Gian Carlo Menotti

Article by Simon Callow

Gian Carlo Menotti (born in 1911) stands somewhat out of the mainstream of operatic composition in the second half of the century, which is a little ironic, since more people have heard of his operas than those of perhaps any other composer of our time. Apart from the pieces which unprecedentedly held the stages of Broadway and the West End (The Medium and The Telephone, The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street) for substantial runs, seen by hundreds of thousands, the works he specially composed for, respectively, radio (The Old Maid and The Thief) and television (Amahl and The Night Visitors), have been heard and seen by literally millions, in virtually every country in the Western world. For many people, Amahl is the first opera that they encounter, no doubt unaware that this is what they are seeing, simply absorbed and moved by a powerful and direct story, all the more powerful for being sung rather than spoken, without ever hearing the O-word mentioned.

Directness of communication has been Menotti’s whole ambition from the beginning, and it was perhaps inevitable that he should have gravitated towards the theatre. Knowing from the age of six, he says, that he was going to be a composer, at the age of eleven he wrote one opera, The Death of Pierrot, and embarked on a second, more enterprising, called The Little Mermaid, based on the Hans Christian Anderson short story, of which he composed only one act. By then, with the death of his father, his family circumstances had changed. He had been little exposed to music. His siblings played various instruments without demonstrating any special feeling for music; his mother and aunt played piano duet versions of the great classics, but at speeds which suited them rather than the ones suggested by the composer, giving the young Menotti a somewhat slightly unconventional impression of some of the more famous pieces in the repertory. On a rare visit to Milan (Menotti’s father, a businessman and keen hunter, loathed cities and preferred to keep the family at home in Cadegliano on Lake Lugano even during the bitter winters) he heard Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s fifth symphony and seized this mother’s arm is shock and outrage, protesting loudly during the first movement that the conductor was destroying the piece. He was, too, bitterly disappointed by his first exposure to opera. Theatrically excited both by the marionettes with which he played blissfully at home, and by his eccentric uncle (one of many) who, enraged by the stingy, rigid ways of his wife, built a house for himself to live in alone, (promptly filling it with doves), young Gian Carlo was particularly enthralled by his elder brother’s descriptions of what he had seen at La Scala, where the stage was apparently filled with unending succession of horses, exquisite costumes, imposing palaces and magic gardens. By the time he actually went to see an opera himself, however, Italy, like the rest of Europe, was at war, most of the theatres including La Scala were closed and so his first encounter with the medium which he so triumphantly made his own was a production of Rigoletto, of such wretched inadequacy, that even an eight year old was bitterly disappointed. He later said that, like Proust visiting Venice for the first time, he had completely to remake his idea of opera, an undertaking which has never ceased. He still loved the theatre and started writing plays, another activity which has never ceased (“I have drawers full of them” he says today) not for the theatre, but for the one of his dreams.

It was the same Toscanini (a family friend) who suggested that the boy, who had enrolled at the Milan Conservatory at the age of 12, should go to America to continue his studies. Post Great War Milan was obviously not fertile soil, musically speaking: Menotti now remembers hearing no Brahms, no Tchaikovsky, neither lieder nor chamber music. He heard Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and some of the younger Italian composers, Pizzetti and Malipiero, but was largely ignorant of what was everywhere else the main body of the repertory – the work of the first Viennese school. All that changed when, at the age of 17, he went, accompanied by his formidable mother Ines, to study in Philadelphia, at the newly-created Curtis Institute. His teacher, Rosario Scalero, a pupil of a pupil of Brahms, was no patriot musically speaking. He was sublimely uninterested in opera, never so much as mentioning its existence. Instead he inculcated in the eager young musician the principles of counterpoint and sonata form, through patient analysis of motets, oratorios, symphonies and concertos. Menotti was not an especially apt pupil; he had little facility, either as performer of composer, unlike his fellow-student Samuel Barber, fluent pianist, impeccable craftsman and singer of real distinction. In contract to Barber’s easy skill, composition for Menotti was then, as it remained, “a tremendous effort”. And yet these two young men became not just classmates but soul mates, complementing each other personally and artistically, an association that continued unbroken until Barber’s death some forty years later. Menotti, mercurial and passionate, became part of Barber’s patrician family circle; at their home in Westchester, Pennsylvania the loneliness of his first few years in America was abolished and there he gained the subtle and idiomatic master of the post-war period, as well as a degree of emotional security on which the rest of his life was to build.

