Opera's Gian Carlo Menotti; Popular Composer of 'Amahl'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

With works seen on Broadway and television and at the opera house, few classical composers enjoyed as much popular success during the mid-20th century as Gian Carlo Menotti, who died Feb. 1 at Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco. He was 95, and the cause of death was unreported.

Mr. Menotti's more than 25 operas, most of which were in English, were harmonically rich and filled with melodramatic flourishes. He was considered a romantic stylist in the tradition of Puccini, a comparison he relished.

Considered one of the most promising composers of the 1940s, he was credited with Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and Marc Blitzstein with forging a style known as Broadway opera. He twice received the Pulitzer Prize in the 1950s, for "The Consul" and "The Saint of Bleecker Street," both of which had Broadway runs.

Furthermore, his "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a perennial Christmas favorite first performed on NBC in 1951, was among the most-staged operas in the United States for the next two decades. It was also the first opera commissioned especially for television.

Mr. Menotti became an international impresario in 1957 when he co-created the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The festival recognized established and promising European and American artists and gave an important boost in visibility to Shirley Verrett (singing "Carmen") and the contemporary dances of Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. This launched two similar festivals in Charleston, S.C., and Melbourne, Australia, in later decades.

Since the 1960s, a new emphasis was placed on atonal, dissonant and electronic compositions, and Mr. Menotti faced increasingly hostile criticism for his "sweet" melodies. When his last major work, "Goya," premiered in 1986 with Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera, critic Donal Henahan, writing in the New York Times, cited his "limping music and an equally lame text."

Still, Mr. Menotti traveled widely to direct productions of his work and others, including "Carmen" and "La Boheme." He won a Kennedy Center Honor in 1984 and was in near-constant reevaluation among critics.

Mr. Menotti was born July 7, 1911, in Cadegliano, near Lake Lugano in northern Italy. His father was a prosperous coffee merchant who spent much of his time in Colombia. His mother was an amateur musician and gave all eight of her children lessons in piano, cello and violin.

As a child, Mr. Menotti put on fairy tale presentations with his enormous collection of puppets, and he wrote his first opera at 11, called "The Death of Pierrot."

Two years later, he enrolled at the Verdi Conservatory of Music, where he later said he developed "a voracious appetite for reading," especially on "the exotic, the theatrical, the occult, and the decadent." Such themes colored many of his works.

When his father unexpectedly died, Mr. Menotti, then 17, was taken to South America by his mother to settle her husband's business affairs. On the way home, she dropped off her son at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Mr. Menotti, who spoke no English, handed administrators a recommendation from family friend Arturo Toscanini, the conductor and composer.

By the time he graduated in 1933, he had developed an enduring friendship with fellow student Samuel Barber, who remained his companion until his death in 1981. They set up a home in Vienna, and Mr. Menotti spent time polishing his one-act opera "Amelia Goes to the Ball," which he based on some of the "very strange people" he met at parties. The opera involved a conniving wife, her hapless lover and her jealous husband.

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