The Melodrama And Melodies Of a Singular Composer

Gian Carlo Menotti won two Pulitzers for music and shared another.
Gian Carlo Menotti won two Pulitzers for music and shared another. (Mario Suriani - AP)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

Gian Carlo Menotti, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was a riot of contradictions -- a supremely gifted composer who also wrote some of the tawdriest music in the literature; a charming and brilliantly innovative impresario who ended up estranged from all three of the arts festivals he founded on as many continents; a man who once created operas for Broadway and network television, and whose work is now virtually unknown among a younger generation of musicians.

Menotti saw himself as the last in a great line. "I am a neo-Platonist, I suppose," he told me in 1991. "I believe there is a Platonic ideal of beauty, and artists are given a fleeting vision of that beauty. The rest is a process of remembering. You try to catch the beauty you've seen, and it is a torture, because you can never quite do it."

Still, at the height of his career -- the middle decades of the 20th century -- Menotti was generally considered the most successful American opera composer in our history. "The Consul" (1950) ran on Broadway for 269 performances, won a Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for composition. It remains a harrowing study of totalitarianism -- genuine opera that is also gripping theater by any standards.

"Amahl and the Night Visitors" (1951), a 50-minute television opera about a crippled boy who offers up his crutches to the Three Wise Men as a gift for the infant Jesus and is instantly cured, was a hallowed Christmas tradition on NBC from the time of its premiere until the mid-1960s. Menotti won a second Pulitzer for "The Saint of Bleecker Street" in 1955 and shared in yet a third when he fashioned the libretto for his longtime lover Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" in 1958.

Menotti enjoyed an association with Washington that spanned more than half a century. It was here that his "madrigal-fable," "The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore," received its premiere in October 1956 at the Library of Congress, to some of the most unanimous critical acclaim of the composer's lifetime. He later forged a close association with the Opera Society of Washington (now Washington National Opera), supervising revivals of a number of his early pieces, and, in 1986, creating a large biographical opera, "Goya," for the man who would become WNO's general director, tenor Placido Domingo.

Reached in Hamburg yesterday afternoon, Domingo described Menotti as a "musical and theatrical giant" whose works "stressed passion as well as refinement."

"If I were to use two words to describe him they would be 'great imagination' -- great intelligence in finding the proper musical setting of the words and great intelligence in transforming the printed score to vibrant theatrical life."

Indeed, no matter what one thought of Menotti's own compositions (and my own responses fluctuated wildly), there was little doubt that he was one of the most tender and sensitive stage directors ever to work in opera, as he proved with never-to-be-forgotten productions of Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," Rossini's "La Cenerentola," and Puccini's "La Boheme," the last two of which were presented in Washington. His "Boheme," for example, was no motley collection of temperamental young "stars" thrown together on a stage to coexist for a couple of hours, but rather the projection of a world in microcosm, pulsing, youthful, meticulously detailed and deeply believable.

Menotti was also a tireless showman and organizer. In 1958, he founded the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, with the express purpose of bringing together well-established and up-and-coming artists in all fields. He founded similar "Spoleto" festivals in Australia and in Charleston, S.C.

The Spoleto Festival U.S.A., established in 1977, quickly outgrew its original emphasis on Menotti's own operas and plays and became a dazzling, world-class celebration of artistic creation in all its guises. The budget grew to more than $5 million a year and the city of Charleston, long depressed, began to be revitalized. But Menotti felt increasingly estranged from the proceedings and the board eventually decided that the $250,000, including expenses, he received for his two weeks' participation was too high.

Moreover, he was intransigent in his opposition to any recognition of Charleston's crucial importance as a jazz city. "I have nothing at all against jazz," he told me one summer. "Jazz is marvelous, but this festival is not about popular music. Jazz festivals don't play Beethoven and Brahms, so why should we play jazz? The Salzburg Festival does not present 'The Merry Widow,' so why should we play popular music? It would change the focus of our festival."

Increasingly challenged, Menotti embarked on a spectacular public effort to undermine the festival he had created, giving long, damning interviews to the media, which published every new allegation. "Beware of general managers," he said. "Beware of boards of directors. They are ruining the arts. They all want us to thank them for everything. I want them to thank the artists. See that woman over there? Her print dress would not exist if there had never been a Raoul Dufy. And any time you hum the 'Toreador Song,' you should thank Georges Bizet." In 1993, the relationship between Menotti and the Spoleto Festival came to an acrimonious end.

Francis Rizzo, whose association with the Washington National Opera in a variety of capacities stretches back 30 years, was Menotti's secretary in the 1960s and later served as the manager of the Italian Spoleto festival. He compared Menotti to Tennessee Williams.

"They were almost exact contemporaries," he said. "They did wonderful work for a number of years -- work that will never be forgotten -- and then, perhaps inevitably, they both began to repeat themselves. But that does not take away from the glory and beauty of their best pieces. "

Soprano Beverly Sills, for whom Menotti created "La Loca" in 1979, called the composer "a man who dared to write haunting melodies when it was considered passe to do so. He also was a true man of the theater, with a great talent for the melodramatic. He could drive his collaborators to the point of exasperation."

She recalled the world premiere of "La Loca" at the San Diego Opera. "At the dress rehearsals, pages with handwritten notes would be rushed from his hotel suite to the theater with the ink still wet on the pages. And if any one complained, he would point out that Rossini did it before him."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company