Together, once they had graduated from the Curtis in 1933, Barber and Menotti (who had secured a diploma with honours) went on a musical Grant Tour of Europe, devouring everything they could hear, especially in Vienna and Italy. Menotti remained, of course, Italian to the core, and despite Scalero’s fierce pedagogy, found himself inevitably returning to this first aspiration as a composer: to opera. This was innate and instinctive, his sense of the theatre had from the earliest years been vivid. But it was also a measure of his temperamental enthusiasm for an art which combined the arts: a conception of music as pure art form would never satisfy him. Opera, if he did not see it precisely as a Wagnerian gesamstkunst, was for him a mélange of acting, singing, staging and the sensuous elements of design costume and setting. This art had, in Menotti’s view, been most successfully mastered by Puccini. La Bohème was for him, and would remain, the ideal of all operatic work, human, emotional, credible. The subject for own first opera, the vivacious one-act Amelia al Ballo, had come to him unbidden in Vienna, inspired by the curious life-style of his landlady. He completed it on his return to America and it was immediately performed (in a translation by somebody else) in Philadelphia as Amelia Goes to The Ball under no less a baton than that of Fritz Reiner. Shortly after it was repeated in New York, with such success that the Metropolitan Opera House slated it for performance the following season.

Menotti was launched, the operatic Boy Wonder of the day. The immediate result was a commission from NBC to write the first specially-composed opera for radio, which he called The Old Maid and The Thief, a charming, funny and occasionally touching piece which exploits the possibilities of the medium with dazzling skill, and tells its story without any perceived loss of the visual element. It was the beginning of what might be described as a pattern for Menotti: an unceasing and pioneering exploration of opera through difference media. This has been done in no avant-garde spirit, because the idea of art for art’s sake in anathema to him. It has rather been in quest of a different audience. Impatient with what Barber had described as opera’s function as society’ after-dinner mint (“it can be bread” cries Menotti) he has sought to make operas for the widest range of people, for the Broadway audience, for the radio and television audience, for the movie audience (his film of The Medium makes striking use of cinematic techniques), for children (there are three stage works specifically conceived for them). The Medium (1947) was his first piece designed, not for the operatic stage, but for the regular theatre, with nightly performances (the contralto Marie Powers made an extraordinary impact in the title role). It had a stunning success. Toscanini, Horowitz and many of the artistic elite of the day attended, sometimes more than once, and guaranteed a huge success; Menotti, both as librettist, composer and director, was acclaimed, with the Critic’s Circle Award and the Pulitzer prize, a feat he repeated three years later with The Consul, a story taken almost literally from the front pages of the newspapers, bringing an almost unheard of level of topicality to the operatic stage, a topicality which has only increased with time. Now, in 1999, its devastating portrayal of the hopelessness of the political refugee and the callous hypocrisy of the plump democracies, is almost unbearably relevant. Needless to say the great wave of acclaim with which the work was greeted was not unaccompanied by a critical backlash; but Poulenc – no stranger himself to the sneers of the musical establishment – wrote of it “What ingenuity, what strength, what power of persuasion!” Lincoln Kirstein, the great and generous champion of the avant-garde wrote of it that it was “the most successful work of musical theatre in the United States since Porgy and Bess”.

The Saint of Bleecker Street from 1955 continued this cycle of verismo Broadway operas. With his insistence on working in theatres small enough for the audience to be able to see the performers and believe in the action they were witnessing, he travelled a path which Benjamin Britten was simultaneously taking as Aldeburgh, eschewing the large rhetoric of the Opera House, devising smaller, trimmer forms. But Menotti struck out more boldly in terms of his audience, writing in an idiom which communicated as directly as possible, with none of the compositional sophistication of the English composer. He was unashamedly committed to melodiousness and immediate approachability. “There is a certain indolence towards the use of the voice today, a tendency to treat the voice instrumentally, as if composers feared that its texture is too expressive, too human”. Although Menotti denies it fiercely (he dislikes musicals, preferring operetta and revue), it seems that these three Broadway operas may be regarded as seminal pieces, influencing the development of what might be called the musical of ideas as practised by, say, Stephen Sondheim.

