The Kennedy Center

Gian Carlo Menotti


Gian Carlo Menotti, composer
(b. July 7, 1911--d. February 1, 2007)

Gian Carlo Menotti became the most-performed contemporary opera composer of his era. He stood alone on the American scene as the first to create American opera with so much appeal to audiences that it became established in permanent repertory. He adapted his natural Italian gift for operatic drama and performance to the requirements of the American stage and changing times. According to fellow composer Ned Rorem: "It is not opinion but fact that Menotti singlehandedly revitalized the concept of living opera for Americans...and violently altered the nature of lyric theater here and, by extension, throughout the world."

Menotti was born in the country town of Cadegliano on Lake Lugano in Italy. His father was a prosperous businessman and his mother, although she had nine other children, was a talented musician, and taught her young son the rudiments of music.

At age 10, Menotti wrote his first opera titled The Death of Pierrot, though it was never performed professionally. At age 13, when Menotti entered the Milan Conservatory, he had already written a second opera. In 1927, he came to the United States and studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Rosario Scalero. Having received his diploma with honors from the Institute in 1933, Menotti began the libretto for his opera Amelia Goes to the Ball, an ebullient opera buffa, first staged in 1937 at Philadelphia's Academy of music by students of the Curtis Institute and then in New York with such success that the Metropolitan Opera accepted it for the following season.

Amelia was responsible for Menotti's receiving a commission from NBC for a radio opera. The comic opera, first broadcast in 1939, was The Old Man and the Thief, which was later performed on stage by the Philadelphia Opera Company.

It was, however, with The Medium that Menotti was established as one of the foremost composer-librettist of modern opera. The tragedy, about a fraudulent spiritualist caught between the worlds of reality, which she cannot understand, and of the supernatural, in which she doesn't believe, had a run of 211 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway (1947-48) and was accompanied by a "curtain-raiser," a totally different one-act comedy The Telephone.

Menotti's first full length opera, The Consul, considered by many to be his greatest work, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater March 15, 1950. This searing contemporary work describing the plight of political fugitives vainly trying to escape an unnamed police state but failing to obtain the necessary visa had an eight month run and received the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Award. It has since been translated into 12 languages and performed in more than 20 countries.

On Christmas Eve, 1951, the first opera written expressly for television, Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors was broadcast on NBC. The opera, influenced by Bosch's Adoration of the Magi, has become one of the most frequently performed of the 20th century.

The composer's next effort, The Saint of Bleecker Street, a serious drama set in contemporary New York, which opened in New York December 27, 1954, won the Drama Critics Circle Award for the best musical play of 1954 and the Pulitzer Prize for 1955. It also received a Music Critics Circle Award for the best opera.

Three years later, Menotti organized the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, staging old and new musical works. In 1977, he inaugurated the American counterpart of the festival in Charleston, South Carolina.  Menotti was later replaced as director of the Spoletto Festival, due to differences in his approach to music.

Additional works evolved including The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, a cantata about the Children's Crusade of 1212, commissioned by the Cincinnati Music Festival Association, and Le dernier sauvage, an opera which premiered in France and was later given a lavish production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Operas for children are also included among his works. A Bride from Pluto, a humorous space opera was commissioned by the Kennedy Center. His Help, Help, the Globolinks!, which he considers "an opera in one act for children and those who like children," was commissioned in Hamburg.

In addition to his numerous operatic works, Menotti has enriched the artistic world with his ballets, including Sebastian; Errand into the Maze; and The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore orchestral works (Apocalypse), and Landscapes and Remembrances, a cantata to his own autobiographical words.

Menotti continued to compose--his most recent operas include Goya (1986) and The Singing Child (1993).

In addition to being awarded the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts, Menotti was also chosen as the 1991 "Musician of the Year" by Musical America. According to critical appraisal by H. Wiley Hitchcock, "Menotti combined the theatrical sense of a poplar playwright and a Pucciniesque musical vocabulary with an Italian love of liquid language and a humane interest in characters as real human beings. The result is opera more accessible than anyone else's at the time.

Image for Gian Menotti


  • Ricercare and Toccata on a Theme from The Old Maid and the Thief