CeCe, Martha Lee and Clay with Da Ponte's portrait at Columbia University. Photo: Nayo Titzin. In the United States, W.A....

Building Recognition for Lorenzo Da Ponte's American Legacy

CeCe, Martha Lee and Clay with Da Ponte's portrait at Columbia University. Photo: Nayo Titzin.

In the United States, W.A. Mozart's librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte is our only tangible connection to the composer and to late 18th Century Europe which witnessed the height of their combined artistic powers in Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte. After the deaths of Mozart and his patron Emperor Joseph II along with a series of unfortunate events, Da Ponte moved to New York City by way of Philadelphia in 1805, lived in Sunbury, Pennsylvania for seven years (1811-1818) and returned to the city where he remained until his death in 1838.

While largely remembered for his life and achievements in the old country, Da Ponte had a noteworthy Atto Secondo in the New World. He introduced Americans to the Italian language, literature and opera. He was the first Professor of Italian at Columbia College (now Columbia University). He welcomed the first Italian opera troupe to the United States and founded the country's first opera house, the New York Opera Company, a predecessor of the Metropolitan Opera.

Like Mozart, Da Ponte's exact burial place is unknown. He died at 91 Spring Street in Manhattan and was interred at a Catholic cemetery near St. Patrick's Old Cathedralthe location of his funeral. But it was later discovered that this cemetery was demolished in 1909 and the remains were moved without headstones to Calvary Cemetery in Queens. The Native New Yorkers Association determined the approximate location of his grave and held small memorial services there in 1967, 1981 and 1985.

Lorenzo Da Ponte's memorial in Calvary Cemetery. Photo: Marcial, FindAGrave.com.

In October 1987, during Italian Heritage and Culture Month, a granite monument was dedicated to Da Ponte in Calvary Cemetery. It was a response to the negligence of an icon, perhaps compounded by his absence in the Academy award-winning Amadeus, released three years earlier. It was a missed opportunity for Hollywood to not at least give a mention to a central character in Mozart's life who lived his last three decades in the United States and whose libretti feature in the film via Axur, re d'Ormus (Salieri) and Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni (Mozart).

''He is never mentioned in the play or film Amadeus. Yet, his librettos and connections were integral to Mozart's successes," stated Forest Hills Councilman Morton Povman at the monument dedication. The event was given some publicity in the October 21, 1987 New York Times article, "For Mozart's Librettist, a Queens Fanfare."

Da Ponte's resting place connects Americans to Da Ponte and Mozart in a way that performances at Lincoln Center or any other opera house or concert hall in the country cannot. Also sacred to that physical bond are Da Ponte's descendants and the historical sites associated with his life.

While Da Ponte had successes in the United States, he also lived in relative obscurity and grappled with finding his place just like any other newcomer. He navigated poverty and hardship through enterprise, working as a grocer, bookseller, distiller and teacher. As grandiose as Da Ponte's life was at times in Europe, it was grounded here. His is a relatable story, one whose ambitions and vulnerabilities bring us closer to the history and heritage.

Historical marker for Lorenzo Da Ponte in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Photo: Joseph A., Flickr.

When I was the North American theatrical release manager for In Search of Mozart, Director Phil Grabsky introduced me to Clay Alder, a great-great-great-great grandson of Da Ponte. I then met his wife CeCe Gable, a jazz singer and music educator who, like myself, was from Ohio.

Among the events and activities I organized surrounding the film was an interview for Clay and CeCe on the regional NBC-affiliate WTAP-TV. I scheduled it during Mozartwoche (Mozart Week), an annual festival held to celebrate Mozart's birthday in his native Salzburg, Austria.

Clay offered family anecdotes and encouraged audiences to indulge in a screening of In Search of Mozart as well as one of his favorite books, The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America, to learn more about his famed forefather.

When Clay and Phil met at the Gene Siskel Film Center for In Search of Mozart's Chicago premiere where it had a record-breaking run, they signed a DVD in gratitude for my work. It's among my most prized possessions as a preservationist!

The cover of my In Search of Mozart DVD signed by Clay and Phil.

Through my partnership with Fathom Events and the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, I've led a campaign to promote Mozart's operas, including his trilogy with Da Ponte, awarding over 100 free tickets to fans in 14 states to enjoy the art form at their local cinemas. And throughout it all, I've had the support of Clay and his family:

"After our meeting through Phil Grabsky's In Search of Mozart, Sherry organized a regional television program for Mozart Week where I was given the opportunity to speak directly to viewers about my ancestor. In her passion for the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, Sherry has promoted Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni in cinemas and works to save this precious musical history. Lorenzo Da Ponte's 21st Century American descendants would like to express our heartfelt thanks to Sherry who has done so much to keep alive a remarkable relationship cut so abruptly short by Mozart's untimely death." -Clay Alder

Clay invited me to the Austrian Cultural Forum's inaugural Da Ponte Day as a guest of the family. It was during this event when I met his Aunt Martha Lee, an accomplished professor, lecturer, author, feminist and widow of the late Durant Da Ponte.

