The words sung in an opera are just as important as the music yet most of the attention is on the musical composers. We would like to dedicate this issue to a few librettists that brought us the words we hear sopranos sing.
Augustin Eugéne Scribe
Our first librettist was born in Paris to a father who sold silk. Scribe, a fitting last name for a writer, was given a wonderful education and had first set out to be a lawyer. Still, the draw of the pen was too strong and Scribe had his first play staged anonymously in 1810. It flopped but he continued to work and eventually he would work with some of the most well-respected composers.
The bulk of his work was premiered at the Paris Opéra over the years and he worked with composers like Giacomo Meyerbeer, Giuseppe Verdi, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini, Daniel Auber, and Fromental Halévy. He was working on a Meyerbeer opera when he passed away. Scribe was attempting to revise his libretto for L’Africaine, a work he had first penned in 1838.
Some other works Scribe wrote libretto’s for include Boieldieu’s La dame blanche, Auber’s Fra Diavolo, and Gustave III, ou Le bal masquéI. Scribe also wrote many plays and a few novels, but the latter never took off. He enjoyed collaborating with other writers one result being Une Nuit de la garde nationale in 1815, which he co-wrote with Delestre Poirson. Other writers he worked with include Germain Delavigne, Xavier Saintine, and Jean Henri Dupin.
Scribe also thrived when writing comedy. His first comedic attempt, Valérie, opened in 1822 at the Théâtre-Français. Some of the performers he enjoyed writing for include Mademoiselle Mars and Mademoiselle Rachel. This librettist also dabbled in tragedies, vaudeville sketches, and dramas in addition to opera and comedy. It is said he had finished 150 works by 1830.
Lorenzo Da Ponte
Besides being an opera librettist worked on some of Mozart’s most notable works like The Marriage of Figaro, Da Ponte was also a poet and a Roman Catholic priest. By the end of his career, he had written the text for nearly thirty operas with three of them being Mozart’s most famous works. Besides The Marriage of Figaro, Da Ponte also wrote the librettos for Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte.
Born in 1749 in Ceneda, which was in the Republic of Venice that eventually became Vittorio Veneto, Italy, Da Ponte was the oldest of three sons to a Jewish family. When he was fifteen years old his widowed father converted them all to the Roman Catholic Church so he could marry a Catholic woman.
After being baptized by the Bishop of Ceneda Da Ponte and his brothers attended the Ceneda seminary. By 1773 Da Ponte took his vows as a priest after studying at the seminary in Portogruaro in Venice. This is where Da Ponte began to write poetry.
It is reported that even though Da Ponte took a vow of celibacy he was lacking in his moral standing when he was young. He got his mistress pregnant twice and was tried for “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman.” After being found guilty of residing in a brothel he was exiled from Venice and could not return for fifteen years.
Da Ponte relocated to Vienna where he became the librettist for the Italian Theater in Vienna. It was here where Da Ponte met Mozart. Other composers he worked with include Salieri and Vincente Martin y Soler.
In 1790 when the Emperor of Austria died the new regime evicted Da Ponte from his post. Unable to return to Venice due to his banishment this librettist headed for Paris but quickly changed his mind due to political unrest in France. He made his way to London and stayed there until 1805 as the librettist at the King’s Theatre but fled to the United States with his mistress and their four children when he couldn’t meet his debts.
Da Ponte settled in Pennsylvania after a brief stint in New York and was a grocer for a while and an Italian teacher. Then he made his way back to New York and became a professor of Italian literature at Columbia. From there he accomplished many goals including founding the New York Opera Company in 1833 when he was eighty-four years old. Da Ponte would die five years later.
Constantin Christian Dedekind
Born in a part of Germany known as Reinsdorf, Thuringia, Constantin Dedekind had the advantage of being born into a family of musicians. He attended Quedlinburg Abbey and moved to Dresden in 1647. A few years later his talent with writing was recognized when he was awarded the Dichterkrone, which is the German version of Poet Laureate.
Yet he loved music and Dedekind started working as a bass singer in 1654 in a Dresden assemble Kapelle. Dedekind published Aelbianische Musen-Lust, a compilation of poetry to music written to tell a story with one voice. His next collection of works, including more than one hundred concertos plus coninuo for two voices, was released in 1673/74 titled Musicalischer Jahrgang und Vesper-Gesang.
Dedekind would publish groups of opera libretti in 1670 titled Neue geistliche Schauspiele and in 1676 titled Heilige Arbeit über Freud und Leid der alten und Neuen Zeit. Because of his style and innovation, Dedekind is a German treasure in the classical arts.
He had to leave his home in Dresden when the plague spread over the community in 1680. The bulk of Dedekind’s work at the end of his life consisted of religious writings. The librettist had two wives and five children and he passed in his home in Dresden on September 2, 1715.
Francesco Maria Piave
Working with some of the greats like Giovanni Pacini, Federico Ricci, Saverio Mercadante, and Giuseppe Verdi, Piave penned the libretto for opera favorites Rigoletto and La traviata. Piave was also a journalist, a translator, and a resident poet and stage manager at La Fenice in Venice, which is where he first met Verdi. It was Verdi who helped Piave gaining a position at La Scala in Milan. While Piave’s experiences as a stage manager and his smooth negotiation skills helped him with his collaborations with Verdi, it is reported that Verdi was mean and terrorized the librettist for a long time.
Piave was loyal to Verdi and they worked together from 1844 to 1862 and the result were ten operas. Piave was commissioned to write the libretto for Verdi’s Aida but Piave had a stroke and was left speechless and paralyzed.
Some say that Verdi was a bully to Piave, and for all we know this may be true. Yet, when the librettist fell ill Verdi is the one who stepped up and financially supported Piave’s family and released “an album of pieces by famous composers”, which the proceeds also went to the librettist’s family.
Piave is buried at the Monumental Cemetery where Verdi had him entombed after he passed away at the age of sixty-five.
Learn about a few of our favorite Italian librettists, like Francesco Maria Piave, here.