Gian carlo Menotti interviews
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Composer Gian Carlo Menotti Three Conversations with Bruce Duffie Most of the interviews I have done over the years have been singular events. A few of my guests, however, have been willing and available to return to my microphone. Gian Carlo Menotti was gracious enough to speak with me on three occasions, and all of those conversations are presented here in the original sequence.
The first of the three meetings took place on March 19, 1981, when Menotti was in Chicago to
oversee, and (as we found out at the curtain calls when he removed his costume/disguise), to
participate in a production of The Egg as given by the William Ferris Chorale at St. James
Cathedral. Even though this meeting was to promote the performances, I had the foresight to ask
not only about the specific event, but also to probe his mind about things related to other works
and music in general. I was also contributing at the time to Wagner News, the publication of the
Wagner Society of America, so Menotti's production of Tristan und Isolde was of interest, hence my
inquiry into that unlikely topic.
Bruce Duffie. Would you tell us a little bit about The Egg?
Gian Carlo Menotti. Im not going to tell you anything about The Egg because I feel that the
audience should come and find out for themselves what its all about. What I can tell you, it was
written for a cathedral, for the Washington Cathedral, and it is aimed at Easter, although it can be
done at any time. Thats why we have the egg. But what the egg symbolizes and why it is
called The Egg and what its all about, that you have to go and find out for yourself.
BD. Is there any relationship between the kind of work The Egg is and the Canticles that Benjamin
GCM. No. Its a completely different kind of work.
BD. You have composed a great many operas which are done all over the world. Would you tell
us a little bit about your feelings of the role of the composer in contemporary life, or the composer
specifically for opera?
GCM. You asked me a very difficult question. I feel that the composer has always been - I
shouldnt even say the composer; I think the artist in general, especially in America - has been
always on the margin of society. We are supposed to entertain people rather than really be part
of their daily life.
BD. Is it the public that feels you are supposed to entertain us?
GCM. Im afraid so. You always say, What are we going to do this evening? Generally art
comes after dinner when youve had a few cocktails and youve had your dinner, then you go to
the theater or you go to the opera or you go to see a painting show because then youre also going
to get a cocktail at that time. You go to an opening and you look at the other ladies. It is always
sort of a social function. In a certain way, I would say that we are the after-dinner mint of society
rather than being the bread of society. Actually, I think it is very important that people, even
business people, should realize that, first of all, they use us all the time, from morning until night.
They get up in the morning, they go to take a shower and they whistle a tune, and who wrote that
tune? A composer. They choose a necktie. Who designed that necktie? Somebody who studied
even minor art. I mean, its not art, but still it is somebody who studied art. They go into their
very modern office which was designed by an architect who has seen the paintings of Mondrian,
certainly, and so on. And his wife has to choose a dress, and who has designed the dress? It is an
artist, whose pencil they used. Practically everything that we touch or use in modern life has some
connection with art. And I think that is very important that people should realize how much they
need art in their life.
BD. We take it too much for granted, then.
GCM. Yes, and people dont even know that they are using something that has been designed by
the artist, that actually they are in the hands of artists. Their club, their silverware, the place they
are eating from. Even if they are commercial artists, still they are designed by artists. But more
than that, I feel that the serious artist, himself, has to find a more creative place in modern
society. Thats why I founded my festival in Spoleto in Italy. As I said, I want to be the bread of the
community. I want to be part of the community. So I looked for a small town that was on the
verge of bankruptcy, a very poor town. It just happened to have two gorgeous theaters. I went
there and I tried to help this town with my music and with the help of my fellow artists. It is quite
touching to see how artists who come to Spoleto feel the dignity of being necessary to the life of
the town. Its marvelous to feel wanted.
BD. And then the people who come to Spoleto come for the festival, and that is their bread, as
GCM. And they bring the bread to the city. For me, that is what I enjoy most, when I feel that Im
needed and Im not only there. If you really think about the audiences you get at the Metropolitan
or at Salzburg or at Covent Garden, theyre all the same old faces. They change dresses or they
change the speech, but its a very small part of the world. Thats why when people talk about
opera, opera for me is not only what it given at the Metropolitan but what is given in the school, in
colleges, in hospitals. Wherever an action is sung, that is opera, and thats why I love to do
something like The Egg, because that is done in a church. Still it is an opera.
BD. Many of the things that you have written are on a little smaller scale and can travel around to
different kinds of communities, different kinds of theaters, and in many cases can be done by
amateurs very well.
GCM. Yes. I must say that perhaps the most moving performance I heard of Amahl and the Night
Visitors was in a hospital for children, in a ward where there were children, and it was so moving
to see. It was also performed by a troupe of amateurs, but I cried all through it.
BD. It was a very moving time because of where it was and why it was.
GCM. Of course.
BD. So, then, you feel that everything that interacts with people in their daily lives should interact
with their reaction to the arts.
