Gian Carlo Menotti

Opera composer of extraordinary popularity and founder of the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto

Saturday 03 February 2007 01:00 GMT

Gian Carlo Menotti, composer: born Cadegliano, Italy 7 July 1911; (one adopted son); died Monte Carlo 1 February 2007.

Gian Carlo Menotti was one of the most successful opera composers of the mid-20th century. He had an inborn sense of the theatre, inheriting the tradition of Puccini, with an intuitive feel for character and drama, which served him faultlessly in a fusion of music and theatre to his own texts - almost all in English. Menotti remained Italian to the core, even though he spent most of his life based in America before, improbably, buying a country mansion in Scotland.

He was born in Cadegliano, on Lake Lugano, in 1911, the sixth of eight surviving children in a large family network. His mother, Ines, was the predominant parental influence: she gave her children the chance of learning various instruments and pampered Gian Carlo. Samuel Barber, Menotti's almost lifelong partner, felt that she was "made to be the heroine of a Puccini opera". Her children loved theatre and staged puppet shows, for which they made the costumes and provided music and lighting. As a boy Gian Carlo was deeply religious, fascinated by all aspects of the miraculous and magical. He had been composing since he was five and by the age of 11 had written his first opera, The Death of Pierrot.

When his family moved to Milan, Gian Carlo was a regular attender at theatres as well as opera at La Scala. During a summer holiday he attended his first seance, which gave him a taste for the supernatural and, after further experiences, bore fruit in The Medium later on.

But change was to come since his mother must have realised that there was little future in Menotti's studies at the Milan Conservatory. She was astute enough to ask the advice of Arturo Toscanini and to her surprise he suggested the boy should go to the Curtis Institute at Philadelphia. Another shock was the death of Menotti's father and his mother's remarriage, to the family's general disapproval, to a much younger man. They went to live in South America and in 1928 Menotti, now 17, found himself in Philadelphia with barely a word of English.

By a charmed coincidence he encountered Samuel Barber, who was a year older and a much-lauded student - for his composing, piano playing and singing as well as his good looks. Their composition teacher, Rosario Scalero, was Italian, although given to admiring Brahms rather than opera. Both Menotti and Barber benefited from Scalero's solid traditional approach.

As creative personalities the two student composers developed in a complementary way and also went out to explore the world together. In 1933 they moved to Vienna, where they enjoyed ice-skating and going to parties. Three years later they took a house on Lake Wolfgang.

At this time Menotti was writing Amelia at the Ball (originally in Italian) based on familiar scenes from Austrian life and Barber was writing what would become his celebrated Adagio. Scalero had always told Menotti that opera was not serious, so he regarded Amelia as a theatrical divertimento before starting on a series of symphonies and concertos. That was not to be. The premiere of Amelia, which Menotti had dedicated to the influential American patroness Mary Louise Bok, was at the Philadelphia Academy in April 1937. The New York production a few days later was so successful that the Met offered to produce it - in a double bill with Strauss's Elektra, no less - in 1938.

This launch, at an opera house not noted for picking winners in modern opera, made Menotti's name. The New York Times recognised "something that has not materialised so far from an American-born composer" and admired Menotti's flexibility and spontaneity. The Italian premiere seemed all set, but there was a snag. Menotti refused to join the Fascist party and consequently bad reviews caused him to be passed over in his own country until the end of the Second World War.

The success of Amelia led to an NBC Radio commission, The Old Maid and the Thief (1939), which has been regularly performed, especially by students and amateurs, ever since. Encouraged by Menotti's growing public, the Met came back for a full-length opera. This time, with The Island God (1942), the composer went in for opera seria and miscalculated. He even thought he was ostracised socially for what was regarded as a failure. So for a change he turned to instrumental music. The ballet Sebastian (1943) was admired for its unblushing melodrama and taken into repertory and the Piano Concerto in F is a fulsome homage to Scarlatti, whose sonatas Menotti had enjoyed so much when his first piano teacher played them for him.

Menotti was really waiting for his next operatic opportunity. This was The Medium, a two-act tragedy, commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University and premiered there in 1946. As usual, Menotti was responsible for the libretto and he directed too. The scoring for five singers, the mute Toby, and a 14-piece chamber orchestra is as skilled as the dramatic timing of the gripping melodrama.

Virgil Thomson, in the New York Herald Tribune, commended the "frankly Italianate treatment of ordinary human beings as thoroughly interesting in every way", but The Medium was not yet fully launched. That occurred only after it formed a double bill with The Telephone (1947) - a frothy comedy in which the suitor is constantly interrupted by the girl's telephone - at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. Even then ticket sales were weak and the backers were losing money until Toscanini once again took a hand in Menotti's fortunes.

