Composed `Amahl and the Night Visitors'

Gian Carlo Menotti 1911-2007

February 02, 2007|By Myrna Oliver | Myrna Oliver,Los Angeles Times

Gian Carlo Menotti, who organized music festivals in Spoleto, Italy, and the United States and helped bring opera to the masses with his repeatedly televised Christmas work Amahl and the Night Visitors, died yesterday at a hospital in Monaco. He was 95.

"He died pretty peacefully and without any pain," said his adopted son Francis Menotti.

Gian Carlo Menotti was sought after worldwide as a director of other people's operas, as well as composer of his own.

"I wish I'd never started staging operas. It has taken so much time away from my composing," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. "I have wasted so much of my time directing other people's work."

Nevertheless, Mr. Menotti's compositions were also much in demand, and he had been called the most-often-performed living composer of opera.

His fifth opera, The Medium, in 1946 marked his directing debut and was his first hit. The opera had 211 performances on Broadway and later toured Europe.

His 1950 opera The Consul won a Pulitzer Prize, was translated into 12 languages and was performed in more than 20 countries. The drama follows the trials of oppressed citizens frustrated by the bureaucracy of an unidentified European government.

Amahl, the first opera written specifically for television, followed in 1951.

Seen by Times music critic Martin Bernheimer and others as "the modern composer who writes old-fashioned opera for the masses," Mr. Menotti had welcomed the commission from NBC to create a Christmas piece.

He took as inspiration the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Adoration of the Magi and musically wove the touching tale of a crippled boy who offers his crutches - his only possession - to the Three Wise Men to give to the infant Jesus. Because of his sacrifice, the boy is healed. NBC ran the opera for many years on Christmas Eve.

The Saint of Bleecker Street, Mr. Menotti's 1954 opera about religious belief and doubt, was the only Broadway production to earn the cultural "triple crown": a Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and New York Music Critics Award.

In the later 1950s, however, Mr. Menotti's compositions took a back seat to his new project organizing an international music festival in Spoleto, Italy, near his childhood home.

"Actually, the festival satisfied a very selfish need," he told his biographer, John Gruen. "I became so completely disenchanted with the role of the artist in contemporary society. I felt useless.

"I felt that the artist should become part of society - a needed member of society - rather than just an ornament," he said.

From its outset in 1957, the Spoleto event was billed as the Festival of Two Worlds. Its purpose was to encourage, discover and nourish young artists in the land of Mr. Menotti's birth and the land of his adult triumphs - Italy and the United States. But it was 20 years before Mr. Menotti created the second venue in Charleston, S.C. He broke ties with the Charleston group in 1993 after a series of disputes.

The prolific Mr. Menotti wrote plays, poetry and short stories, and even had a brief fling as a Hollywood scriptwriter at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1984, he won the nation's Kennedy Center Honors, which recognize those who "throughout their lifetime have made significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts."

Mr. Menotti lived for many years with Samuel Barber, his lifelong companion, in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Mr. Menotti wrote the libretto for Vanessa and revised the libretto for Antony and Cleopatra, both composed by Barber, who died in 1981.

While living in Scotland later, Mr. Menotti traveled the world directing opera and composing, accepting a commission from Placido Domingo in 1986, for example, to write the opera Goya about the Spanish painter.

Menotti was born July 7, 1911, in Cadegliano, Italy, the sixth of eight children of Alfonso and Ines Pellini Menotti. His was an affluent family living on profits from a coffee plantation in Colombia.

His mother made sure Gian Carlo, her favorite son, and all her children learned piano, violin and cello; and she frequently organized evening musicales to display their talents. Gian Carlo began setting verse to music at age 5, and at 11 wrote his first opera, The Death of Pierrot.

His theatrical flair, which enabled him to make opera palatable to all walks of society, was first exhibited in puppet shows he staged for his family.

After his father's death, his mother enrolled him at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. A letter from the wife of conductor Arturo Toscanini helped persuade composition professor Rosario Scalero to accept him.

At the institute Mr. Menotti met Mr. Barber, also a student.

After graduating in 1933, the men lived in Austria, where Mr. Menotti composed his first adult opera, one of the few he wrote in Italian, Amelia al Ballo.

At the time, opera was unpopular, and Menotti said he told himself: "Well, I'll just write this one opera, and then I'll start composing all my symphonies, masses and motets."

"I guess Amelia," he chuckled after many years and many operas, "was the beginning of my end."

Myrna Oliver writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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