GCM. Of course. Ive maintained that for a long time. For me, art must be an act of love. It
cannot be just masturbation. It has to have something to give. It must speak to somebody. Its
very interesting that most artists feel that need of communicating with somebody. I feel that art
for its own sake is an illusion. Theres a marvelous essay by Jean-Paul Sartre on literature or art in
general, in which he maintains that for a work of art to really exist, it must have the creative
cooperation of the person who receives it. A book doesnt exist unless it is read, and it only exists
in relation to the person who is reading it. The same thing with music: Music only exists in not
only my ear, but I need your ear to make it work. So actually the audience also is part of the work
BD. How does this jibe, then, in the electronic age, where we have disks that produce sound and
tapes that produce video. Is this going to change opera in such a way that we can now dictate
when we watch and listen to the opera? And is this a good step for the opera, then, rather than
going after a long, hard day at the office?
GCM. It is perhaps too early to tell. I find it extraordinary that all this radio and all this canned
music hasnt killed music yet, which really shows how strong and how indestructible great art can
be. I was a bit horrified at the beginning, when you get in an elevator and all of a sudden to hear a
Mozart string quartet while I was going up to the thirteenth floor. But it is marvelous how, in a
certain way, it doesnt really destroy the essence of music. You still want to hear a string quartet
played by people and not only by the shadows that come out of a can.
BD. As a composer, do you feel any more satisfaction knowing that when someone takes a disk
off of his shelf and plays it, he may probably have more concentration and more being in tune with
this performance than if he just was dragged to the opera that night?
GCM. Yes, perhaps, but only for a while, because music cannot be frozen. As a matter of fact, I
find it very harmful that people listen to recordings too much, and then they feel that is the only
way that the work exists. Then theyre going to hear another performance and say: Oh, thats
wrong. Thats not the way I like this symphony, because theyre using the same record and
hearing the same work always the same way with the same tempo. Actually, the music lives in
time, and time changes. One day, one piece of music has to play maybe a little faster than another
time; it all depends. Ive seen this with my own operas. It depends from the concentration, from
the audience. For example, in The Medium, when I very much insist on certain very long silences,
and then my singer asks me: Well, Mr. Menotti, how long should the silence be? I say, Why,
you must feel it. Monday can be this long, and Tuesday you might it cut it in half. Tempo is the
same thing. What is the tempo? You must feel the tempo. As a matter of fact, Toscanini told me
a very interesting story. When he first performed Verdis Requiem, there was a passage in it
where he felt that he needed to go slowly, to make a ritardando, but there was nothing in the
music, so he asked to play it for Verdi. Its one of the few times that he actually met the maestro,
himself. So he played it on the piano, and when he got to this point he just made a ritardando,
and Verdi didnt say anything. Then he stopped, and he said: Maestro, is it all right? And Verdi
said, Of course. Yes, its fine. He continued, But I made a big ritardando, and Verdi replied,
Yes, of course. But you didnt write it in the music, continued Toscanini. So Verdi said, Well,
you will be a very poor conductor if you didnt feel the ritardando yourself, without my having
BD. So, then, you as a composer expect everyone to make his own impression and his own
GCM. They have to breathe with the music. Some people breathe a bit faster than others. It all
depends what kind of a heart you have.
BD. And the same people will breathe differently at different times.
GCM. Of course.
BD. So the reaction, then, to a recording made twenty or thirty years ago will be different today
than when that recording first came out.
GCM. Yes. Some of the famous records now sound pretty silly to us. But were in another age
and our hearts perhaps beat in a slightly different way.
* * * * *
BD. Let me ask you about translations. As an opera composer, are you in favor of translating the
opera into the language of the audience?
GCM. You ask me very difficult questions. That is a very difficult question to answer, indeed. I
feel that contemporary opera should be translated. As a matter of fact, we know from the records
of Puccini, of Strauss, they all wanted to have their works translated because, after all, a composer
works so hard in commenting with his music the meaning of a certain phrase, and all of a sudden,
if instead of saying: Io t'amo, or I love you, and you say, Chuki baki buki, what is the poor
audience going to think? I do think that for certain operas, like Traviata perhaps,
orNorma, everybody knows the story, and they should know the libretto by now. Perhaps the
translation is not necessary. But if you have an audience that is educated in operafor example,
in Italy we used to have French operas in Italian. Now they begin to give them in French because
most Italians can understand French well enough to follow the story. But I feel that for a new
work and even for certain works, I think that you must understand what is going on. Im sure that
some people that are purists will shudder, but I think that Pellas and Mlisande is a work that
unless you really understand every phrase of it, becomes a bore. It is a wonderful opera. Its one
of perhaps my favorite operas in the world.
BD. You have staged this work, yes?
GCM. Yes, yes, and with great love. But I feel that to be able to enjoy it, you must understand
what people are saying, because Debussy really feels every phrase. Its a recitative from beginning
till the end, so unless people know what youre telling, you are lost.
BD. More than just having read the libretto beforehand?