With characteristic subtlety Menotti told him of the performance but said he naturally did not expect the great conductor to come. The ruse worked: Toscanini came, adored it, and came twice more. The press took up the whole story and the double bill became a sell-out, running for eight months. Chandler Cowles, one of Menotti's backers, found him to be

a combination of a saint and a devil. He is capable of the most extraordinary kindness and sensitivity. At other times he can be full of intrigue.

The Medium was filmed and toured in Europe by the US State Department. The Consul (1950) also made a major impact. It started as a film script dealing with the perennially topical issue of helpless citizens struggling to get a visa to leave a police state. Approaching the high point of Menotti's acclaim, The Consul received the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award, along with T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party. The composer was responsible for everything - the play, the music, the casting and stage direction. The text has been translated into 12 languages and the opera produced in more than 20 countries.

Next came Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), the Christmas story commissioned by NBC as the first TV opera. It brought Menotti an even wider public with continual international success for the story's touching immediacy. The Royal Opera House production, after a run at Sadler's Wells, was recorded in 1987; Menotti directed its second film version in 1996; and there was a memorable showing on BBC TV on Christmas Eve 2002 under Richard Hickox, who has recorded three of the operas.

The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) commissioned by the New York City Center, explored the conflicts between Menotti's own religious upbringing and his lost faith. It played on Broadway less spectacularly than The Medium but still lasted four months and collected two awards and another Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

In 1958 Menotti inaugurated the Festival of Two Worlds at the Umbrian hill-town Spoleto and in 1977 he expanded it to Charleston, South Carolina. When Barber was asked why Menotti wanted to involve himself in such a time-consuming operation he said:

You could say it's a need for having people around all of the time. A need for a certain amount of power.

Menotti himself explained that he started the festival "for the joy of it", but looking back in 2001 he admitted:

I think I've wasted too much time looking for money or making programmes and trying to bewitch artists to come here for nothing.

In these years Menotti held court amidst an elaborate web of complex personal and professional relationships, but the festival brought to Spoleto many of the leading figures in all the arts. Sculptors like Henry Moore and David Smith; Ezra Pound appeared and his opera was performed; but unsurprisingly Buckminster Fuller felt Menotti did not understand him.

All of this activity coincided with changes of fashion, which began to put Menotti's work into a less prominent position. In his later music he seemed to be repeating himself. His interest in being useful and relevant led him towards a whole series of children's operas such as Martin's Lie, premiered at the Bath Festival in 1964.

Impressed by Menotti's flair, Igor Stravinsky specially asked for him to direct The Rake's Progress at the Hamburg Opera in 1967. This led to Menotti's own Help! Help! The Globolinks!, another children's opera, being written for the same theatre and produced in the following year. His play The Leper was produced in Tallahassee in 1970 but badly received after a build-up which involved bringing a charter plane full of guests from New York.

In 1984 Menotti received the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. He continued to write operas through the 1980s and among his later works Goya (1986) was written for Placido Domingo and the Washington Opera and The Wedding (1988) was premiered in South Korea.

From 1943 until 1973 Menotti and Barber lived at their house called Capricorn (also the name of one of Barber's concertos) in Mount Kisco, New York. Selling the house and the break-up of their partnership were a major shock for Barber especially and may have contributed to his decline. For Menotti, who gave a frank interview to The New York Times for his 60th birthday in 1971, it was a time to try to avoid disillusion and bitterness. He resented some of the carping reviews he began getting in the later 1960s from the New York critics and, almost in revenge, decided to leave America.

It was a strange twist of fantasy that took Menotti to Scotland, where he bought Yester House, in East Lothian, the Palladian ancestral home of the Marquess of Tweeddale built in 1789. Once he was settled there, another unexpected turn of events was his meeting with Francis Phelan, who became the composer's adopted son in 1974. Menotti tried to explain his move to Scotland:

I've chosen to live here, so I could be completely cut off from my past. It was a desire to find a place where I could hide.

Menotti was of a generous and often amusing disposition. When he came to the Institute of United States Studies at London University in 1998 to hear the British premiere of his Trio for violin, clarinet and piano given by the Verdehr Trio he said: "Unlike Victorian children, old composers should be heard and not seen." He then modestly added that he knew he wasn't Bach but felt he wasn't Offenbach either.

The reaction against Menotti's popularity was, for a time, disproportionately extreme. The movement towards neo-romanticism during the last 20 years has tended to favour Barber, who used an excellent libretto from Menotti for his grand opera Vanessa, produced at the Met in 1958. But for sheer theatrical craft and human curiosity, sustained by his own complex emotional make-up, Menotti created a telling verismo of the Second World War era.

He frequently promoted the careers of others, had a rare zest for living, and his memorable tunes kept opera alive and reaching a wide public at a difficult time in the 20th century.

Peter Dickinson

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