Remembering Gian Carlo Menotti
[Ed Note: Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was not only a towering figure among his contemporaries for his own music—a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of operas which continue to be frequently revived. He was also a champion of and role model for many other composers, both of his own generation and of subsequent generations, through his establishing of the Spoleto Festival. We asked John Kennedy, Jack Beeson, Tania León, and Lee Hoiby—all composers who were profoundly touched by their encounters with Menotti—to share their remembrances. – FJO]
For 49 years at the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, the Festival closed with the Concerto in Piazza, at the Piazza del Duomo. Shortly before the concert would begin, Gian Carlo Menotti would appear in a window of his Palazzo overlooking the piazza, and would wave to the crowd. That a living composer would be cheered to shouts of “Maestro,” and accorded a wide honorific respect, is a sight that I am not sure we will ever again see.
I have had the good fortune of an ongoing and deep relationship with the Spoleto Festivals since 1983 (after their split in 1994, I have worked at Spoleto Festival USA only). One of my favorite memories of Gian Carlo was in 1990, when we started the contemporary music series in Charleston. When he saw me for the first time that year, he playfully hit me in the chest and said, “Gianni, what are you doing programming John Cage at my festival!?!” But he acknowledged a respect for Cage, a composer of his generation, in spite of the aesthetic gulf between them.
Menotti’s relationship to artistic and social change was complex, an unresolved chord (and he did like to resolve them) that accompanied his life and factored in the history of the festivals. But it was also his doing that the festivals were created as multi-arts experimental environments, where an ongoing theme was the rejuvenation of art in fresh embodiment by young artists. He knew the power of immersion in artistic experience, for artists and audiences alike, and thousands of people have had the intoxicating thrill of being transformed by the Spoleto experience. Gian Carlo, for that, artists today and in the future will toast you and thank you.
Two cities have been forever changed and made more alive and cosmopolitan. Countless artists have crossed Spoleto’s stages or had their work performed there. And it was a composer who started it all. It may not have always been easy for the Maestro to embrace that he created something much bigger than himself and his own vision. But what a profound legacy for an individual artist to leave behind: ongoing artistic celebrations where the spirit of the arts lives in full and fresh bloom.
Some people found fault with Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretti and other people found fault with his music; both seemed to be too conventional and Puccini-esque. One time I was playing the piano and conducting a rehearsal of La bohème at Columbia University. Teresa Stich-Randall was singing. When we finished, I went out into the office and found Gian Carlo sitting by himself weeping. I asked him what was the matter and he said that he opened the door and listened to us. What a wonderful voice Stich-Randall had and how he wished he could write music as affecting as Puccini’s.
But Menotti was able to make up the drama, the words, and the music in a combination which was in every sense uniquely his and uniquely successful. And his emergence as a successful and well-known composer, as well as his debut as a stage director, occurred on the campus of Columbia University in 1946 as part of Columbia’s Opera Workshop, a course first offered in the 1943-44 academic year which mounted full productions twice a season.
The Opera Workshop’s productions were equally divided between neglected 18th-century comic operas and new works by American composers, commissioned by the Ditson Fund. The new works were given prominent place in the annual spring festivals of American music co-presented by Columbia’s music department and the Ditson Fund for six successive years to distinguished invited audiences. Several of the premieres were conducted by Otto Luening, who was appointed to the Barnard and Columbia teaching staff and named musical director of the Columbia Theatre Association in the autumn of 1944. Soon after, I was asked to join the workshop as a coach and assistant conductor.
In May 1946, the Opera Workshop staged the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, and it was given a total of five performances. As usual, Menotti served as his own librettist and for this production he was also the stage director. In addition to all his other talents, Menotti had a genius for casting. He had in his mind’s eye and ear the perfect embodiments of the characters he had created. All we had to do was to find them, and he, Otto Luening, and I heard everybody available.
The Metropolitan Opera suggested that we hear Clara-Mae Turner, who had auditioned for them recently. She was tall and of commanding presence. We cast her; and when the Met saw one or more of her performances of Baba, the Medium, they hired her immediately. Otto and I were eager to have Gian Carlo hear and see a fine lyric soprano from the Workshop, but he found her too normal and healthy looking for the part of Monica. He agreed to let her cover the role and perhaps sing one performance. He was enthusiastic about another, with an attractive but oddly timbred voice. After a second audition we cast her, though Otto confided to me that we were lucky to have a cover for the role. Not long after the performance, nodes were surgically removed from her vocal cords. All the rest of the parts were cast to Menotti’s great satisfaction.
I was drafted to play the piano in the small orchestra or, rather, the piano prino, for Gian Carlo’s score requires piano four hands, and Jacob Avshalomov was to cope with piano secondo. The pit accommodated only a chamber orchestra and the commissioned composers had to orchestrate accordingly. Menotti chose an instrumentation that became, with variation, the model for chamber operas: 5 solo strings, 4 woodwinds (with alternations: flute and piccolo, oboe and English horn, etc.), horn and trumpet, 1 percussionist, and a piano or harp. Benjamin Britten was to follow this model in his chamber operas of the late forties.
I asked Gian Carlo why he was requiring two pianists—a question probably posed by producers and conductors of The Medium ever since. “Well, Jack, I’m Italian and I’m superstitious. The instrumentalists I need add up to thirteen, which would mean bad luck, so I added another pianist.”
