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Making A Case For Menotti

Is composer Gian Carlo Menotti (born 100 years ago Thursday) ready to be ranked with the greatest 20th-century composers? (Getty Images)

One hundred years ago, in a country town on Italy's Lake Lugano, Gian Carlo Menotti was born. It didn't take long before little Gian Carlo took pen to music paper. By the time he entered the Milan Conservatory at age 13, he'd already composed two operas.

On the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth, Morning Edition music commentator Miles Hoffman makes a case for Menotti as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

"He was a pioneer," Hoffman says. "He came to this country as a teenager, studied at the Curtis Institute and had courage to write operas in English, starting in the 1930s, when no other American really did. Certainly, no other American composer was able to do it so successfully."

Hoffman says Menotti was also a media pioneer. After considerable success with his first opera in America, the composer was approached by NBC to write a work specifically for radio. On April 22, 1939, Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief was broadcast. Later, Menotti found even greater success with Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned for television. It made its debut on NBC on Dec. 24, 1951, and became a Christmas Eve broadcast tradition. The roles were carefully crafted so that amateurs as well as professionals could perform the work, rendering it one of the most performed operas.

But should Menotti be ranked with the composer heavyweights of the 20th century, like Stravinsky, Copland, Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Messiaen? Hoffman says he thinks so.

"You have to ask the question, 'Who wrote music that will last — music that people will be listening to 100, 200 years from now?' " Hoffman says. "I believe one of the answers will be Gian Carlo Menotti."

Hoffman points to the aria "To This We've Come," from The Consul, to explain the composer's staying power.

"It's astonishingly dramatic music, incredibly effective," he says. Below, watch soprano Patricia Neway, who sang in the original production.

The fact that the The Consul opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway (in 1949) is important. It was an opera that was both a Broadway hit and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

"Menotti thought it was crucial to bring opera to a large popular audience," Hoffman says. "He once wrote, 'If I insist on bringing my operas to Broadway, it is simply because of the letters I receive which begin, "Dear Mr. Menotti, I have never seen an opera until tonight." ' "

Menotti's operas The Medium, The Telephone and Maria Golovin were all produced on Broadway.

Another reason Menotti's music will last, Hoffman says, is that he knew how to write for the voice.

"His music makes singers sound good," he says. "One of Menotti's strengths is that he was able to write lovely, beautiful music."

Along with his talents as a versatile composer, director and librettist, Menotti was a formidable impresario. He founded the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1958 — and then, in 1977, Spoleto USA in Charleston, S.C.

"He did this all through personal magnetism and connections, and because people wanted to do what Menotti wanted them to do," Hoffman says. "He was a lot of everything — charming, brilliant, funny. He was also difficult. He apparently fired everyone he ever hired. But he was also absolutely irresistible."

Menotti died in 2007 at age 95.

Does Gian Carlo Menotti rank with the greatest composers of the 20th Century? Commentator Miles Hoffman has made his case. What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors")

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That's music from "Amahl and the Night Visitors," the Christmas classic that by some accounts is the most frequently produced opera in the world. It was written by Gian Carlo Menotti, who was born a hundred years ago today.

MORNING EDITION's music commentator Miles Hoffman is here to talk with us about Menotti's music and his legacy.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So where does Gian Carlo Menotti stand? Okay, he wrote at least one incredibly popular opera, as we've just said. But should we be placing him in the category of Great 20th century composers, people like Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich or Leonard Bernstein?

HOFFMAN: Renee, I think the short answer is yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Okay.

HOFFMAN: How's that?

MONTAGNE: How about a short question: Why?

HOFFMAN: There're many reasons. First of all, the man was a pioneer. He was born in Italy, but he came to this country as a teenager, studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, as a matter of fact. And he had the courage to write operas, and operas in English, starting in the 1930s and 1940s when no other American composer really did. Certainly no other American composer was able to do it so successfully.

(Soundbite of opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

HOFFMAN: He was also a media pioneer, Renee. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," which is from 1951, was the first opera ever written specifically for television. And even before that, back in 1939, Menotti wrote the first opera ever for radio. This was for NBC Radio. In 1939 he wrote "The Old Maid and the Thief."