My view from the front row at ACFNY's Da Ponte Day event!

It was a full schedule. We attended the symposium, enjoyed dinner together with others from the event and attended an evening concert presented in partnership with the Don Juan Archive Vienna and the Mozarteum University Salzburg.

The next day, I met the family at the Casa Italiana which houses Columbia University's Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America for interviews with Bulgarian filmmaker Nayo Titzin. Appointed in 1825, Da Ponte was their first Professor of Italian. I learned more about the man whose portrait gazed curiously at us from above by observing Clay and Martha Lee's interviews.

Nayo has directed and produced documentaries about Mozart's operas, including Idomeneo, A Message of Humanity and Looking for Don Giovanni.

My photo of the Casa Italiana before venturing inside.
I captured a moment of levity as Nayo filmed Clay and Martha Lee for a documentary.
Clay's photo of myself, Martha Lee and CeCe with Da Ponte's portrait!

After dinner, we attended a performance of Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. While we chatted and the orchestra warmed up, those seated around us overheard our conversation and soon discovered the special guest in their section. 

Clay, friendly and unassuming, was amused by the attention he received from Da Ponte's admirers (I think he may have signed a program or two!). It was surreal to be sitting in the Grand Tier with him, watching and cheering on arguably one of the greatest collaborations in operatic history between his ancestor and Mozart.

With the last known direct descendant of the Mozart family passing away in 1965 (Karoline Grau, née Mozart), there was never an opportunity for me to connect with the composer's family. So, I feel all the more fortunate to enjoy such a connection with the family of his poetic counterpart!

Following the performance, Nayo took us backstage to meet Swedish baritone Peter Mattei and German soprano Marlis Petersen who performed the roles of Count Almaviva and Susanna. Note: Peter will be singing the title role of Don Giovanni in a new production at the Met which will be in cinemas nationwide on March 27, 2021!

CeCe, Nayo, Martha Lee, myself and Clay at the Metropolitan Opera for Figaro!

The singers joined us on a short walk from the opera house to P.J. Clarke's where we remained well into the morning. Our round-table of singers, Da Ponte family members and music professionals was icing on the cake. I was energized and inspired. We discussed ideas and planned to meet again. I sat next to Martha Lee, who enjoyed a good martini, and referred to me as an "Honorary Da Ponte."

Martha Lee left such an impression. She was worldly, charming and shrewd. We didn't stay in touch regularly after our meeting, but Clay sent updates. I did call her once to chat about a friend she knew in Knoxville who attended high school with The Everly Brothers for my popular music work and to offer tickets to see Don Giovanni at her local cinema through my collaboration with Fathom Events. We kept an eye on the future, but little did we know that the future we anticipated was all but lost.

In a December email, Clay informed me that Martha Lee had passed away. I was shocked and saddened. She was such a life force. We had work to do, an unrealized collaboration. It was a harsh reminder of the limitations of time as it pertains to our own mortality and to that of preserving our musical past.

A Da Ponte by marriage, Martha Lee enjoyed a long life worthy of the name through grand adventure, intellectual fulfillment and perseverance in the face of tremendous challenge. Read her obituary.

I'm on the right between Martha Lee and CeCe enjoying our afterglow at P.J. Clarke's!

Martha Lee's loss has strengthened my resolve to do more to move the dialogue forward about creating greater recognition for this heritage that is unique to Da Ponte's American story, an immigrant's story, which will in turn reinforce our stateside relationship with Mozart. I hope to someday be worthy of the designation she gave me as an "Honorary Da Ponte."

I've written this article in her loving memory to create awareness and a prelude to my future request for support when the opportunity arises. I have passion, a platform, no shortage of ideas and a community of Mozartians I've nurtured over the years who I hope will reward me with action for the cause. Any initiative given serious consideration will be done so in direct consultation with the family per their endorsement.

In a preface to the 1959 edition of Da Ponte's memoirs, Thomas G. Bergin wrote: "By tradition, education, and experience, this European sophisticate would seem to be far removed from the American Psyche; but his deeper nature -- eager, adventurous and basically evangelical -- was well-adapted to the New World."

Let us be eager, adventurous and evangelical in our endeavor.