Because the composer was also directing the staging rehearsals at which I was accompanying and occasionally conducting in the absence of Otto Luening, Menotti had a chance to observe me and asked if I’d like to conduct one of the performances. He’d already asked Otto, who thought it was a good idea and was agreeable to practicing and and playing the piano primo in my stead. I was flabbergasted and said I’d think it over. Actually, I dreamt it over for several nights: I was in an orchestral pit with the score of The Medium. Ready to give the downbeat, I could not raise my arms. So I thanked Gian Carlo and Otto for their well-intentioned offer and was content to go on playing piano primo.
The Columbia performances were so successful that plans were made for a Broadway production. Gian Carlo quickly tossed off a “curtain raiser,” The Telephone, to fill out the evening. I was invited to the opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. After The Telephone, two women—to my left and my right—asked me the same questions. “What kind of a show is this?” Do you know if they’re going to go on singing all evening?” An operatic double-bill was something entirely new for Broadway theatergoers, but the “show” was well received and ran for six months. One music critic wrote that it had been improved by revisions and cutting. In fact, the meter of one measure had been changed and a prayer scene add for Baba.
Many years after that, my own opera The Sweet Bye and Bye premiered at Juilliard. As I was walking out, there was Gian Carlo. And he came up to me, shook hands, and said, “Oh, my competitor.” I was terribly flattered.
As a composer, Gian Carlo Menotti wrote what he wanted to write. His music was his from the very beginning and he understood the roots of his own culture very well. He never relinquished his voice or whomever he was, regardless of the tendencies of the compositional aesthetics that were around, and I think that is a very courageous way of being an artist: When you define who you are, or at least who you want to be, from the very beginning, you don’t sway who you are because of the pressures that you might feel around you.
But the mission of this composer was not only being a composer or writing beautiful music or making an impact with music on the world. Gian Carlo Menotti was also able to assess the fact that there were other human beings around him who were members of that very dream that he was living at the time. His creation of the Spoleto Festival was totally incredible, and it encouraged a lot of young people. He helped a lot of us to emerge and under his guidance, whether he was present or not, to try to emulate the spot that he already had in history.
In the 1970s, going to Spoleto was my first trip with the Dance Theater of Harlem to Europe, and it changed my life completely. I had only been in the United States about five years and I just wanted to be a pianist. But I conducted all the performances of the Ballet Company. They knew I knew those scores very well, and I knew the movements very well, and they trusted me with the fact that I was able to do it, even though at that time I didn’t have the technical skills that you obtain once you are drilled by a teacher or when you study the subject. And then, given no notice, I jumped into the seat and conducted the Juilliard Orchestra. When I came back, I enrolled in a conducting course. But my experiences at Spoleto turned me into a conductor, and that is because of Menotti.
There was hype that we were going to be dealing with Menotti—the Menotti of The Medium and Amahl—but he was very generous. He became a father figure to all of us, guiding us into whatever we had to do. At a young age to have somebody that believes in you and thinks that you are able to do what you’re not aware of, that is something I owe to him.
Gian Carlo Menotti changed the course of my life, and I can never cease being grateful to him. I was all set for a career as a concert pianist when a friend showed Menotti a few of my on-the-side compositions, which were hardly more than transcribed improvisations. Gian Carlo offered me the full scholarship to study composition with him at the Curtis Institute. It was 1950; I had no idea who he was, but somehow, the next thing I knew I was in Philadelphia. For four years he led me patiently and devotedly through the mechanics of composing: counterpoint, orchestration, form. Each lesson, one-on-one, was a journey into the heart of music. And he gave me the courage to follow my instincts, not the current fashions. He and Mary Curtis Zimbalist got me the Fulbright to study in Rome, but Goffredo Petrassi and Ildebrando Pizzetti conveyed their regrets to Gian Carlo (through Sam Barber) that our compositional style was unacceptable for the students at Santa Cecilia at that time. Petrassi and Pizzetti, themselves once established tonalists, had to survive in economically struggling post-war Italy, where anti-modernism was associated with the fascist period. They must have envied Gian Carlo, a lucky lyrical bird who had managed to fly the coop. I had no problem with the rejection: I had my fellowship stipend and an awesome apartment in Rome; I was suddenly a rich young American in Europe, somehow dumped into Menotti’s and Mrs. Zimbalist’s aristocratic circle of friends, but I could always get away on my Vespa. I was in heaven and almost forgot to compose. I heard Callas, did Salzburg, Paris etc., etc. This was another remarkable gift which Menotti brought into my life, even if I was soon tugged back as by a spring to my beloved desk of solitude. As I assisted Menotii during the productions of The Most Important Man, The Saint of Bleecker Street, and The Consul, then watched him produce my Scarf at the first Spoleto Festival, and then against so many odds produce so many more great seasons of Spoleto Festivals on two continents, I recognized him as a remarkable force in our world of music.
Time and again I have heard of Americans who were first won over to serious music by one of Menotti’s masterpieces. And beyond his effect on certain individual listeners, I suggest that during the post-war years, when atonal despair reigned and the death of tonality was widely proclaimed, when it seemed that any discernible flickers of lyricism in the concert hall or academia were stomped and doused by bureaucrats and critics, the faint flame of tonality (and the vast spiritual realm it enkindles) was tended and fed as importantly by Gian Carlo Menotti as by anyone I can think of.
I offer one anecdote. At a rehearsal of the first Amahl production, Toscanini leaped up, grabbed Times critic Olin Downes by the lapels, and cried, “See, see! It is still possible to bring tears!”
From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Maestro.