A year later Da Ponte immigrated to America, where he failed in attempts to be a grocer, at selling medicines and drygoods, and at running a distillery. After a chance meeting with Clement Clarke Moore, however, he soon began a more successful career, spending most of the rest of his life in New York City as a celebrated teacher of Italian. A pioneer in the dissemination of Italian culture in the United States, he taught (1805-25) nearly 2,000 private pupils and in 1830 was appointed Columbia College's first professor of Italian language and literature (and the first such professor in the United States). His library, bought by Columbia in 1825, was the nucleus of its collection of Italian poetry and miscellaneous literature. In 1833 he helped establish the Italian Opera House in lower Manhattan, the first attempt to create a permanent American home for Italian opera. Da Ponte's last years were marred by poverty and the failure (1836) of the opera house.
See his memoirs (1823-27; tr. 1929; ed. by A. Livingston, tr. 1955, repr. 2000) detailing his extraordinary life; biographies by J. L. Russo (1922, repr. 1966), A. Fitzlyon (1955, repr. 1982), L. J. Hetenyi (1988), S. Hodges (1985, repr. 2002), R. Bolt (2006), and A. Holden (2006); A. Steptoe, The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas (1988); M. Du Mont, The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas: An Annotated Bibliography (2000).
Conegliano was a Jew by birth. His widowed father Geremia Conegliano converted himself and his three sons to Roman Catholicism in order to marry Ghella Pincherle. The 14-year-old Conegliano took the name Lorenzo Da Ponte, the name of the bishop of Ceneda who administered his baptism. He studied to be a teacher and was ordained a priest. While priest of the church of San Luca in Venice, he took a mistress, Angioletta Bellaudi, who was married. Da Ponte delivered their first child, on which he commented was "the kind of incident that happens every day". Reprimanded by the vicar-general, Da Ponte and Angioletta opened a brothel. Charged with "public concubinage and rapto di donna onesta" (abduction of a respectable woman), Da Ponte was banished from Venice for fifteen years.
Da Ponte travelled to Austria, and applied for Poet to the Theatres. Asked by Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor how many plays he had written, Da Ponte replied "None, Sire", to which he replied "Good, good! Then we shall have a virgin muse.".
Da Ponte moved to Paris, London, New York City and Philadelphia, where he briefly ran a grocery store and gave private Italian lessons before returning to New York to open a bookstore. He became friends with Clement Clarke Moore, and, through him, gained an appointment as the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia College. He was the first faculty member to have been born a Jew, and also the first to have been ordained a priest.
All of Da Ponte's works were adaptations of pre-existing plots, as was common among librettists of the time, with the exceptions of L'arbore di Diana with Vicente Martín y Soler, and Così fan tutte, which he began with Salieri, but completed with Mozart.