Gian Carlo Menotti’s Heavenly Muse

In January, Crisis music critic Robert R. Reilly spoke with Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti (b. 1911) when he was at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to direct the 50th- anniversary production of his opera, The Consul, for the Washington Opera Society. Menotti has written some of the most popular operas in history, including The Medium, The Telephone, The Saint of Bleecker Street, The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, and the perennial Christmas favorite, Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Though born near Lake Lugano, in northern Italy near the Swiss border, and raised in Milan, Menotti received much of his musical education in the United States, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although enormously popular, his works have been vilified by critics since they are written in a tonal language that draws from the tradition of Puccini and others. In 1971, Menotti wrote in a letter to the New York Times, “I hardly know of another artist who has been more consistently damned by the critics…. The insults that most of my operas had to endure through the years would make a booklet as terrifying as Malleus Maleficarum” [“The Witches’ Hammer,” a medieval guidebook for prosecuting sorcery cases].

Yet both Menotti, who will be 90 this July, and his operas have outlived their critics. Still spry, he personally stage- directed the Washington Opera production of The Consul, the story of a young freedom fighter who must flee an unnamed European country with an oppressive regime, leaving behind his wife, mother, and infant son. With a superb cast, the performances came close to justifying the rave review the opera received at its New York premiere in 1950, when the famous music critic Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times, “He has produced an opera of eloquence, momentousness, and intensity of expression unequaled by any native composer.”

Menotti is also the founder of the world-famous “Spoleto” music festival held annually in Spoleto, Italy. He now resides in Lothian, Scotland, but has an Italian cook.

Reilly: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls you “an American composer of Italian birth.” Do you accept that description?

I could be that, or I also could be an Italian composer of American birth.

But you can’t be both.

Except I am still an Italian citizen, but I must say I was born a composer in America. My musical education was here, and certainly, my career was made here. Although my first opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, was written to an Italian libretto, it was first done in America in an English translation. All my other operas, except Le Dernier Sauvage, had an English libretto. And, of course, I was so strongly influenced by the American theater of the time. In Italy, the theater was very old-fashioned. I came to America and saw for the first time the plays of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Also, I read a great deal of the Russian theater, the plays of Chekhov. For me, they were all revelations. All of a sudden, I saw a theater that did not exist in Italy and did not resemble in any way the Italian theater.

When they discuss influences on you, people mention the music of Puccini, Mussorgsky, sometimes Stravinsky and Debussy. Do you accept these?

I always feel that a composer is just a human being, and we all have a family. Whether I like it or not, we are influenced by our neighbors, by our family. We’re not born out of a shell.

Is that your family?

No, not my family. I’ve been very much influenced by Schubert. Melodically, I mean. The simplicity of Schubert always moved me to tears. But I did not know Schubert when I came to America because lieder at that time in Italy were almost unknown. There were no lieder concerts in Milan. Only opera, opera, opera.

But not Schubert’s operas.

Certainly not those, not even now. I arrived here when I was 16 years old, and for the first time, I heard an American orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski. And that was it; I was thunderstruck. I heard so much music. But when I met Samuel Barber, who had a lovely baritone voice, for the first time, he sang for me Schubert songs, and Schumann and Brahms. Brahms was completely unknown in Italy at that time. He was considered a boring, old-fashioned composer.

So, German influences on Italian music? It’s so interesting to hear you say that because so much of Italian music in the 20th century, certainly in its first half, was a rejection of German influences.

I was very much influenced by the German school because of my teacher, Rosario Scalero, who was a pupil of Eusebius Mandyczewski [1857-1929], who was a great friend of Brahms. I was so influenced by the sonata form; my teacher believed in it. The Consul, if you really think of it, is based on the sonata form: The first movement is the first act, then the second act is the adagio, then there is a scherzo, and then there’s the grand finale with the aria. I was very much influenced by the classical form.

You’ve written screenplays; you’ve written plays; you’ve written poetry. Your operas have been filmed a number of times. But I can find no record of your ever scoring a film. Why did you never score a film?

I didn’t because I hate the idea of music just being in the background. I think that great theater music is music of action, music that can describe an action better than words. Operatic music begins where words stop. Just as poetry begins where prose stops, music begins where poetry stops.

You are the most frequently performed opera composer of the 20th century. How do you explain this strange phenomenon of critical derogation and condescension, and yet enormous popularity?

I don’t know that my popularity is enormous, but I believe in certain things. For example, I believe—you’ll be surprised when I say it—in dissonance. I think that twelve-tone and most modern music has killed the importance of dissonance, because if you don’t have consonance, how can you have dissonance? The wonderful thing about dissonance is the tension that has to be released. The twelve-tones have destroyed this completely. And that’s why I love Schubert, because Schubert is very consonant, but then there are times when there’s a little bit of dissonance. It becomes so important and so surprising and wonderful. But in Stravinsky and Schoenberg, dissonance doesn’t mean anything.

