Gian Carlo Menotti (1911 – 2007)

Gian Carlo Menotti was an Italian-American composer and one of the most successful opera composers of the 20th Century. He wrote his first opera (including libretto) at the age of 11 and entered the Milan (“Verdi”) Conservatory the following year. At the age of 17, he moved to the United States and began composition studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, along with classmates Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. Barber would become his good friend and lifelong companion. (Menotti wrote the libretto for two of Barber’s operas and significantly revised another, Anthony and Cleopatra.)

Menotti’s first success was with the opera Amelia a Ballo (Amelia Goes to the Ball), written while he was still at Curtis. Like all of his operas, Menotti wrote the libretto for it, as well, (in this case, in his native Italian). It was premiered in an English translation in 1937 by Fritz Reiner, was broadcast on CBS radio, and later ran for seven performances at the Metropolitan Opera. A year later, it premiered in Italy (in its original Italian). The success of it led to several more operas, including The Old Maid and the Thief, (the first opera commissioned by an American radio network), The Medium, The Telephone, and The Consul, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

The following year, Menotti wrote his best-known and most successful work, the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was the first opera ever commissioned for network television and was shown on NBC. It has become a perennial holiday favorite and has been seen by millions. Menotti again won the Pulitzer in 1955 for The Saint of Bleecker Street.

In addition to the 25 operas he composed, he also wrote several symphonies, orchestral works, ballets, concertos, choral pieces, and chamber music. Some of the better-known works include the ballet Sebastian, concertos for piano and violin, and the orchestral work Apocalypse, based on the Book of Revelation. His choral works include the cantata Landscapes and Remembrances, written in 1976 for the U.S. Bicentennial, and two masses: the Missa O Pulchritudo and the Mass for the Contemporary English Liturgy, commissioned by the Archbishop of Baltimore.

In addition to composing, Menotti was a Professor at the Curtis Institute. He also founded three music festivals: The Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy, followed by the Spoleto USA Festival in South Carolina and the Melbourne International Arts Festival in Australia, all of which continue to be held annually and serve as showcases for young singers and musicians. In addition to his two Pulitzer Prizes, Menotti was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1984. In his later years, he retired to homes in Scotland and Monaco, where he died at the age of 95.

Menotti’s music, which he wrote in the melodic style of his predecessors, (especially Verdi and Puccini), was considered old-fashioned and out of step by his critics and contemporaries, like Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez, and Nono. Menotti commented on his by writing:

“To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it. For better or for worse, in ‘The Last Savage’ [his 1964 opera],I have dared to do away completely with fashionable dissonance, and in a modest way, I have endeavored to rediscover the nobility of gracefulness and the pleasure of sweetness.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Amahl and the Night Visitors (Classic 1955 Television broadcast)

Suggested Reading:

John Gruen. Menotti: A Biography.