Remembering Gian Carlo Menotti on His 105th Birthday

07/07/2016 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2016
Photo by Daron Hagen
The Curtis Institute of Music, where Gian Carlo Menotti met Samuel Barber, ultimately joined the faculty, and where Daron Hagen went to school.

Today would have been American composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s 105th birthday. His operas were awarded not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes—the first for The Consul and the second for The Saint of Bleecker Street—in the 50s, when the award meant very different things than it does today. An Italian by birth who, despite retaining his Italian citizenship, proudly referred to himself as an American composer, he wrote for NBC the infectious Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, along with two-dozen other operas.

The attitude most “serious” musicians have towards Menotti’s music is neatly summed up by an exchange I spotted on a colleague’s Facebook wall this morning: “You’ve never seen my eyes roll more than when I had to, under contract, conduct that miserable Amahl,” wrote one person. The next comment in the thread offered a very, very dry response: “Well, Amahl is, for better or worse, in the repertoire, and you were paid, weren’t you?”

The Medium was the first opera I saw live. Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera sent its young artists out in a touring production to junior high schools. It was evident to me even at the age of fifteen that the money had been drummed up to bring them by my fearsome chorus teacher and guru, Wally Tomchek. The performance, on the school stage before the entire student body, was riveting. To this day I remember the haunting refrain, and the music to which it is pinned: “Toby, Toby, are you there?” A composer who can manage that feat deserves complete respect.

In fall 1981, fresh from Wisconsin, I began the happiest six months of my youth. My elation, following acceptance to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music to study composition with Ned Rorem, was generated by the wild knowledge that my childhood dreams were in fact coming true, that the sky was the limit. I possessed the nascent understanding that, with unstinting hard work and commitment, anything was possible. It was incredible; an Icarus-like high that, being my father’s son, carried with it a specific sort of dread that the bottom was going to fall out, and that everything would turn to bad—which it did, twelve months later, when I cradled my mother’s head in my arms as she succumbed to cancer.

That winter, Curtis invited Gian Carlo Menotti to come for a few weeks. During his time in Philadelphia, he coached performances of his music, attended a concert of his orchestral works (including the hauntingly beautiful ballet score Sebastian), and gave my best friend Norman Stumpf, me, and Robert Convery composition lessons. Norman and I took Gian Carlo to lunch at the once magnificent, still dustily opulent Barclay Hotel, then home to Philadelphia Orchestra music director Eugene Ormandy and his wife. The almond-mauve, curtained dining room was appointed like an interior from Visconti’s film of Death in Venice crossed with the funeral parlor in Tony Richardson’s film of The Loved One. “So what would you like to know?” Gian Carlo Menotti asked, taking a seat and wiping his lips delicately with a napkin.

“Opera,” Norman said, “we’ve got to talk about opera.” “Right,” I agreed. “Why don’t we talk about la parola scenica?” I asked. “Ah,” Gian Carlo smoothed the tablecloth with his long fingers as though creating a space, “you are referring to Verdi’s phrase—well, let me tell you….” He began with Verdi, pinpointing the key phrase of music in his favorite scenes; then he moved on to Richard Strauss. His description of collaboration was trenchant: “A stage director looks at a scene one way,” he began. “The composer looks at the scene in another way. The librettist sees it a third way. The composer must craft a scene so clear in intent that all three are compelled to agree.”

Dessert demolished, coffee drunk, Gian Carlo called for fruit. Eyes twinkling, he said, “Boys, I know that you invited me to lunch. But this is my hotel, and I have already told them to charge it to my room.” He raised his hand peremptorily. “Don’t spend your money on an old man; spend it on something fun.”

After making us promise to remain in touch, he rose gracefully from his chair and glided out of the dining room. Deprived of his gravity and glamour, we felt like men in a lingerie shop, surrounded by elderly Ladies Who Lunch poking at their salads and stout executives tucking into their steaks. I slipped a pear into my jacket pocket on our way out. Walking down Locust Street, Norman and I were pleased to have unanticipated mad money in our pockets.

Literally skipping down the sidewalk, I began, “I feel…” and Norman continued, “…As though the world…” patting first his tummy and then his wallet. “…Is our Oistrakh,” I completed.

Five years later, in lieu of enrolling in Arnold Arnstein’s hand music copying course at Juilliard (on to which I had moved after graduating from Curtis), I agreed to join his team of union copyists in preparing the performance parts for Gian Carlo’s Goya —his final, giovane scuola-style opera and, in the event, a star vehicle for the great tenor Placido Domingo. It was a harried, hair-raising project: music sometimes arrived from Gian Carlo on the day that a scene was scheduled for rehearsal. In November I travelled to Washington to attend the world premiere.

Scarcely a soul argues that most of Menotti’s later musical work (his libretto for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is the equal of Onegin’s, in my opinion) was substandard, but New York Times music critic Donal Henahan’s astonishing cruelty in describing Goya as “a rather stupefying exercise in banality ... a parody of a Menotti opera” was, even then, so brutal that it shocked people. At the time, I found the review (slipping the word “rather” in like a shiv before the word “stupefying,” as though Menotti had failed even at being entirely stupefying) insolent. But I was still too young to understand how profoundly disrespectful Henahan was being, and how wounded to the core—after two-dozen operas and a lifetime of service to his art—Gian Carlo really was.

The pain in his voice on the telephone when I reached him at his hotel the morning it ran in the newspaper was heartbreaking. “He’s just a critic. You’re Gian Carlo Menotti,” I sputtered uselessly, unable to believe that somebody who had accomplished so much could be so hurt by someone whose opinion mattered so little in the end. I realized during the next three or four beats of silence on the line that I had overstepped. What did I know about life at his age, his level of achievement? What did I know about his art, his soul, really? Nothing. I was twenty-five and had accomplished little; he was seventy-five, had founded two music festivals, written two-dozen operas, and won two Pulitzer prizes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know that what I say doesn’t matter.” “Ah, caro, someday you’ll understand,” Gian Carlo sighed.

Thirty-five years later, I do.

CONVERSATIONS

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