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.

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the Curtis Institute founder, was a publishing company heiress and became Mr. Menotti's chief patron. She arranged for "Amelia" to debut at the school in 1937. The next year, it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera of New York to positive reviews.

In 1939, NBC Radio aired his opera "The Old Maid and the Thief," a potboiler set in a small Pennsylvania town about a woman and the man she takes in. A reviewer for Newsweek praised Mr. Menotti's "pert sense of characterization that poked its impish head from every loudspeaker. . . . Many forgot they were merely listening; they felt they were looking."

The radio exposure brought Mr. Menotti great celebrity -- name recognition and invitations to socialize with high society. During World War II, he made Italian-language broadcasts through the Office of War Information.

Mr. Menotti also completed "The Island God," a grand-scale opera rich in mythology that was produced at the Metropolitan Opera in 1942. Critics hated it, and Mr. Menotti placed much blame on the Met's staging. He started insisting on taking a larger role in overseeing a production.

His most important works over the next few years were "The Medium" and "The Telephone," which were paired on a double bill for a Broadway run in 1947.

"The Medium," which concerned a fake spiritualist who holds a seance, was also featured on the CBS anthology series "Studio One" in 1948 and was turned into a feature film in 1951 that Mr. Menotti directed.

Mr. Menotti wrote prolifically during the next few years, including work for the Martha Graham ballet company. His three-act opera "The Consul," a political tragedy about asylum-seekers and an indifferent bureaucracy, played eight months on Broadway in 1950.

"The Saint of Bleecker Street" (1954), a drama set in an Italian neighborhood in New York that tries to pit faith against cynicism, was a rare flop with audiences even as it won the Pulitzer. His well-received madrigal-ballet "The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore" played at the Washington Opera in 1956, and two years later he contributed the libretto to "Vanessa," a Pulitzer-winning opera written by Barber.

Because so many of his works emphasized religiosity, Mr. Menotti felt compelled to describe himself as "haunted by religious problems." He added: "The intense and incandescent faith which nourished my childhood and my adolescence have seared my soul forever. I've lost my faith, but it is a loss that has left me uneasy."

He remained prolific during the 1960s onward, but his pieces tended to be critically regarded as insignificant. Those works included "The Labyrinth," "Help, Help, the Globolinks!" "Juana, La Loca" and "A Bride From Pluto." "Goya," about the life of the Spanish painter," was presented with such raging fanfare that many critics were inevitably disappointed.

Mr. Menotti became very wealthy from his works' continued airing on television. Used to preferential treatment, he withdrew from the festival in Charleston in the early 1990s when he felt he was being "treated like the clerk."

Long ensconced with Barber in Upstate New York, he settled in Scotland in the early 1970s because he thought American reviewers were so hostile to his work. "Music history will place me somewhere, but that is no concern of mine," he said.

Mr. Menotti befriended and later adopted a young actor and figure skater named Francis "Chip" Phelan, who survives him.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company