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Gian Carlo Menotti Dies at 95

By Matthew Westphal
01 Feb 2007

Gian Carlo Menotti, as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1944 (top) and in Spoleto, Italy in 2005 (bottom).

Gian Carlo Menotti — composer, dramatist, and founder of two major music festivals — died today in a Monaco hospital at age 95. No cause of death has yet been reported; Menotti's son Francis told the Associated Press, "He died pretty peacefully and without any pain."

Though he was born in Italy in 1911 and retained connections with the country (including citizenship) throughout his life, Menotti was effectively an American composer. He came to the United States as a young man, finished his studies here and wrote all but three of his 26 operas to his own English texts.

The young Menotti began his studies at age 13 at the Milan Conservatory. Four years later, after accompanying his mother to Colombia on an attempt to rescue the family coffee business, he went to Philadelphia and entered the Curtis Institute. There he met composer Samuel Barber, who would become his life partner. Menotti later provided the texts for Barber's operas Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge and revised the libretto for Antony and Cleopatra. They shared a house in New York's Westchester County until 1973; Menotti subsequently moved to a castle in Scotland. (Barber died in 1981.)

In 1937, at Curtis, Menotti produced his first mature opera, Amelia al ballo ("Amelia Goes to the Ball"). The work was so well received that NBC commissioned him to write the first opera ever for radio, The Old Man and the Thief (1939).

The next 15 years saw the creation of Menotti's most admired and frequently revived operas: The Medium (1946), The Telephone (1947), The Consul (1950), and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954). All four of these works were performed on Broadway, and Menotti won Pulitzer Prizes for the latter two. Christmas Eve 1951 saw the premiere broadcast of his Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera ever written for television; while the work is no longer telecast annually, it is staged every year in communities across the U.S.

The operas Menotti produced from the 1960s onward never won the critical acclaim that his hits of the 1940s and '50s did — no doubt partly because Menotti never took to the dissonant academic style which dominated the contemporary music establishment at the time — but the works were not big public successes either. Most notable among them are probably the television opera Labyrinth (1963), the science-fiction opera for children Help, Help, the Globolinks! (1968), The Egg (1973), and Goya (1986, rev. 1991 and 2004), commissioned by the Washington Opera as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo.

From the 1960s on, Menotti made his mark on the musical world chiefly through his Spoleto Festivals.

In 1958 he founded the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) in the medieval Italian hill town of Spoleto. His idea was to bring together gifted young musicians, dancers and theater artists from the Old and New Worlds (Europe and the U.S.) and tap the resulting creative energy. Among the important artists who received crucial early exposure in Spoleto are choreographers Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, director Patrice Chéreau, and mezzo Shirley Verrett (who sang her first Carmen there).

Menotti's plan was always to establish a twin event in the United States, and in the mid-1970s he settled on the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina as his preferred site. The Spoleto Festival USA was established in 1977 and was a success with audiences and critics from the beginning; in short order it became (and remains) one of the largest and most prominent performing arts festivals in the U.S.

Unfortunately, it was not long before major disputes arose between Menotti and the Spoleto USA board over artistic and financial matters and the independence of the American festival from its Italian counterpart. These arguments became increasingly public and ugly over the years — in 1990 Menotti told reporters that he was being "treated like the clerk" — and the composer threatened to take the festival and leave Charleston. But the board had the foresight to secure the trademark for the Spoleto Festival USA name, and Menotti left in defeat in 1993.

In 1986 Menotti founded a third event, the Spoleto Melbourne Festival of Three Worlds in Australia's second city. While he was its director for only three years, his creation lives on as the Melbourne International Arts Festival, held every October.

Yet the relationship between the original Festival of Two Worlds and its founder remained strong and loving throughout. The original Spoleto festival continues to be vital today (it has recently developed a sideline in neglected Baroque operas); while Francis Menotti took over the artistic directorship from his father in 1999, the elder Menotti — who divided his time between Monaco and his Scottish castle — continued to travel there every year to celebrate his birthday on July 11. When the local news website SpoletoOnline reported the maestro's death today, it called him "Il duca di Spoleto."




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