It loses its expressive power?


I think that is tied in with Schoenberg’s view of art. He said a very extraordinary thing: “I have been cured of the delusion that beauty is the aim of art.” So if beauty is excluded as the purpose of art, what is its purpose?

If I had known him, I would have asked him, what do you mean by beauty? Because, actually, what I call the aesthetic truth exists, whether you call it beauty or something else. But it is not something that has a definition. Philosophers have yet to explain what is beautiful why is it that sometimes horrible things can be beautiful? Opera, books, and poems can describe horrible things. I say, at least in music, that beauty is a search for the inevitable, that great music is music that can only be that way and no other way. And only God can give you the inevitable. Maybe it is the search for the collective unconscious, but the collective unconscious of what is noblest in man.

What about this definition of the purpose of music or art? To make the transcendent perceptible. You seem to be headed in that direction.

Yes, but the transcendent is what is inevitable.

So you accept it at that level?

Actually, you don’t invent anything. You discover something that already exists. I believe what Plato did: We have a vision of an idea, and then you have to try to remember it. James Joyce said, “To create is to remember.” Many poets, many writers say that art is the art of remembering. Remembering what? Remembering this fleeting vision that the artist has of an aesthetic truth. Then, you try to remember it. Some artists are blessed with wonderful memory, like Beethoven and Wagner. Some people may have a vision of this truth, but they cannot remember it. They cannot capture it.

Are there any 20th-century composers who had this memory?

I think that Richard Strauss had it at moments, and certainly Debussy and Ravel. I think that Stravinsky sometimes had it, but not always. For me, the music of Stravinsky has one thing that bothers me. I believe that music has to have a human breath. Art is in pieces. You lift your leg and put it down. And then you walk. Very often, Stravinsky’s music moves but doesn’t walk. It gesticulates and makes a wonderful gesture, but it doesn’t walk the way a Brahms symphony walks.

You’re talking about the sonata form, of which Stravinsky was not an adherent.

My teacher always told me, and I still believe it, that you don’t do music only with your brain or in your heart, but with your whole body. You must breathe with it. [He sings the opening bars of Mozart’s G minor Symphony.] That principle still works.

Let me ask you about the content of your music. There seems to be a repeated and wonderful tension in your works between sacred and profane love. I was going over the libretto to The Saint of Bleecker Street, and I found some fascinating things that define the human soul in the struggle between Annina and her brother, Michele. I wondered if you could comment on this. For instance, at the end, Michele says, “Why seek for God’s face in a clouded mirror when you can find it burning in your brother’s heart? It is there where human misery is greatest that God shines most.” A little earlier, he asks her, “Why should God have chosen you, of all people?” And Annina answers, “Perhaps because I love him.” Michele: “But you love him as if he were human.” Annina: “How else can I love him since I am human?” And then she goes on and says, “God I desire—and that I know—and yearn to be his bride. How long must I still wait for that joyous meeting?”

I’m glad that somebody reads my librettos. My last composition is called Jacob’s Prayer, which is more or less the same thing. It is the fight with the angel, or, actually, the Bible doesn’t say “angel.” A person comes into Jacob’s tent and fights with him all night. There is this silent fight between them. Then in the morning, the angel is able to strike Jacob in the leg and, through that wound, he has a vision of God. And I’ve been struggling with the angel for a long night.

And are you looking forward to this joyous meeting?

Well, I don’t know if I am going to be wounded or not.

I was fascinated by your remark to Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post [December 30, 2000], when you said, “[My] chief occupation these days is my dialogue with God. I have to face him one of these days, and we have little discussions, private discussions, and that interests me more than composing. I’m trying to get an answer from God.” When I read that, you reminded me not of Jacob but of the Book of Job. Maybe God has asked you a question, and He’s the one waiting for an answer.

Yes, I know. He has asked me a few questions. That’s the trouble, that’s the dialogue, because I don’t know what to answer. I have to prepare my answers. We’ll see.

Some of your answers are in your music, aren’t they?

But you see, I feel very guilty about my music. I think I could have probably composed better music if I hadn’t spent so much time with festivals, making love, and all the things that have taken so much of my time. I think that to be a great composer, you have to give your whole life to it. You cannot share the love of music with any other kind of love. That’s why great composers have also been terrible husbands. You really have to give your whole life to your music. Art is a very jealous mistress to have. She doesn’t admit any interference.

Your remarks will make a lot of people ashamed of themselves, if they think that you, who have written 25 operas, could have done more. That is extraordinary.

No, I should have written better operas.

Let’s return to this question of the tension between sacred and profane love in your work.

Where did you get this? Whom are you speaking to?

Actually, I made that up myself I’m speaking to myself

I would love to meet this person.