The parallel with Britten extends to the foundation of festivals: Menotti’s Aldeburgh was in Spoleto, later twinned with Charleston in South Caroline as The Festival of Two Worlds, and his reasons for creating it were not dissimilar to Britten’s declared ambition (in his speech accepting the Aspen Award) “to be useful, and to the living”. Menotti wanted to prove that a composer can be part of a community; “to prove to myself that the opera can find a new audience and that a composer can be part of a social structure. I wanted to work in a city that needed me. At the age of 50 I felt the need of being needed.” He wanted to feel that the composer was “as necessary to society as the doctor, the mayor, or, yes the fireman”. Spoleto, he relates with pride, is now a flourishing city because of the festival. He has brought extraordinary artists from every discipline to it: dancers, poets, painters, playwrights. Tennessee Williams wrote two plays for him, The Night of The Iguana and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Ionesco wrote one which he staged himself; Calvino wrote one too. Henry Moore designed a Don Giovanni; Calder had exhibitions. Opera, he insists, doesn’t exist separate from other arts – “composers must learn about the theatre, about visual art – more people who come to Spoleto fall in love with it because they associate with artists who are outside of their own speciality.” The festival – now severed from its America branch – continues vigorously; last year he offered Spoleto a Max Linder retrospective, an exhibition of the work of the film costumier, Enrico Sabbatino, productions of The Cunning Little Vixen and The Consul, a performance of The Planets and some Vaughan Williams conducted by Richard Hickox, the Hubbard Street Dance Theatre of Chicago, Jazz concerts (featuring among others the late Betty Carter), and superb company of marionettes. In an interview from 1962, Menotti said “art used to be functional. Today the artist has no relation to life. He is left outside. He lives in limbo. He is rejected, therefore he rebels… the French artist really feels he is part of his nation, and his government uses his art for the welfare of the nation, and that gives the French artist a sense of dignity”. In this sense, Menotti is a figure from the 18th century or before. He has no time for the artist as outsider or as sufferer, he simply seeks to be of service.

He has been rendering service to Spoleto for over forty years. “Now I’m tired”, he says, histrionically, and in the dace of all the evidence. At present he is trying to create a definitive printed edition of his work; he keeps stumbling upon work which he had forgotten ever writing. Years ago he wrote an opera called La loca for Beverly Sills. “She murdered it, so I put it in a closet. Now I find it’s really quite good”. The piece is not even listed in Grove. “I have a lot of hidden music, just like I have a lot of hidden plays and short stories: drawers full of them.” At the age of 89, he never stops planning, dreaming, devising. Nor does he ever doubt the future of opera. The economics, of course, make no sense, but in that case: “we must start again on a smaller scale and face this challenge, but people will never stop singing a story. It is an immortal form. People sang on stage before they spoke. In the Japanese and Chinese theatre they all sing. The Catholic Mass is an opera, with the priest in main role. Opera will to begin again.” He himself has one last great project: the opera about Pythagoras on which he has worked unvaryingly, for over thirty years. “Now it’s too late”, he says unconvincingly; it is hard to imagine the restless, inventive spirit of Menotti daunted by anything as simple as a libretto which doesn’t do justice to the subject, as he claims. Everything is turned to advantage. The very house in which he lives, the magnificent Yester House is east Lothian, adapted by Robert Adam into the most sumptuous, lairdly of dwellings surrounded by hundreds of acres of hunting ground and baronially run, with fires blazing, crisp sheets on the hour-poster beds and superb meals cooked in the extensive kitchens by resident staff – a place to which a man twenty years his junior might gratefully retire to contemplate his extraordinary achievements – is part of a new plan: the Yester Theatre School. “Young musicians, actors, dancers, directors, stage and set designers, conductors, technicians, and costume designers will come from around the world to train here in Scotland.” Quinlan Terry has drawn up plans to convert the stable clock into a theatre; the Prince of Wales is patron of the scheme, which needs to raise £7.5 million. And it is hard to doubt that it will happen. Lincoln Kirstein wrote a fine defence of Menotti, in answer to some of the more obtuse critics of The Consul and it provides a perfect assessment of the man and his work: “in 1950 we have reached a certain plateau of achievement where [musical] counter-revolution seems to be almost on the verge of the revolutionary… his world is a consistent guignol, an Italian provincial child’s memory of some red and gold opera house, revived from a long desuetude. Menottti in a sense is a throw-back to the 1890s, but his subjects are topical and even journalistic. To composers of a more delicate sensibility, his harsh pretexts seem inordinately obvious. But to Menotti they are not in the least pretexts… because the impulse moving the melodrama is indeed innocently humane, without pretentiousness… Menotti has a warmth, a wild hopefulness combined with a sharp penetration into the benefits of anger that transcend theatricality.” It is that wild hopefulness that, nearly fifty years on, has never been damped down, let alone died.