By Dr. Daniel Jenkins, Professor of Music Theory at the University of South Carolina
It is entirely fitting that Opera at USC would program two operas by famed composer Gian Carlo Menotti (July 7, 1911 – February 1, 2007) during this, the centenary of his birth. Having founded the Festival of the Two Worlds in 1958 in Spoleto, Italy to encourage cultural exchange between Italy and the United States, Menotti extended his efforts to include Spoleto Festival, USA in Charleston in 1977. The Menotti-South Carolina connection has thrived, outliving the composer whose vision brought it about in the first place, and the performances of The Old Maid and the Thief and The Medium by the students of the University of South Carolina are a testament to the continuing success of and demand for Menotti’s works.
A prodigy who composed his first opera at age eleven, Menotti began formal musical training at the Milan Conservatory at age twelve. He eventually made his way to the United States where he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia alongside such notables as Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. A librettist as well as a composer, Menotti wrote the texts of all his own operas, as well as provided texts for some of Barber’s operatic works as well.
Twice honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Music (in 1950 for The Consul and in 1955 for The Saint of Bleecker Street), Menotti composed for many media, but it is in the opera house where he flourished as a composer. At a time when other composers felt it necessary to abandon “audience-friendly” tonality as perhaps too old-fashioned and conservative, Menotti knew that he could best express what he wanted to communicate with a more traditional language. He was also one of the first composer’s to experiment with opera outside the opera house: The Old Maid and the Thief was commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company in 1939 not for the traditional stage, but rather to be delivered over the radio. The success of this early work not only helped establish Menotti as a composer of renown in the United States, but also led to his involvement with another important technological advancement of the twentieth century. In 1951 Menotti wrote the Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, again for the National Broadcasting Company, this time for television. Works such as these brought opera to millions of viewers, and Amahl remains a cherished holiday classic.
The Medium, which is often paired with The Telephone, will fill out the double bill. This opera was broadcast on television in 1948—before the beloved Amahl. Like The Old Maid and the Thief, The Medium provides Menotti with the opportunity to investigate the more problematic aspects of human nature. At the same time, these libretti have inspired some of his most beautiful and haunting music, including the arias “Black Swan” and “When the Air Sings of Summer.” Please join Opera at USC to hear these arias and the other wonderful music of these two operas as we celebrate the life and work of Gian Carlo Menotti.
The University of South Carolina – Opera at USC will perform a double bill of THE OLD MAID AND THE THIEF and THE MEDIUM, by Gian Carlo Menotti this November 4 and 5 @ 7:30, Nov. 6 @ 3pm. Drayton Hall, USC Columbia Campus. For more information check out their page in Figaro’s Marketplace: Opera at USC »
This article was written by Dr. Daniel Jenkins, Professor of Music Theory at the University of South Carolina.