Gian Carlo Menotti

If you were to take a music history course, or to read one of the standard college music history texts, you might never learn who Gian Carlo Menotti was.  There is scant, if any, mention of the composer.  He seems to have been more or less dismissed as a conservative twentieth-century composer who shunned the avant-garde, a product of his Italian predecessors, Puccini and Mascagni.  In fact, he was so disliked by some of the more experimental composers that at one point Luigi Nono refused to appear on the same program as Menotti.  Menotti himself did not hesitate to criticize his perceived opponents, once stating, “Atonal music is essentially pessimistic.  It is incapable of expressing joy or humor.”  Menotti may not have been a great innovator but his contributions to American classical music were nonetheless significant.  His operas, in particular, met with acclaim and he received many prestigious commissions.  He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on several occasions and also was esteemed as a librettist and stage director.

The Gifted Child

Gian Carlo Menotti came from a large family.  He was born in the town of Cadegliano, Italy (near Lake Lugano), the sixth of ten children.  His father was a prosperous businessman and his mother an accomplished musician, albeit an amateur one.  The children were taught the violin, piano and cello and in the evenings they played music for one another.

Menotti must certainly have been a gifted child, because, by the age of eleven he had written two operas.  The first was called The Death of Pierrot and the second was based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.  When the family moved to Milan in 1924, Menotti enrolled in the conservatory there.  He was thirteen-years-old.   But Menotti did not remain in Italy for much longer.

Becoming an American Composer

In 1928 Menotti accompanied his mother, Ines, on a business trip to South America.  On the return trip, he stayed in Philadelphia and enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music where he undertook serious instruction from composition teacher Rosario Scalero.

When he arrived at Curtis Menotti’s English was poor.  He made friends with another young man at the school, fellow composer Samuel Barber, who, Menotti recalls, was one of the only students who could speak any Italian and who also spoke excellent French.  Communicating primarily in French, the two men formed a strong friendship that developed into a lifelong relationship, both personal and professional.

Menotti graduated with honors in 1933 and by 1937 he had finished his first opera, Amelia al ballo.  As he did for all of his subsequent operas, he provided the libretto for the work.  It was soon translated and had a New York premiere in 1938.  It was so successful that the Metropolitan Opera programmed the opera the next year.  What’s more, the esteemed American opera house commissioned a work from the composer.  Unfortunately this work, The Island God, was a failure.

However, just before that unfortunate premiere, Menotti received a commission from NBC to write an opera for radio.  For this opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, he wrote his first English libretto.  The opera tells the story of two lonely women and their obsession with a  transient staying in their home.  It contains such popular pieces as “Steal me, Sweet Thief” and “When the Air Sings of Summer.”  Its radio premiere took place in 1939.  The stage version followed in 1941.

Menotti’s Great Works

During World War II Menotti remained in the United States and continued composing.  In 1943, he and Samuel Barber bought a home together in Mount Kisco, New York and they called the home Capricorn.  Menotti recalled this home fondly:

It was not a particularly beautiful house; in fact, it was a rather strange house.  But it was perfect for what we wanted.  It had two studies, separated by a huge room where we ate and received guests.  There I composed my most accessible operas – I mean The Consul, The Medium, The Saint of Bleeker Street, Amahl – and the house’s strong atmosphere attracted many artists.  I remember wonderful evenings with Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Jerome Robbins, Tallulah Bankhead.  I can’t begin to recall all the famous people who were part of those years.

The works he mentions above, written during his first fifteen years at Capricorn, were among his most acclaimed.

The Medium (1946) was commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson fund.  The dark, tragic opera was a great success, playing over 200 times in a Broadway theater.  As a curtain raiser to the two-act work Menotti composed a shorter opera called The Telephone, much lighter in tone.  The U.S. State Department subsequently sponsored a European tour of the two works in 1955, which brought the composer international renown.

Before that time, however, Menotti’s skill as a librettist brought him to the attention of the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  They hired him to write screenplays for them, and, while none of his contributions were ever made into films, at least one of them became an opera: The Consul (1950).  The Consul tells the story of a family attempting to get a visa in order to leave a highly bureaucratic police state.  It was a resounding success and earned the composer a Pulitzer Prize along with a Drama Critics’ Circle Award.  It has since been translated and performed in many other countries.

In 1951 Menotti received yet another commission from NBC.  This time he was asked to write the first opera ever made especially for television.  The result was Amahl and the Night Visitors.  In writing the libretto for this piece, Menotti was inspired by a Hieronymous Bosch painting, The Adoration of the Magi.  The libretto tells the story of a young crippled boy’s encounter with the Three Wise Men on their way to see the Christ child.  This Christmas opera was a tremendous success and until the mid-1960s NBC annually rebroadcast Amahl; it went on to be one of the most oft-performed American operas of the twentieth century.

