those operas—The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte—were composed by Mozart. Their libretti were written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a man from the small town of Ceneda, Italy, seven years older than the Salzburg composer: a man who, for all of his 89 years of life, is entirely known for a scant five years during which he collaborated with a musical genius. His other 84 years, though, are arguably even more interesting. Da Ponte seemed to think so, too, writing three different editions of his memoirs over the last 15 years of his life.
Da Ponte’s memoirs are somewhere between hyperbole and fabrication. He took plenty of liberties in telling his own story. But sifting through the facts paints a picture of a remarkably fascinating life—one that traversed five countries, two continents, three languages, and at least ten different careers that ran the gamut from the Holy Roman Emperor’s court poet to a bankrupt grocery store owner in Manhattan. Da Ponte lived many different lives, but his first biographer, Joseph Russo, summed it up well: “Da Ponte’s connection to Mozart is now generally considered to be his greatest claim to lasting remembrance, yet perhaps of equal, if not even greater, importance, at least in America and Italy, should be deemed his having been one of the foremost pioneers of Italian culture in the United States.”
Living in the United States for the last 33 years of his life, Da Ponte championed Italian literature, the language of his beloved Boccaccio, Petrarch, Metastasio, and Dante—and, of course, Italian opera. He even raised—in only six weeks—what would today be almost five million dollars, all to build the very first opera house in New York City. He was 27 years old when America was born, and 79 years old when he became an American citizen.
Tarik O’Regan, composer of The Phoenix, says that Da Ponte’s connection to the United States is what inspired the opera. “It began with an article I wrote for the Guardian newspaper on European émigré composers and their work in New York—Britten, Bartók, Mahler—and this whole body of work created in America by European artists. And part of that was my discovery of just how much time Da Ponte had spent in the United States.” O’Regan—an immigrant and now an American citizen himself—would go on to become intrigued by this juxtaposition of time and place: Da Ponte was an “old world European” living at the same time the new world was being established. Librettist John Caird points out that Da Ponte and Mozart were writing Don Giovanni “on the very same nights that Hamilton and Madison were putting the final touches on the Constitution in September 1787. That, to me, is absolutely fascinating.”
For O’Regan and Caird, Da Ponte’s life is an American story—an immigrant story. His connection to America started almost three decades before moving here. While teaching at the Treviso seminary, he wrote political and philosophical poems for his students to recite that questioned the authority of a tyrannical monarchy. The year he wrote these revolutionary words? 1776. Caird points out that one of the poems was titled “The American in Europe”: “He’s hearing, clearly, all about the revolution in America and the Declaration of Independence. Da Ponte’s destination as an artist, from the very beginning, seemed obvious to be America.”
Those poems, though, resulted in his dismissal from his post and a lifelong ban from teaching in the Venetian Republic. The Venetian Senate formally rebuked the Treviso seminary and ordered an official inquiry into the “radicalization” of schools throughout the republic. That wouldn’t be the last time Da Ponte’s penmanship landed him in hot water.
Following only two years in Venice, he was put on trial. Officially, his trial was for infidelity—as a Catholic priest fathering illegitimate children with his live-in mistress—but the authorities had known about that and turned a blind eye for years. Perhaps not coincidentally, mere weeks before his trial he had written an ode in defense of his friend Giorgio Pisani, who had been accused of being a political dissident. Again, Da Ponte found his political views—and his willingness to write publicly about them—under fire from the European authorities. He fled Venice before his trial was over but was sentenced to a 15-year banishment from all lands of the Venetian Republic.
Ending up in Vienna, Da Ponte enjoyed ten years of prosperity as poet to the court for Italian opera, under the reign of Emperor Joseph II. It was here that he met and collaborated with Mozart, Salieri, and Martín y Soler. When Joseph died, his younger brother Leopold II ascended to the throne, and Da Ponte was subsequently removed from his post as Italian poet. Convinced that his “enemies” had conspired against him, he wrote a sardonic ode to the new emperor, publicly embarrassing him. One line in particular prophesied the unfortunate outcome for the Italian poet, when he wrote to Leopold, “my fate does not depend on you, because all your power, and all the powers of possible kinds, have no rights over my soul.” Da Ponte found himself banished indefinitely from Vienna.
A 12-year stint in London ended in bankruptcy, overwhelming debt, and a warrant for his arrest—but a tip from a friendly policeman gave Da Ponte enough time to flee yet another of his adopted homes. He boarded a ship for America, where he would make his home for the last 33 years of his life. He landed in America the same year that the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean. O’Regan was drawn to this merger of time and place. “The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 [in New York] was this incredibly visionary idea to build and plan out miles of this absolutely rigid grid of streets, but that happened while the co-writer of three of the most important works of the core classical repertory was living in the city at the same time. I was fascinated by that, but it was very strange—it felt like the old world was meeting the new.”
O’Regan also moved to New York—two hundred years after Da Ponte did—and points out that he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in a ceremony of almost identical wording to the one Da Ponte would have had. “It’s an incredibly fast, progressive country that he’s now a part of. I’ve always been interested in this link between inextricably European characters and definitive eras in the United States—Stravinsky and Schoenberg living in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood—you don’t really think of these worlds colliding, but they do.”
That collision of place and culture applies to O’Regan, as well, who grew up in a multi-cultural family. Patrick Summers, HGO’s Artistic and Music Director as well as conductor of The Phoenix, describes O’Regan’s background as ideal for composing Da Ponte’s operatic biography. “Tarik is the finest exemplar of the diverse trend of 21st-century composition: fusion. He has a British father and Algerian mother, and his childhood, spent variously between London, Algeria, and Morocco, instilled in him a deep interest and intellectual rigor about world culture, all of which he incorporates into his music. Tarik’s compositional voice is both highly lyrical and movingly intellectual; he is that real rarity: a thinking heart and a feeling brain. Tarik O’Regan is the perfect choice to bring us musically into the world of a genius who transited many cultures.”
As the world becomes more interconnected than ever, we see daily the influence of rapid globalization and cultural diversity. Perhaps it is easy to take for granted the influence that Italian culture has had on American life, but it’s even easier to forget that it all started with an immigrant. Da Ponte’s unending enthusiasm and zealous love for both of his homes—Italy and America—compelled him to unite the best parts of each. The man who wrote the libretti for three of our most beloved Italian operas? He was an American. As O’Regan puts it: “There are always these strange collisions of time and culture…things aren’t as far apart as you think.”
Editor's note: The opera’s full title, The Phoenix, or The Operatic Adventures of Lorenzo Da Ponte on Two Continents in Two Acts, and the title of this article reflect the common practice during Mozart and Da Ponte’s time of adding taglines to opera titles. Don Giovanni’s full title, for example, is Il dissoluto punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni (The libertine punished, or Don Giovanni).