Maestro Menotti touched hearts his own way

An Appreciation

Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)

February 04, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Call him The Defier.

Gian Carlo Menotti defied critics, producers, boards of directors, contemporary tastes, the odds.

The affable and wonderfully opinionated Italian-born composer, who died Thursday at 95, was a 19th-century man working in the 20th, writing the music he felt, in a style Verdi and Puccini would have thoroughly understood. And he was something of a genius at reaching the public with his work, especially his operas.

Starting in 1947, with a double bill of a comedy, The Telephone, and a melodrama, The Medium, he took opera into traditional Broadway theaters and enjoyed unprecedented, and so far unequaled, triumphs there. In 1951, he wrote the first opera for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors.

In 1958, he put a small Italian town called Spoleto on the international map with a festival that showcased his music and that of composers he admired. In 1977, he created a mirror festival in then-sleepy Charleston, S.C., turning the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. into the country's most prominent annual arts celebration.

Time and again, he silenced his doubters with popular successes that modernist composers could only dream about. At his best, Menotti touched nerves and hearts with his music. Maybe that's why so many in the press dismissed or devalued him over the decades. They were suspicious of someone who could move an audience so easily and so often.

It's hard to imagine there could ever be a time when people won't be affected by, say, the simple song of the little lame boy who is startled to find three kings at his hovel door in Amahl, and the simple faith that leads to a miracle.

Or the moment in The Medium when the fake ghost-summoner feels the chilling touch of the inexplicable. Or the sound of one desperate woman's impassioned outburst against the coldness of bureaucracy and the devaluation of human life in The Consul, Menotti's potent post-war opera.

That work, which earned Menotti the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes, opened on Broadway in 1950 and ran for 269 performances, an achievement that still seems incredible. (A few years ago, when a snappy, shorter-lived production of Puccini's La Boheme opened on Broadway, some people acted as if it were a revolutionary concept.)

Menotti earned a second Pulitzer in 1955 for another opera that started on Broadway, The Saint of Bleecker Street, an undervalued work about the mystery of faith that packs a terrific musical and theatrical punch.

Some surprises left

Although some of the composer's subsequent efforts reveal considerable powers, especially Maria Golovin in 1958, the composer never topped the quality of The Saint. But his creativity kept flowing, and people kept asking for more. (Plus, once he bought a castle in Scotland, he was happy to take any commission -- the place needed a lot of upkeep.)

One of his more recent efforts, Goya, written for Placido Domingo and given its premiere by Washington National Opera in 1986, did not exactly enjoy universal acclaim. "I know I wrote it too fast," Menotti told me in a 2001 interview for the Sun. "I counted too much on facility."

It was the same with other pieces. But Menotti had surprises left in him, such as a setting of the Latin Mass in 1979 called Missa: O Pulchritudo. There is extraordinary beauty here, the work of a composer who still had much to say and knew how to say it compellingly.

He didn't seem quite as inspired when he dashed off a congregational Mass in 1984 for the 350th anniversary of Maryland. The premiere at Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption didn't leave much of an impression, but Menotti ended up making the event memorable anyway, when he complained about the preparation and what he called tampering by the church's music director.

The composer told The Washington Post that the offending woman "should be made an air stewardess in Lufthansa. ... The Catholic Church must learn to treat the arts with more respect and understanding or it will lose us all. Fortunately, I wrote this Mass for the glory of God, and I hope God will receive my modest effort more mercifully than [she] did."

Defiant Menotti

That's pure Menotti, the Menotti I remember so well when, in 1993, he was fiercely sparring with the board of directors at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

He seemed to relish the fight, even though he could not have expected to win. He wanted his adopted son, Francis, appointed heir to the festival, something there was no compelling reason for the board to embrace.

The highly publicized scuffle had as much drama as a Menotti opera, but no fatal wounds were inflicted. Composer and son left town to concentrate on the original Italian festival; the Charleston venture survived nicely.

In the end, I suspect Menotti laughed off the battle as easily as he did those pesky critics who invariably carped about his terribly old-fashioned harmony, his blatantly emotional melodies and cholesterol-laden orchestration. "They often spoil my breakfast," he said about those doubters, "but never my lunch."

In that 2001 Sun interview, Menotti compared composers to diviners searching for water. "Sometimes you know the water is there, but you just can't find it," he said. "And sometimes you are too lazy to dig. I feel I have not dug profoundly enough. I should have worked harder in my life."

Maybe so, but he still accomplished an awful lot, still made history, still created works of musical art that have stood the test of time. He had a great run.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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