When it comes to operas we feel that the focus always goes toward the musical composer like a cat to a laser pointer, but loses its attention where other contributors are concerned. While the music in an opera is as important as water is to fish another aspect that an opera cannot live without is the lyrics, or text that the singers sing.
More often than not, in operas, the text was written by a separate person, namely a librettist, which would be todays version of a lyricist. So it is in honor of these writers of words, specifically those hailing from Italy, that we are proud to introduce you to a few of our favorite librettists.
1. Lorenzo Da Ponte
Who is Da Ponte? Sure, his name is not very well known. At least not as well-known as the musical composer of one of this librettist’s most notable works, The Marriage of Figaro. Yes, Da Ponte worked with the king of opera himself, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Besides being an opera librettist, 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. It is here where he became a Professor of Literature. This is also when 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.
2. Arrigo Boito
This librettist was also if Italian descent and worked not only as a writer of opera but as a poet, journalist, novelist, and composer. His most famous works were alongside Giuseppe Verdi on Otello and Falstaff. Boito also wrote the libretto for his own composition Mefistofele. Boito, his brother Camillo, and Emilio Praga are considered top agents of the Scapigliatura artistic effort. This movement is equal to the bohemian movement in France.
Born to a father who painted miniatures and a mother who was a Polish countess, Boito trained musically at the Milan Conservatory. He went on to serve in the military under Giuseppe Garibaldi in the Seven Weeks War against Austria. This was the point in history where Venice became a part of Italy.
Although he kept a secret affair with famous actress Eleonora Duse from 1887 until 1894 the two remained very close via written communication until Boito’s death. He replaced Giovanni Bottesini as the director of the Parma Conservatory in 1889 and remained in that position until 1897.
The University of Cambridge gave Boito an honorary doctorate in music n 1893 before he died. While he wasn’t a prolific composer of music he did finish and destroy his opera titled Ero e Leandro while another was found unfinished titled Nerone.
The only surviving finished opera by Boito completely is Mefistofele, which he based on Goethe’s Faust. Its premiere performance was given on March 5, 1868 at La Scala in Milan. The reception was a failure after it incited riots and duels due to its assumed “Wagnerism”, which is a term referring to composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner an anti-Semitic who is thought to have influence the Nazi movement.
3. Francesco Maria Piave
Another Italian on our list of librettists Piave was also born in Venice during the Kingdom of Italy’s Napoleonic reign in 1810. He worked for two decades with high profiled opera composers of his time including Giovanni Pacini, Saverio Mercadante, Federico Ricci, Michael Balfe, and Giuseppe Verdi. His most famous opera librettos were written for Verdi’s Rigoletto and La traviata.
Besides writing text for operas 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.
Loyal to his Italian heritage Piave so was Verdi. They collaborated on ten operas from 1844 through 1862. In fact, Piave was commissioned to create the libretto for Verdi’s masterpiece Aida but the librettist suffered a stroke and was left paralyzed and speechless.
Although it is said that Verdi bullied Piave, his true nature of devout friendship was displayed when the librettist suffered his illness. Verdi monetarily supported the librettist’s family and planned a release of “an album of pieces by famous composers” for the financial assistance of Piave.
When Piave passed on at the age of sixty-five it was Verdi who had him buried at the Monumental Cemetery.
4. Ruggero Leoncavallo
The final Italian native on our list of librettists also composed music like others we have read about. Born to a judge in Naples on April 23, 1857 Leoncavallo and his father moved to the region of Calabria when he was a child. After his adolescent years Leoncavallo moved back to Naples and began to study music at San Pietro a Majella Conservatory. From there he went on with his education at the University of Bologna majoring in Italian literature.
When he was twenty-two Leoncavallo moved to Cairo to live with his uncle Giuseppe, the director of the press department of the Foreign Ministry there. It was his uncle’s thought that his nephew could perform and showcase his talents on the piano. He was immediately appointed as the piano teacher and pianist to the new leader of Egypt, Khedive Tewfik Pasha. When the people began to revolt in Alexandria and Cairo Leoncavallo relocated to Paris.
In Paris Leoncavallo worked as an accompanist and met his wife Berthe. It was there he would finish his first orchestral poem and, with its success, Leoncavallo was financially secure enough to take his wife back to Milan. This is when he began opera composition.
Leoncavallo would work on many operas before creating Pagliacci, his masterpiece. The difference between this librettist and the others on our list today is that the piece Leoncavallo is most famous for was composed musically by him as well. He has said that the inspiration for this opera came from a murder trial his father has presided over.
The opening of Pagliacci was held in 1892 in Milan and was an instant hit. Enrico Caruso’s recording of the aria “Vesti la giubba” was the first record in the world to sell a million copies.
Another notable work by Leoncavallo is I Medici, which was not well received by audiences at its premiere in Milan. Strangely enough Leoncavallo wrote an opera named La bohéme at the same time Puccini wrote his. Leoncavallo reworked his and retitled it Mimi Pinson but it didn’t endure.
After writing more operas and operettas Leoncavallo died in Tuscany before a few weeks before his sixty-second birthday. The funeral was well attended including his nemesis Giacomo Puccini. Leoncavallo is believed, by some, to be Italy’s supreme librettist besides Boito. Ironically Leoncavallo wrote the libretto for Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
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