(Soundbite of opera, "Steal Me, Sweet Thief")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Steal me. Oh, steal me, sweet thief, for time's flight is stealing my youth. And the...

HOFFMAN: That's from the beautiful aria "Steal Me, Sweet Thief," Renee, from "The Old Maid and the Thief" by Menotti.

When you ask the question about this category of great composers, I think you have to ask: Who wrote music that will last, music that people will be listening to a hundred years from now, 200 from now? And I believe one of the answers is Gian Carlo Menotti.

MONTAGNE: Let's play an example. You suggest something of exactly what you're talking about.

HOFFMAN: I think if we listen to the aria to "To This We've Come," which is also known as the "Papers Aria" from Menotti's opera "The Consul," I think you'll hear what I mean. This is astonishingly dramatic music, incredibly effective and beautifully sung, by the way, by the person who created this role and who sang this aria first, is Patricia Neway.

(Soundbite of aria, "To This We've Come")

Ms. PATRICIA NEWAY (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: Miles, it has that sweet up to these heights.

HOFFMAN: Exactly. Musical heights and emotional heights, and that's what makes it so wonderful, so successful. And interestingly, Renee, this opera, "The Consul," opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. It was a Broadway hit and it won the Pulitzer Prize too.

MONTAGNE: Now, why on Broadway and not, say, the Met - the Metropolitan Opera?

HOFFMAN: Well, a number of reasons for that, including the fact that Menotti actually had an early failure at the Met. And big opera houses at the time weren't necessarily terribly interested in American operas. It was not considered something that was going to be successful. But I think more important, Menotti felt it was very, very important - it was crucial to bring opera a large, popular audiences. And he once wrote - I love this.

He said: If I insist on bringing my operas to Broadway, it is simply because of the letters I receive which begin, Dear Mr. Menotti, I had never seen an opera until tonight.

And Menotti's operas "The Medium" and "The Telephone," and also an opera called "Maria Golovin" were also produced on Broadway.

MONTAGNE: So back for a moment to the opera we just heard an excerpt from a moment ago, from "The Consul." Seemed like pretty spectacular writing for the voice.

HOFFMAN: And Renee, that is another reason and another very good reason that Menotti's music will last. He knew how to write for the voice. And he makes -his music makes singers sound good.

Here's another example, Renee. It's just absolutely lovely, and again, one of Menotti's strengths. He was able to write lovely music, beautiful music.

(Soundbite of aria, "Monica, Monica Dance the Waltz")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: You're right. It's very, very pretty. It's silky.

HOFFMAN: Exactly, Renee. There will never be a shortage of sopranos wanting to sing that aria. That's "Monica, Monica Dance the Waltz" from "The Medium" by Menotti. And as long as sopranos have any say in the matter, people will be producing Menotti's operas.

MONTAGNE: And Miles, Gian Carlo Menotti died in 2007. He was - what - 95 years old so there must be many people who knew him and worked with him still alive. And I'm guessing you have to at least know someone who knew him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: Yes, I know a number of people who knew him. I never knew him personally, I'm sorry to say. But you know, Renee, some people are a little bit of everything. According to everybody I've spoken to, Gian Carlo Menotti was a lot of everything. He was charming. He was brilliant. He was funny. He was also difficult. He could be infuriating. Apparently he fired everybody he ever hired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: But he was also absolutely irresistible, by all accounts. And which was one of the things that made him - we're talking about his legacy - that's one of the things that made him a great impresario. He founded the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1958; and then in 1977, Spoleto USA in Charleston - very important festivals. And he did this all through personal magnetism and connections, and just because people wanted to do what Gian Carlo Menotti wanted them to do.

MONTAGNE: And Miles, on this his, what would have been his hundredth birthday, what would you have us go out on?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's just a lovely barcarolle from "Sebastian," which was a ballet that Menotti wrote. Not an opera, a ballet and I think it perfectly illustrates the charm of Gian Carlo Menotti and his music.

MONTAGNE: Pleasure as always, talking to you, Miles.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players, and author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."

(Soundbite of ballet, "Sebastian")

MONTAGNE: And you can watch an excerpt from Menotti's opera "The Consul" on our classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence, at NPRMusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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