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Composer Gian Carlo Menotti dead at age 95

Gian Carlo Menotti, who composed a pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning operas and founded the Spoleto arts festivals in Italy and the United States, died Thursday at a hospital in Monaco. He was 95.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gian Carlo Menotti, who composed a pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning operas and founded the Spoleto arts festivals in Italy and the United States, died Thursday at a hospital in Monaco. He was 95.

“He died pretty peacefully and without any pain. He died in my arms,” said his adopted son, Francis Menotti, by telephone from Monte Carlo.

The Italian composer won Pulitzers for a pair of the 20th century’s more successful operas: “The Consul,” which premiered in 1950 in Philadelphia, and “The Saint of Bleecker Street,” which opened at New York’s Broadway Theater in 1954. “The Consul” also earned him the New York Drama Critics Circle award as the best musical play of the year in 1954.

He also wrote the Christmas classic “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for NBC, which was broadcast in 1951 and may have been the first opera written for television. Menotti also authored the libretto for “Vanessa,” which was composed by Samuel Barber, and revised the libretto for Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” In addition to working together, Barber and Menotti shared a house in Mount Kisco, N.Y., north of New York City, for many years.

By 1976, The New York Times called Menotti the most-performed opera composer in the United States.

His Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and Spoleto Festival USA, of Charleston, S.C., sought to bring together fresh creative forces in U.S. and European culture. The tradition launched young artists into impressive careers. Shirley Verrett sang her first performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” in Spoleto in 1962; in 1959, Patrice Chereau launched his opera career with a much-praised production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”; and Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” premiered in 1962. From Spoleto’s stages, dancers such as Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp went on to shape the direction of contemporary dance.

Menotti said he was on the verge of giving up his direction of the cultural festivals several times — in 1990, he said he wanted to quit the South Carolina event because he was being “treated like the clerk.”

He eventually did leave the U.S. festival, in October 1993, after a series of better disagreements with the festival’s board about financial and artistic control.

But despite his frequent urges to leave, Menotti seemed always as engaged as ever — even more. “I feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice — I’ve started something and I don’t know how to stop it,” Menotti said in 1981 in Spoleto.

For three weeks each summer, Spoleto, population 35,000, is visited by nearly a half-million people. The festival also surrounded Menotti with the “affection and warmth” that is “so important for our creative life,” as he put it.

“Many composers live in an ivory tower, composing for a small group of aficionados. Here, I’m surrounded by the life of the festival,” he said.

He once compared his work at the festival to making bread — a hands-on process requiring time and attention.

Despite the care, Menotti delighted in improvisation. Festival programs were rarely set more than a year in advance and often saw last-minute changes, giving the artistic programs freshness.

“Fate has blessed me,” he told The New York Times in 2001. “But if there’s one thing I regret, it’s this accursed festival. It’s robbed too much of my time from composition and from the chance to just be curious about life, art and philosophy. Suddenly there’s no time left, and it makes me feel desperate.”

Boy wonderBorn July 7, 1911, in Cadegliano near Lake Maggiore and the Swiss border, he was the sixth child of Alfonso and Ines Menotti.

A boy wonder who began composing songs at age 7 and wrote his first opera at 11, Menotti was for a time the most decorated and sought-after composer of his generation.

Encouraged by his mother, he received formal musical training in Italy and the United States, studying at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan and later at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

He built his career in the United States. His first mature opera, “Amelia Goes to the Ball,” in 1937, earned international recognition.

Many of his works written in the TV age lent themselves well to the medium. Among his later operas were “The Old Maid and the Thief,” “The Medium” and “The Telephone.

Menotti also wrote music for ballet, orchestra and other productions, as well as the librettos for all his operas. He also directed operas — his own and works of other composers.

Among his achievements in his later years was an ambitious staging of “Parsifal” for the 1987 Spoleto program. He was also commissioned to write an opera for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Reflecting about Spoleto’s meaning during the 30th anniversary of the festival’s founding, Menotti said in 1987: “I needed to feel that I was needed. Thirty years ago, Spoleto was on the verge of bankruptcy. Now it’s a flourishing town that owes its life to the festival.”

Menotti, who lived in both Monaco and Scotland, returned to the Spoleto festival every year. He celebrated his 90th birthday in Spoleto, with Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming performing at a gala concert in his honor attended by more than 2,000 people.

Although he held Italian citizenship and once said he promised his mother never to give it up, Menotti called himself an Italian-American. President Reagan granted him U.S. citizenship for just one day in 1984, so he could accept a Kennedy Center honor.

Said Menotti in 1981: “I started Spoleto because I did not want to be the marginal person, the entertainer. I wanted to have a community, to be part of a community.”