Opera—drama conveyed through music—was Gian Carlo Menotti’s lifeblood, and everything he did, from his composing and stage directing to his luxurious lifestyle and his sometimes public disputes, he did operatically, with a mixture of passion, calculation, and artistry that made him a significant figure in the music theater of the last half-century. For some this was a paradox, since Menotti, who died on February 1 at age 95, had the courage to stand against many of the major trends of his time, in intellectual as well as artistic matters, for which he was rewarded, in the decades of his greatest success, with a widespread popularity and acclaim that infuriated those of his colleagues who mistook the trends for laws of nature.
When serious music was supposed to be dissonant and dodecaphonic, he dared to be tuneful and to scoff openly at the 12-tone system. In a nation that viewed opera as an ultra-refined foreign art for the cultivated elite, he turned out emotion-grabbing operas for Broadway, radio, film, and TV, in a language and a musical idiom that any American could understand. The envious and the snobbish jeered, but Menotti’s craftsmanship and devotion to his art gave his works substance to back up the excitement they drew from his flamboyant theatrical sense: The Consul, The Medium, The Telephone, and Amahl and the Night Visitors have long outlasted the jeers. And Menotti did not merely compose these works: He structured them, wrote their librettos, and directed them as well. He also wrote texts for other composers, directed the film version of The Medium (discovering the young Anna Maria Alberghetti in the process), and, when the taste for opera waned in the popular arena, became an impresario, founding festivals in Italy and America that have proved to be of inestimable benefit to thousands of artists. The jeering and the often contentious man who provoked it are gone now; the enormous body of work he left behind remains to be explored. Don’t be surprised if unexpected treasures emerge.