He wrote one of the most famous operas of its time, one of the most-performed operas ever, yet his name would remain a mystery to many today. It's difficult now to understand the impact of Gian Carlo Menotti, who died on Thursday at the age of 95. His fame speaks to a time when opera actually was part of the popular culture and its stars were celebrities of the new media. His opera The Consul won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950; The Medium and another Pulitzer winner, The Saint of Bleecker Street, were hits on Broadway. His 1939 opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, was written for NBC, the first opera ever composed specifically for radio. Later works such as The Medium solidified his reputation as the preeminent American operatic composer (although born in Italy, he did much of his writing in America , in English, and therefore is usually considered an American composer). He founded the Spoleto arts festival in Italy in 1958, and its companion festival in South Carolina in 1977. His influence ranged to the unexpected, such as pop star Laura Branigan (you remember "Gloria"), who gave credit to him as her vocal coach on several of her albums.
But it was the gentle Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors that brought Gian Carlo Menotti his lasting fame. It was the first opera ever composed specifically for television – imagine that happening today. It world-premiered on Christmas Eve in 1951, the inaugural presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame (back when that brand really meant something) and was an immediate sensation, earning a review on the front page of the New York Times and becoming a Christmas TV tradition for over a decade.
I’m not a music critic, and I can’t discuss the technical ins-and-outs of Menotti’s music and influence in the same way that a professional like Terry Teachout could. But I know what I like, and I know just enough about opera to be dangerous. For many years I’ve been advocating a Menotti revival, particularly here in Minnesota . Aside from Amahl (a longtime favorite of amateur music groups), you don't see that many of his operas in significant productions anymore. And that’s a shame, because Menotti should be seen as more than a relic to gather dust on the shelf.
The problem, I suppose, is that Menotti isn't cool anymore. It's much more hip, much more provocative, to stage something truly "daring," a political polemical such as The Handmaid's Tale or the glamor of a world premiere like The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps it was as was written in the New York Times obit:
In a musical age in which controversy usually centered on the avant-garde, Mr. Menotti was controversial for his conservatism. Writing of his opera “The Last Savage” in 1964, he said: “To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it. For better or for worse, in ‘The Last Savage’ I have dared to do away completely with fashionable dissonance, and in a modest way, I have endeavored to rediscover the nobility of gracefulness and the pleasure of sweetness.”
In a day when we're used to hearing of the financial troubles of arts groups, perhaps instead of wasting valuable time and resources on the kind of tripe companies love to boast of, they should look at the larger body of work out there that remains underperformed. One need look no farther than Menotti for such a renaissance.
Consider The Consul, a political thriller of a woman trying to escape a police state, as full of drama and intrigue as any contemporary story. Such is the nature of its timeliness that both liberals and conservatives, totalitarians and anarchists, claim it as their own. The Saint of Bleecker Street, set in New York City, presents all kinds of human drama - religious devotion, family jealousy, murder, fanaticism - what more could you ask for?
Sometime in the 1950s Menotti's star began to fade; with the movement toward neo-romanticism his more modern style fell out of favor, the critics turned on him and people who formerly championed his works now feigned an embarrassment that they'd been so partial to them. Although his name faded from the popular culture, he was never forgotten in the music industry; in 1984 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. He continued to direct opera into his 90s, and Amahl remains the most widely-performed opera in the world.
There were discordant notes, of course; he was thought to have intimate relationships with the composer Samuel Barber (for whom he wrote the libretto to Vanessa) and the conductor Thomas Schippers (who did so well with Menotti operas, conducting that premiere of Amahl). In an interview with Columbia magazine he admitted he'd left out the Credo from his Missa O Pulchritudo, replacing it with a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine, ("O Beauty, ever ancient ever new, late have I loved You") because he couldn't accept everything in the Creed. But then we look to admire Menotti's arts, and admire him; we don't seek to sanctify him.
One of the great things about recording is that it has made it possible for great works and performances to live on after those responsible for it have gone. But there’s more to a performance than just the recording – there is a time, an atmosphere, a context into which the performance has to be placed. In our DVD collection is a rare copy of the original live broadcast of Amahl in 1951. Menotti appears at the beginning to introduce the peformance, and talks briefly about the background and personal experience that went into its composition. There is something about having watched this telecast while Menotti was still living that made the experience that much more immediate. For as long as Gian Carlo Menotti was alive there was somehow a living link to that date when classical music was part of the living culture, when a network had its own symphony orchestra, and when people gathered around the TV on Christmas Eve to watch an opera. We'll be doing the same, this Christmas and in the future, but somehow it won’t be the same.