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'The Librettist of Venice:' Mozart's Poet

In this year of celebrations marking Mozart's 250th birthday, we take a few moments to remember the great composer's poet.

Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three of Mozart's operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte.

And Lorenzo Da Ponte's life played out like a character in the opera buffa of his day:

Born in 1749 into the Jewish ghetto of Venice, he converted to Christianity as a youth, entered the priesthood, and then matched his friend, Casanova, in a string of seductions scandalous even by the standards of a thoroughly decadent Venice.

Sent into exile, Da Ponte landed in Vienna at the court of Emperor Joseph II. Rodney Bolt, the author of a new biography, The Librettist of Venice, says Da Ponte's timing couldn't have been better.

"Joseph II had just created an Italian opera company," Bolt says. "This would have been the center of Europe, and in that sense, the center of the world, as far as opera went."

The company was among the most prestigious and one of the best paid. Da Ponte talks his way into the role of theater poet "without ever having written an opera in his life — not even a play."

"He seems all the way through his life to have had the most extraordinary charm," Bolt says.

Bolt says Da Ponte helped bring Mozart's works to life. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the famous "Catalog Song" from Don Giovanni, in which the title character's servant lists the number of women his master has seduced:

In Italy six hundred and forty / In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one. / A hundred in France, in Turkey ninety-one, / But in Spain already a thousand three.

Da Ponte seemed to know what Mozart wanted to say, Bolt says, "and the music almost comes out of the words in themselves."

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