1954 saw the premiere of Menotti’s next work, The Saint of Bleeker Street.  Menotti was inspired to write this work, which deals with mysticism in the context of everyday life, by his friend and painter Milena Barilli.  According to the composer she had a mystical aspect to her, which went into his opera.  He remembers that one day she gave him a painting and insisted that he also take her dog, Lucia.  After delivering the dog and the painting Barilli returned home and committed suicide.  Menotti felt that after that point his home, Capricorn, was haunted by his former friend; at times he observed the little dog reacting strangely to something Menotti could not see, and he assumed it was her.  Whatever the case, The Saint of Bleeker Street went on to be a critical, if not financial success.  Menotti was awarded another Pulitzer Prize.

The Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds

Menotti continued prolifically composing, but in retrospect it seems that, with The Saint of Bleeker Street, his most respected works had been completed.  Nonetheless, his output thereafter was nothing if not impressive.  In 1958, for instance, the opera Maria Glovin was premiered at the International Exposition at Brussels, the result of another commission from NBC.  That same year the Metropolitan Opera staged Vanessa for the first time, composed by Barber on a text by Menotti.

In 1958 he also founded the Spoleto Festival.  The aim of the festival was to bring established and young promising artists together.  Menotti also later stated that he started the festival in order to raise the fortunes of the Italian town of Spoleto, something he succeeded in doing.  In the early years of the festival, Menotti made it a policy that his own works were not to be showcased and it was only fifteen years after establishing the event that he allowed his works to be programmed.

Following the founding of the Spoleto Festival in Italy, Menotti wrote several notable works.  In 1963 another NBC opera for television, Labyrinth, premiered.  His work, Le dernier sauvage, also opened at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.  The Metropolitan Opera subsequently staged it as well.  In 1964, CBS commissioned him to write an opera and this dramatic church opera, Martin’s Lie, premiered at the Bath Festival.

Menotti, of course, did not only compose operas.  It is worth mentioning, for instance, his song cycle, Canti della lontananza, which was premiered by the formidable soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.  He also counted orchestral and choral works among his compositions.

In 1973 Menotti and Barber sold Capricorn.  By this time Menotti traveled so often that he was unable to help Barber maintain it and they came to the conclusion that it was time to move on.  For Menotti the selling of the house brought the end of an era, and, although the two men maintained a relationship, they never again owned a home together.  Barber thereafter mainly lived in a New York City apartment.  For his part, Menotti moved with his adopted son Francis to a baronial estate called Yester House in Scotland.

Menotti loved living in Scotland, which surprised people since he was an Italian by birth and not necessarily accustomed to such an unforgiving, rainy climate.  But he reported that he liked the cold.  The only problem was that Menotti, who had never been very good with money, had to maintain a large estate, one that was heavily mortgaged.  A collector of memorabilia, at times he found himself forced to sell items, such as a manuscript by Ezra Pound, in order to pay his debts.  At one point he bemoaned the loss, or theft, of several original scores to some of his well-known operas.  In an interview he stated that if anyone happened to know where the scores were, he would be grateful for their return, finishing with, “They’re mine and I need to sell them.”

In 1977 Menotti established the second Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.  This realized his vision of a festival of two worlds – the old, Italy, and the new, America.  As it had done in Italy, the Spoleto Festival raised the fortunes of Charleston, which became an international artistic and cultural destination.  Menotti went on to found a third Spoleto Festival in Australia.

Severing Ties with Spoleto Festival USA

By the end of the 1970s Menotti was in his late sixties.  But he showed no signs of slowing down.  In 1979 he wrote another opera, La Loca, as a vehicle for the beloved American soprano Beverly Sills’s farewell.  Placido Domingo also had a work written for him, Goya, in 1986.  Between these works Menotti’s achievements were recognized with a Kennedy Center Honor in 1984.  He also had the privilege of providing the Gloria section of the Mass written in honor of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.  The next year he directed a new film version of his classic Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.

The 1990s saw controversy as well.  The relationship between Menotti and the Spoleto Festival USA board of directors had for some time been less than cordial.  The problems stemmed from issues such as what the board felt was an exorbitant fee for the composer’s services and Menotti’s staunch opposition to the festival’s inclusion of jazz.  He ultimately resigned in 1993.  Before the formal severing of ties, however, the press publicized a great deal of bad blood between Menotti and the board.

Gian Carlo Menotti died on February 1, 2007 in Monaco at the Princess Grace Hospital.  His estate, including the Scottish property, was willed to his adopted son Francis.  Beverly Sills recalls him as, "a man who dared to write haunting melodies when it was considered passe to do so. He also was a true man of the theater, with a great talent for the melodramatic. He could drive his collaborators to the point of exasperation."

--- Eve McPherson


Archibald, Bruce and Jennifer Barnes: ‘Menotti, Gian Carlo’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 February 2007), <http//>

Ardoin, John.  “Gian Carlo Menotti: Dialogue V.”  Opera Quarterly 6.3 (1989): 39-47.

Holland, Bernard.  “Gian Carlo Menotti, Opera Composer, Dies at 95.”  The New York Times 1 Feb. 2007.  4 Feb. 2007.

Page, Tim.  “The Melodrama and Melodies of a Singular Composer.”  The Washington Post 2 Feb. 2007.  4 Feb. 2007