Inspired Creations

Brilliant composer Gian Carlo Menotti, 89, is driven by a glorious gift bestowed upon him and the guilt of wishing he had given more back.

January 02, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Gian Carlo Menotti is still having a dialogue with God.

"I am trying to settle a few things before I die," the 89-year-old composer says in his lightly accented voice. "I know I only have a few years left."

The Italian-born Menotti, one of the most successful composers of the 20th century, has been carrying on that metaphysical conversation through his music for decades.

"The Medium," his 1946 opera that had a long run on Broadway, asks questions about faith and the unknown; "The Saint of Bleecker Street," a 1954 work that also enjoyed a Broadway success, deals even more directly and poignantly with religious beliefs and doubts.

"The Consul," which had a year-long Broadway stint starting in March 1950, can also be viewed in this light. Hanging over the darkly tragic work is a question directed heavenward: How could God allow such misery, such unfairness?

The forcefulness of those questions invariably seems more potent when Menotti does his own stage direction for "The Consul," which is the case with the Washington Opera's production, opening tonight at the Kennedy Center.

This Pulitzer Prize- and New York Drama Critics Award-winning work has long been ranked among the composer's most inspired creations. Menotti doesn't hesitate to credit the source of the inspiration.

"I have always felt that art, especially music, is but a demonstration of God," he says, while lunching at a restaurant in the Watergate Hotel.

"I would like to tell the pope that," he adds with a smile. "A Schubert song, the A major chord at the opening of Wagner's `Lohengrin' - such incredible beauty is a mystery, the divinity of music. Composers should be very humble. The ability to compose is a gift from God. You must prepare yourself to receive that gift."

Menotti compares composers to diviners searching for water with their forked sticks.

"Sometimes you know the water is there, but you just can't find it," he says. "And sometimes you are too lazy to dig. I feel I have not dug profoundly enough. I should have worked harder in my life. I suffer from a guilt complex."

That guilt clearly figures in some of his chats with God. Menotti's estate in Scotland contains quite a few reasons for that guilt - unfinished scores. One that is officially finished, the 1986 opera "Goya" written for Placido Domingo and premiered by the Washington Opera, gnaws at the composer's conscience, too.

"Domingo told me he's going to revive `Goya' in Vienna and then take it to Spain," Menotti says. "That delights me. But I told him I want to redo the third act. I know I wrote it too fast. I counted too much on facility."

Over the years, Menotti developed a reputation for hastily finishing commissions for vocal and instrumental works; sometimes, the haste clearly showed in the product. The composer has an explanation - the noted Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, which he founded in 1958; and a counterpart in Charleston, S.C., Spoleto Festival U.S.A., which he founded in 1977 and which quickly became the premiere arts festival in this country.

"My greatest mistake was to do the festival," he says. "I used it as an excuse to work less. Now I regret it bitterly."

Menotti has another regret associated with the Charleston fest. After a falling out with the board of directors in 1993, partly over a controversial art exhibit, he severed all ties to the American venture. It has continued to thrive, however, under its original name. The use of that name doesn't sit well with the founder.

"I wish them well," Menotti says, "but they should call it the Charleston Festival; they should not be ashamed to use the name of their own city. I begged them not to use the Spoleto name. It causes so much confusion."

Otherwise, the composer seems to have few complaints, other than aging.

"I'm a tired old man," he says, but it's hard to take that seriously. He rattles off his ailments: The need for a cane, a loss of sight in one eye, a loss of hearing in one ear, difficulty remembering names. "And my heart is in pieces," he says, but by now he's grinning almost impishly.

If Menotti is showing a few signs of his age, he's wearing them well. And he's nearly as active as he was at 79.

He's still very involved in running the Spoleto Festival with his adopted son. He'll direct "The Saint of Bleecker Street" there this summer (the festival will also hold a gala concert for his 90th birthday); last summer, he stepped in to direct Prokofiev's monumental operatic version of "War and Peace" after the scheduled director got cold feet.

Menotti continues to direct his own operas; in addition to the Washington production of "The Consul," he presided over a Buenos Aires production last year. Even when he doesn't do the directing, he's likely to attend significant presentations of his works all over the globe, including a recent staging of "The Consul" in Vienna -"a terrible performance, but a huge success, so I had to smile."

Menotti is amused by the attention he is receiving from opera companies these days.

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