I was told you have no particular association with organized religion, but in your works, I find some consistent spiritual, if not religious, themes. In fact, Christopher Keene, in his introduction to the RCA recording of The Saint of Bleecker Street, made this interesting comment: “The ambivalent consequences of faith occupy a central position in all Menotti’s work: In The Medium, Baba is destroyed by the false belief she has engendered and exploited in her clients; in The Consul, faith in her husband’s cause and the possibility of escape drive Magda down the long road of anguish, madness, and death; faith in Christ heals the crippled Amahl, but it leads the crusading children in The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi to enslavement and annihilation.” Is this fair?

Pretty fair. I’m surprised that Keene, who was such a sinner, should have described my metaphysical anguish so well.

What about the role of these works in your own life? You have said that The Consul was based on an incident you read in the newspaper of a woman committing suicide when she didn’t get a visa to the United States, and The Medium on a seance you attended in Salzburg. What about Amahl and the healing of your own leg?

I think that when you write for the theater, willingly or not, you mirror part of your own life.

Was your leg healed at a shrine?

Yes, when I was a little boy.

What shrine was that?

Near Varazze. It’s called Madonna del Monte. I was given benediction, and I walked right away.

There was a question and an answer very early in your life from God, then, wasn’t there?

I believe in saints.

Did you know Padre Pio [the Italian priest and stigmatic who died in 1968 and was beatified in 1999]?

I knew Padre Pio. I went to see him. He was an extraordinary man.

What was that visit like?

It was interesting because I was about to write The Saint of Bleecker Street, so I wanted to meet a saint. I went to see Padre Pio. He used to say Mass around four in the morning. He didn’t want to have people there, but the church was always very crowded. There was a terrible smell of sick people and then the crowd of all these dirty peasants. The first thing I noticed—I went with a friend of mine, a girl from Rome—was that the moment he appeared the air changed. Someone there said, “The odor of sanctity?’ I turned to my friend and asked, “Do you notice the air? It’s changed. It’s a strange perfume of violets and disinfectant at the same time.” The whole air was clean.

I was waiting at the altar. He wore gloves to hide the stigmata, but then, to say Mass, he had to take the gloves off. He had a little towel to wipe his hands, because blood would come out of them. He said the Mass very, very slowly, and every once in a while he would fall into kind of a trance and stop. Nobody moved. It was a very moving experience. It was a difficult moment of my life.

So then I asked to see him. To my great surprise, because generally it was very difficult to see him, he said to meet him at the convent. I went with my friend. I was scared because she went to see him before me in the cell, and she came out crying. I said, “What happened?” She said, “He just slapped me and told me to get out. He was very rough.” Then I went in, and I told him that I didn’t quite believe in the Church. And he said, “You must think that I’m an idiot because why do you come to see me then?” I said, “I don’t know. I thought I needed you.” If he had only embraced me at the moment, probably—I don’t know—I would have fallen right back into the arms of the Church. He just talked to me very nicely.

Then, when I left the convent, the padre at the door asked me how it went. I said, “The Mass was really something. I shall never forget it. But meeting him, I was disappointed because he just spoke to me the way any priest would speak: “God gives you a gift, and you must compose the right music in honor of God,” and such. And the man said, “Many people are disappointed when they meet him because he’s just a simple peasant. But because of the fact that he talked to you and said he wanted to see you, you’ll never forget this meeting. And one day, when you least expect it, he’ll help you.” He did.

He did? How?

Well, it’s something very private.

But you have written some music to the glory of God, haven’t you?

Yes, of course. I believe in God.

Tell me about the O Pulchritudo Mass [written in 1978].

Even that is a document of my struggle, because I did not write the Credo.

So it’s a short Mass.

Because I don’t quite believe in the Credo.

What do you believe in, then?

I don’t believe in many parts of it.

You could have done what Schubert did. He left out “et unam sanctam catholicam…”

I left out the whole thing. I just put the words of St. Augustine, “O pulchritudo,” when he exults in beauty as part of God.

I loved this other statement that you made to the Washington Post: “You have to pray to God to give you the gift of inspiration. Brahms, Puccini, Strauss, Mahler, they all say this: It was not I who wrote it; I was only an instrument. If God doesn’t help you, you might as well not write music. If God tells you He has left you, then you have to close up shop.”

I believe in that, yes.

So God’s been helping you all this time.

Well, that’s a compliment you pay me. I think that being helped by God is not enough. You must deserve the gift. Then you must work and know what to do with the gift. There are many musicians and composers who have the gift and don’t know how to use it because they are not ready, because they don’t work hard enough. God doesn’t just give it to you; you have to work for it.

So now we’re closing with the parable of the talents. God has given you substantial talents and you’re going to return that investment more than twofold, Maestro.

I’m too old now.

No, you’ve already done it.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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