One of the bigwigs of twentieth century American opera accredited for bringing in contemporary charm into traditional operas, Gian Carlo Menotti’s standing in the realms of music is in no way small. With an impressive career that boasts of seven operas, one operatic ballet and two Pulitzer Prizes, Menotti had secured for himself a place that very few can dream of, let alone achieve. Composer, conductor, pianist, and librettist, Gian Carlo Menotti merged twentieth-century dramatic traditions with traditional Italian opera forms. He used dissonance and polytonality to accentuate the dramatic effect of his traditional harmonies. A man of many feats and deeds, Gian Carlo Menotti’s music was highly dramatic and often marked by transparent orchestration, expressive recitation, fluent and idiomatic vocals, and mind-boggling melody. ‘Christmas opera’ and ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ are two of his most distinguished works. Explore this biography to know all about the life and accomplishments of this legendary Italian-American composer.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Childhood And Early Life
Menotti was born in Cadegliano-Viconago in Italy to affluent parents. He was the sixth child of Alfonso and Ines Menotti. His father was a coffee merchant while his mother was a gifted musician, who often hosted small musical recitals and concerts at her family villa. This young prodigy started learning music early and by the age of 11, he wrote two operas including ‘The Death of Pierrot’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’.
He enrolled into Milan Conservatory at the age of 14. By 17, he relocated to US with his mother. One of his family friends, Arturo Toscanini, helped him enter into Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There he learned composition together with Rosario Scalero and met his lover, composer Samuel Barber with whom he spent more than 40 years of his life. As a student, Menotti spent his time with the Barber family in Westchester, PA.
Menotti graduated from Curtis Institute of Music in 1933 and soon after began working on his first mature opera ‘Amelia al Ballo’. This opera was premiered at Curtis in the year 1937 and was received with much adulation. In fact, it received such laurels that Metropolitan Opera took it up the following year. In 1939, NBC commissioned ‘The Old Maid and the Thief’, his first opera in English that was especially written for radio broadcast. The only failure of Menotti's early career was ‘The Island God’ (1942), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. During the war years, he wrote his ‘Piano Concerto’ in F and a full-length ballet Sebastian. His chamber opera ‘The Medium’ was premiered on May 1946 and had a run of 212 performances on Broadway during the following season, paired with his one-act comedy ‘The Telephone’. ‘The Consul’ (1950), the composer's first full-length opera, considered by many to be his masterpiece, also had a long Broadway run, and it won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award. The story, inspired by the plight of individuals trapped in European totalitarian states after the Second World War, was originally intended for a Hollywood film, one of several unproduced scripts the composer wrote for MGM. One of his famous works ‘AmahI and the Night Visitors’, the Christmas classic made for NBC-TV came in 1951. This treasured opera of Menotti celebrated the golden jubilee of its premiere in 2001 and still continues to get more than hundreds of performances every year. His works including ‘Amelia goes to the Ball’, ‘The Island God’ and ‘The Last Savage’ were written in Italian language. ‘Goya’ (1986), with which he returned to a traditional Giovane Scuola Italian style and ‘The Singing Child’ (1993), were composed for Plácido Domingo, had their premiere by The Washington Opera. Domingo re-presented the role at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in summer of 2004.
Along with the opera works, Menotti had penned several ballets and choral works, which includes ‘The Unicorn’, ‘The Gorgon’, ‘Errand into the Maze’, ‘The Manticore; Pastorale for Piano and Strings’, ‘Poemetti’, a collection of piano works for kids;’ The Hero’, and ‘Cantidella Lontananza’, a series of seven songs. His leading works comprises of the cantatas including ‘The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi’ (1963) and ‘Landscapes and Remembrances’ (1976), an explanatory work of his memories of America penned for the United States Bicentennial. Besides, he also penned the libretti to Samuel Barber’s operas such as ‘A Hand of Bridge’, ‘Vanessa’, and The Leper’, a work including a violin concerto, symphonies and a stage play.
Menotti’s famous works were written in the 1940s and 1950s. Apart from writing operas, he also taught at the Curtis Institute of Music. In late 1950s, Joel Honig, the music critic became the personal secretary of Menotti. In 1958, he established the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy and its fellow festival in 1977, in Charleston, South Carolina. The main aim of these festivals was to bring the opera to the spectators who are interested in it. It also helped many artists to make their career and because of these, Shirley Verrett successfully established herself as a singer and Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, as choreographers. In every three weeks of summer, around half a million people would come to visit Spoleto. In 1993, he left Spoleto to take the control of the Rome Opera and in 1986, he expanded the idea to a Spoleto Festival in Melbourne, Australia. From 1986-88, he served as the artistic director, but after the three festivals in Australia, he took the decision of leaving. In 1974, he adopted Francis ‘Chip’ Phelan who was an American actor and a well-known athlete from the early 1960s.
In June and July 2007, the Festival of Two Worlds, which was set up and supervised by Menotti, celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the festival in his memory. The celebration was managed by his son Francis and in the festival Menotti’s works were performed which included ‘Maria Golovin’, ‘Landscapes and Remembrances’, ‘Missa O Pulchritudo’, ‘The Unicorn’, the ‘Gorgon’, and the ‘Manticore’. A trio for the Verdehr Trio got its world premiere in July 1996 at the Spoleto Festival on the occasion of Menotti's 85th birthday. During his lifetime, he wrote six operas for children such as ‘Amahl, The Boy who grew too fast’, ‘and A Bride from Pluto ’, ‘Chip and his Dog, Help! Help!’, ‘The Globolinks’ and ‘The Egg’.
Gian Carlo Menotti died at the age of 95, on 1 February 2007 in a hospital in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
Awards And Achievements
Gian Carlo Menotti received several awards including Guggenheim Award (fellowship), 1946-47, Pulitzer Prize in Music and New York Drama Critics Award for ‘The Consul’ (1950). Menotti was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for the opera ‘The Saint of Bleecker Street’ (1955). In 1984, he got Kennedy Center Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and in 1991, he was given the Musical America Musician of the Year.