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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

(Soundbite of music)

Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretti 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 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 is author of a new biography and he says Lorenzo Da Ponte's timing could not have been better.

Mr. RODNEY BOLT (Author of The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte): Da Ponte comes into the society and Joseph II had just created an Italian opera company.

Now, this would have been the center of Europe and in that sense the center of the world as far as opera went. The company that he creates is the most prestigious possible and would have been one of the best paid. And Da Ponte gets the role of theater poet without ever having written a single opera in his life, and not even a play.

MONTAGNE: And how did he manage that?

Mr. BOLT: He seems all the way through his life to have had the most extraordinary charm. He seems just to have marvelously talked his way into it. In a sense, both he and Mozart were among the very first freelancers, we'd call them today. Because before this time, people had depended on patrons - artists, poets, musicians. And these young men didn't want to do that. They had enlightened new ideas and wanted independence, dignity, some sort of freedom.

MONTAGNE: There is a letter that you've included here, Mozart writing to his own father about his hopes that Da Ponte would write him - Mozart - a libretto.

Mr. BOLT: We forget at this distance, that at that moment, Da Ponte was the famous one. He was the theater poet, so Da Ponte was Mozart's channel to success.

The new theater poet, he wrote to his father, had promised to write him a libretto. But in addition to the fact that Da Ponte was so busy, says Mozart, who knows whether he will keep his word or even wants to. And I would've loved to show here what I can really do with Italian opera.

MONTAGNE: Well, clearly, Mozart did succeed in getting Da Ponte to write a libretto for him and that was The Marriage of Figaro.

(Soundbite of opera, The Marriage of Figaro)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. BOLT: It had a mild success in Vienna, but then in Prague, who always loved Mozart better than the Viennese did, it was a huge success. Mozart wrote back after visiting Prague to see the first production of Figaro there: Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro everywhere he went.

MONTAGNE: Now, we know about Mozart as a composer. What made Da Ponte such a great librettist?

Mr. BOLT: I think we can see it one of the arias he wrote for Mozart. It was a very popular one. The Catalogue song from Don Giovanni. As with many of the librettos, he based it on an opera that - or a text that already existed and this was by Bertati. And if you look at the Bertati original you can see just what Da Ponte does to make this libretto really come to life.

The song is Don Giovanni's servant giving a list of the women his master has seduced, and in the Bertati version it is simply that. He says his master has seduced over a hundred, cento e tante, and more than that, he doesn't know (foreign language spoken). Very pedestrian plodding rhymes, the sort of rhymes that Mozart complained about when dealing with Italian libretti.

Da Ponte takes this and, firstly he begins much more intimately. He makes Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello, draw the woman towards him and say, (foreign language spoken), my lady, come on, have a look at this with me.

(Soundbite of opera, Don Giovanni)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Leoporello) (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. BOLT: And then Da Ponte changes each of those numbers to an exact number. In Italy, 640 seicento e quaranta, in Germany, 231, duencento e trentuno and in Spain, 1003, mill'e tre.

He had something for words that knew what Mozart would like to do with them. And when you listen to the opera, you can hear Mozart picking up on mill'e tre, repeating it mill'e tre, and the music almost comes out of the words in themselves.

(Soundbite of opera, Don Giovanni)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: In opera, the librettist is often quite invisible. How important was the librettist in Da Ponte's time?

Mr. BOLT: By the time Da Ponte came along, opera had changed from opera seria to comic opera and the composer was beginning to gain predominance. And Mozart writes in a letter to his father that the librettist had to serve the composer. The poetry was a handmaiden to the music.

Da Ponte, of course, violently objected to that and said that if the poet was irrelevant then the composer might as well set a bookseller's catalogue to music which is, I suppose, is the 18th century equivalent of saying he might as well set a telephone directory to music.

MONTAGNE: Did Da Ponte complain in his time about how he was not as prominent as he should have been in terms of being credited with the work?

Mr. BOLT: Very much so. In later life he was very unhappy with the fact that Mozart, who was by now famous, was mentioned only as the author of the three operas that they had worked together on.

We do still do it today. In the world of the musical we'll talk about Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe, but in the world of opera, we focus entirely on the composer. And people, even when they're writing about Mozart, even music critics writing about Mozart, will talk about Mozart's characterization not when they're talking about the music, but when they're talking about what characters say to each other or how dramatic scenes are set up. That's not Mozart at all, that's Da Ponte.

MONTAGNE: Rodney Bolt, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. BOLT: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Rodney Bolt is the author of The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte. You can read an excerpt at npr.org.

(Soundbite of opera performance)

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DON GONYEA, host:

And I'm Don Gonyea.

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