Gian Carlo Menotti

1911 2007

Gian Carlo Menotti

Composer • Librettist


Menotti was a 20th century Italian-born American composer. He left his mark on the musical and theatrical world through his radio and film operas which can also be considered musicals or as musical theatre. In this manner, he followed in the footsteps ofGeorge Gershwin and preceded Andrew Lloyd Webber. Menotti was also responsible for presenting a viable alternative to the style of the Second Viennese School and showing that the human voice can be used in an expressive and human manner.

Menotti was born in Cadegliano, Italy in 1911 as the sixth of ten children to a prosperous businessman and an amateur musician. Menotti showed a great gift for music from a young age and before entering the Milan Conservatory at the tender age of 13, he had already written two operas. He later graduated with honours from the Curtis Institute in 1922. At the Milan Conservatory he became acquainted withSamuel Barber and the two became friends, lovers and colleagues. Together they spent summers attending operas in Vienna and Italy.

While in Vienna, he began the libretto for Amelia al balla, a one-act opera buffa which he completed in 1937 after his return to the USA. The work was translated into English by George Mead and premiered successfully in New York and accepted into the program of the Metropolitan Opera for the next season.

NBC was impressed by the success of Amelia and offered Menotti the chance to create an opera for the radio. He wrote his first English libretto which was became theopera buffa The Old Maid and the Thief (1939). Though this was successful, his following opera,The Island God (1942), did not endure the same fate.

The outbreak of World War II led Menotti to stay in the USA, where he was soon commissioned to writeThe Medium (1946) by the Alice M. Ditson Fund. This tragic opera became his first international success. As with many of his works,The Medium contains many memorable melodies and tonal harmony, despite its use of dissonance to create a mysterious and frightening mood at times. The opera ran in 1947 for 212 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. The work is in two acts for five singers, a dancer-mime and a chamber orchestra. To offset the tragic nature of the opera, a short one-act comedy,The Telephone (1945), was first performed. In 1951, a film version ofThe Medium  was created in collaboration with Thomas Schippers and Enzo Serafin.

Menotti’s interest in theatre, film and music brought him into contact with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for whom he wrote film scripts. Unfortunately, his scripts were never filmed, but the libretto for his operaThe Consul (1950) comes from one of his movie script ideas.The Consul is often considered one of Menotti’s finest works and was premiered on Broadway in 1950 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where it ran for about eight months. The opera was astoundingly successful and received the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award. It has also been translated into many languages and performed worldwide.

At the height of his career, Menotti was commissioned by NBC to write the first American television opera,Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), which was greatly influence by Hieronymus Bosch’sThe Adoration of the Magi. The opera has been broadcast annually since 1951 and is suited for amateur and professional singers alike.

The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), Menotti’s next opera, is similar to The Consulin style and is concerned with the strife between physical and spiritual elements. Choral music plays an important role in this serious work. This opera also won numerous awards, including a Drama Critics’ Circle Award and a New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, along with another Pulitzer Prize.

In Menotti’s The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore (1956), he increases his use of choral music to form a ‘madrigal-fable’ based on the madrigal comedies of the late Renaissance. The work is formed by an introduction, 12 madrigals and six instrumental interludes.

Another commission by NBC resulted in the opera Maria Golovin (1958) which was performed at the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels and later broadcast by NBC.

During the following years Menotti devoted most of his time to the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, which he founded and directed until Schippers took over as music director in 1967. From 1963, he was able to compose again and composed a series of works includingLabyrinth (1963), The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi (1963) andLe dernier sauvage. With Labyrinth, Menotti took advantage of the opportunity to employ extended camera techniques, while his cantataThe Death of the Bishop of Brindisi told the story of the Children’s Crusade of the 13th century.Le dernier sauvage was written for the Paris Opéra and premiered by the Opéra-Comique. Its success led to a fantastic production by the Metropolitan Opera.

Shortly after, Menotti composed the one-act church opera, Martin’s Lie (1964) for the Bath Festival along with the song cycleCanti della lontananza (1961) based on his own texts, the children’s operaHelp, Help, the Globolinks! (1968), and the operaThe Most Important Man (1971).

In 1973, Menotti moved to Scotland and wrote the opera La loca (1979) as a farewell gesture to Beverly Hills. He also wrote the symphony ‘The Halcyon’ (1976) and the MassMissa O pulchritude (1979). Of the symphony, he said it represents ‘the most sincere and optimistic days of my youth, when the horizon [was] unclouded’. The Mass interestingly includes a setting of a poem by St Augustine in place of a Credo. His late operas were often geared towards children. His operaGoya (1986) enjoyed a performance by the virtuoso Placido Domingo and was premiered by the Washington Opera.

Throughout his career, it is obvious, looking at the content and style of Menotti’s works, that his goal was to communicate effectively with the audience and to use the voice in a human way. Of the voice, he wrote, ‘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, toohuman’. Though he deliberately strayed from the techniques of the Second Viennese School, he sometimes employed contemporary techniques to convey parody, comedy or drama. Though his orchestrations are often light in nature, his appreciation forMussorgsky can also be noted at times. Also noteworthy, was Menotti’s libretto for Barber’s operaVanessa.

It is projected that the music of Menotti will continue to be enjoyed at large for many years to come.

Menotti enjoyed many years together with Barber, though as they aged, Menotti lost interest in Barber, and pursued men nearly half his age, later even adopting one of his lovers as his own child. Despite this, an empty plot next to Barber’s grave was reserved for him, though he was later buried in Scotland after his death in 2007.

Images courtesy of Umbria24, Spoleto Festival, Graham Clark Photographer and public domain