7 July 2020

Gian Carlo Menotti - composer and librettist

Founded Spoleto festival after finding fame in the United States


Gian Carlo Menotti found success as a composer in America
Gian Carlo Menotti found success
as a composer in America
Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote more than two dozen operas and founded the annual Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, was born on this day in 1911 in the village of Cadegliano-Viconago, on the Swiss-Italian border.

A prodigiously talented child who began to write music at the age of seven, Menotti was sent to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia as a teenager and settled in the United States.  

For many years he was the partner - professionally and in life - of the brilliant American composer, Samuel Barber.  Menotti wrote the libretto for Barber’s 1957 work Vanessa, which is regarded as one of the 20th century’s finest operas.

Two of Menotti’s own operas, The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1955), won Pulitzer Prizes.

He created the Festival dei Due Mondi in 1957 out of a desire to make his mark in the country of his birth but also because he was intrigued by the idea of creating an event in which he and his friends could showcase their own work and to which he could also invite some of the great names of music and the arts to perform before a less traditional audience.

The festival proved a great success and continues to be held every summer in the Umbrian city, even though Menotti died in 2007.

One of eight brothers and sisters, Menotti came from a well-to-do background. His father, Alfonso, was a coffee merchant, his mother, Ines, a pianist.  Encouraged by his mother, Gian Carlo soon displayed a rare talent. He wrote the libretto and the music for his first opera, The Death of Pierrot, when he was just 11 years old and was sent to study at the Milan Conservatory a year later, coming to the attention of the great musician and conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who recommended that he enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Menotti and the American composer Samuel Barber (above) became partners
Menotti and the American composer
Samuel Barber (above) became partners
It was around that time that Alfonso Menotti died. Gian Carlo’s relationship with his mother changed after she met and married a much younger man and they went to live in South America, a decision which influenced her son’s decision to stay in the United States.  Barber and Leonard Bernstein were among his fellow students in Philadelphia and Gian Carlo spent long periods living with Barber’s family in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Menotti and Barber became increasingly close.  They bought a house together in Mount Kisco, a prosperous town in New York State, a little over 40 miles (64km) up the Hudson River from New York City, also spending time in Austria, where they had a house on the picturesque Wolfgangsee Lake, near Salzburg.

While studying at Curtis, Menotti wrote his first mature opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball (Amelia al Ballo), to his own Italian text.  The comic, one-act work was well received in New York, and the Metropolitan Opera took it up for their 1937 season.

When the Second World War began in Europe, Menotti stayed in America, although he never gave up his Italian citizenship.  It took Menotti nine more years to win the critical acclaim he craved, his success in 1946 with The Medium bringing him major American and later international recognition. Menotti directed a film version of the opera in Rome in 1951. 

The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), in which he succeeded in marrying Italian melodrama to the Broadway musical, put him on the map. Some critics place them alongside George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Bernstein’s West Side Story as examples of the 20th century’s great musical dramas.

He achieved further success with the first opera written specifically for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), a Christmas commission from NBC, yet Menotti for the first time began to feel restless in America.

The Roman amphitheatre in Spoleto is a key venue at the Festival dei Due Mondi
The Roman amphitheatre in Spoleto is a
key venue at the Festival dei Due Mondi
Drawn back to his native land, he decided he wanted to create a festival, something that would help bring opera to a wider audience and create an opportunity for young musicians, composers and other performers he believed deserved a showcase for their work.

He spent some months looking for a suitable venue and settled on Spoleto in part because it is such a well-preserved medieval town but also because it had a number of indoor theatres that were willing to stage performances, as well as a Roman theatre that would provide a perfect outdoor venue.

The inaugural event, a production of Verdi's Macbeth directed by Luchino Visconti, attracted considerable Italian and international media attention and the Festival of the Two Worlds, as Menotti called it, soon acquired a dedicated following. 

Menotti had no difficulty persuading celebrity artists to associate themselves with the Festival, including the dancer Rudolf Nureyev, directors Ken Russell and Roman Polanski, the poet Ezra Pound, the film composer Nino Rota, actors Vittorio Gassman and Al Pacino, and the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Famous artists were invited to design festival posters, including Richard Lindner, Ben Shahn, David Hockney and Willem De Kooning. The sculptor Henry Moore, who contributed a number of pieces to an exhibition of sculptures in the city’s medieval squares in 1962, designed the sets for Menotti's production of Don Giovanni in 1968.

The Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti in Spoleto was renamed in his honour
The Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti
in Spoleto was renamed in his honour
Menotti in time complained about how much energy he had to give to organising the Festival, sometimes at the expense of his own career as a composer, yet at its height Spoleto would attract nearly half a million visitors every summer and a parallel Spoleto Festival was set up in Charleston, South Carolina.  The main theatre in Spoleto has been renamed Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti in his honour.

Menotti eventually handed over control of the Festival to his son, Francis, an American former actor and figure skater he adopted in 1974 after he had appeared in a production of The Medium. 

It was in the same year that Menotti decided he would no longer live in America or Italy, acquiring Yester House, an 18th-century mansion in Gifford, a village in the county of East Lothian in Scotland, that had formerly been the home of the Marquess of Tweeddale. After he died in 2007 in Monaco, at the age of 95, it was at Yester House that he was buried. 

The waterfront at Lugano, which is just a few kilometres from Menotti's birthplace
The waterfront at Lugano, which is just a few
kilometres from Menotti's birthplace
Travel tip:

Cadegliano-Viconago, where Gian Carlo Menotti was born, is a hamlet in northern Lombardy about 60km (37 miles) north of Milan in the province of Varese. It is situated barely two kilometres from the Italian-Swiss border, between the lakes Maggiore and Lugano. The town of Lugano, the beautiful lakeside resort notable for its temperate climate, despite offering Alpine views. Lugano is in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and visitors enjoy a blend of Swiss and Italian culture.

Spoleto's 12th century cathedral is a feature of this attractive Umbrian town
Spoleto's 12th century cathedral is a feature of
this attractive Umbrian town
Travel tip:

The historic and beautiful Umbrian hill town of Spoleto, home to Menotti’s Festival dei Due Mondi, has an impressive 12th century cathedral among a number of interesting buildings and, standing on a hilltop overlooking the town, the imposing 14th century fortress, La Rocca Albornoziana.  The cathedral contains frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi, who is buried in the church.  The amphitheatre, close to Piazza Garibaldi, where so many events in the Festival take place, dates back to the middle of the first century BC and the early days of the Roman empire.  Two marble busts unearthed nearby, thought to be of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus and his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, may have been part of the decoration of the wall of the stage, which was destroyed in the Middle Ages during the construction of the adjoining Sant’Agata monastery and church, which now houses an archaeological museum.

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