Gian Carlo Menotti

Gian Carlo Menotti (born 1911), Italian-born American composer, wrote highly melodramatic operas that mixed lyricism with atonality.

Gian Carlo Menotti, born in Cadegliano, Italy, to Alfonso and Ines (Pellini) Menotti, was brought up in a musical atmosphere and started composing as a child. He studied at the Milan Conservatory from 1923 to 1927 then came to the United States in 1928. In 1933 he finished his musical education at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where in 1936 his comic opera Amelia Goes to the Ball was first produced. Commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company for a radio opera, he produced the humorous The Old Maid and the Thief (1939). In this work certain characteristics of Menotti's mature style began to appear. His effortless method of transforming the natural inflections of ordinary conversation into musical lines that remain in the memory was quite remarkable.

After the failure of his next opera Menotti turned away from the stage for a few years, but on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1946 he wrote what became his most successful work, The Medium. It set a precedent in the history of American opera by running on Broadway, coupled with a short curtain raiser, The Telephone. In 1951 the composer directed a motion picture version of the work.

Menotti's next operas never quite sustained the excitement generated by The Medium, even though The Consul (1950), which also ran on Broadway, received a Pulitzer Prize, and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1951) won several awards. Menotti always wrote his own librettos and preferred excessively melodramatic scenes. While ideal for a work like The Medium (essentially a ghost story), heavy melodrama seemed out of place in the later works, which professed to have serious social content. Musically, however, they offered some striking lyric passages.

The Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for television in 1951, was highly successful. Its simple charm has made it a perennial favorite during the holiday season. Menotti took a stand against avant-garde music in the fantasy opera Help, Help, the Globolinks! (1968), where the invading globolinks, representing extremist musical tendencies, are destroyed. In The Most Important Man (1971), with its heavy emphasis on melodrama and social significance, Menotti returned to the approach used in The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street. His musical style remained unchanged, relying on a natural sense of lyricism interspersed with more dissonant passages as the plot demanded.

Though known for his operatic works of the 1940s and 50s, Menotti also has composed lively orchestral music, including Piano Concerto in F (1945) and Violin Concerto (1952), as well as the ballet Sebastian (1944).

In addition to composing, Menotti was active in a number of related activities. He taught at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1941 to 1945, and in 1958 he established the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, which was expanded in 1977 to include Charleston, South Carolina. He was also an excellent stage director, and one of his most remarkable gifts was in casting his operas. He had an almost magical sense of getting the right performer for each part; as a result, many singers appearing in his works became identified with these roles throughout their performing careers. In 1992 Menotti was named artistic director of the Rome Opera and headed two seasons. After numerous problems stemming from reported financial mismanagement by the top administrator, Menotti did not return in 1994. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Kennedy Center award, 1984, and the New York City Mayor's Liberty award, 1987.


Further Reading on Gian Carlo Menotti

Information on Menotti's life and work is in Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961), and more extensively in David Ewen, ed., Composers since 1900 (1969). Also see Contemporary Composers (1992).