GCM. No, you really have to understand the words right then and there. You cannot try to
remember, What did he say then? You must know what they are saying at the very minute.
BD. Do you think the running translations that we see on the television now help a lot?
GCM. Ive never seen an opera with those. I must tell you that, although I am here right in front
of those microphones, I hate radio and I hate television. [Laughter] I dont have a television in my
BD. You prefer, then, the live music rather than the canned music.
GCM. Yes, I like people with blood and bones. I dont like shadows so much. But I do feel that
television is an inevitable evil, and certainly it is the most popular form of theater today.
BD. Do you think that we misuse it?
GCM. Yes, of course it is misused. We all know that. [Laughter] I dont have to tell you that, but
one must accept popular theater. I have written the very first opera ever written for
television, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and the very first opera written for radio, The Old Maid
and the Thief.
BD. Now heres a good case in point. You write an opera for radio, for one particular medium,
and then it becomes staged. When you wrote it, did you have in mind that it could be used in
many ways, or do you write just for the one particular situation?
GCM. When I wrote Amahl, I cheated. I knew that I would want to see it on the stage, so I wrote a
television opera that could be easily staged. But there is another opera that I wrote specially for
the cinematic media, which never became popular, The Labyrinth. That one could never be done
on a stage; it is really only for television or movies. Unfortunately, it has not been picked up, but I
hope that one day somebody will revive it because I think it is an interesting example of how
opera can be done for the cinema.
BD. Would it be possible to get you into the studio, working with the electronics to make a
purchasable videocassette of this opera?
GCM. Oh, yes, of course. [Laughter] Are you going to ask me?
BD. I wish I had the money to produce it. Its interesting to see what composers think of their
own works. How do your works fit into the flow of opera from the early 1600s to the present and
GCM. I think it is a very great mistake for any artist to be self-conscious about their position in the
history of music. I hate musicologists, and I let them decide what I am. They have placed me here
and there, they kicked me out from one thing to the other, and they have given me all sorts of
extraordinary labels, most of them wrong, as far as Im concerned. But thats their job. My job is
simply to write music. They say Im very eclectic, but I feel that the artist is like a human being.
We all have a father and a mother. I dont believe that an artist is born out of nowhere. We have
a tradition behind us and I accept my family. I have a family behind me of great masters, and I
accept the education I received from them and I try to add my own voice.
BD. Are we confusing the artist with something that the artist has created?
GCM. I dont quite understand what you mean by that.
BD. Are we losing the thread? When you say that the music historian puts the artist in one place
or another, are we looking at the artist as a piece of steel sculpture rather than as a flesh-and-
blood human being?
GCM. Yes, well, indeed. As a matter of fact, The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore is a
symbolical work about the life of the artist. The unicorn is his youth, the gorgon is middle age, and
the manticore is the old age. The poet has these three monsters, and every time hes sick of all
this, he goes from one period to the other. First he kills the unicorn, or he tells people he has
killed the unicorn. Then he kills the gorgon, then the manticore. Everybody follows; whoever has
copied him and gotten unicorns and gorgons and manticores, they kill their manticores and
gorgons and unicorns. But when the poet is dying at the end, they go to his house and find that he
still has all three of them. For the artist, any work he does is part of his own development, and
when people ask me, What is your favorite work? I dont know. They all represent some joy,
BD. Are they your children?
GCM. Theyre all my children, and they all mean something. Some have been luckier than others,
but it is difficult for an artist to say: This is my most important work. They are all part of our
BD. Are some of them are more important at different times?
GCM. At different times, and they all represent a part of our development.
BD. You mentioned that the critics have put you in one place or another, but one place that Gian
Carlo Menotti always is is in the hearts of the public. Thank you for everything you have given us.
GCM. Well, how very nice. Thank you! Thats the nicest compliment.
* * * * *
BD. You have staged Tristan und Isolde. Where do you feel that Wagner falls into the place of
being viewed in modern society? Is he simply too overblown for this age?
GCM. Its very difficult even to answer a question like that. Look at Mahler. Whoever thought
that Mahler would become so popular with the young people? If you talk about overblown music,
certainly some of Mahlers symphonies are just overblown Tchaikovsky. All of a sudden the young
people all over the world have discovered Mahler, and now they accept it, and there couldnt be
more sentimental and emotional music than Mahlers. I always feel that Wagner is just like
electricity; you may like or not like electricity, but youve got to use it! He has revolutionized so
much in music. I think that perhaps what one thinks is overblown in Wagner is the fact that he
was a victim of his own librettos. He took himself so seriously as a writer that he was unable to
cut his librettos to size. To use every word he wrote, he just trashed his music. It becomes very
repetitious. But, my God, there are so many divine moments! If you just take the beginning
of Lohengrin, what is just a plain chord, that everybodys heard before, but still, the way he has
orchestrated it with the divided strings, its just a new sound. It was a new sound for everybody.
There are wonderful, magic moments. Or the horn call at the end of Meistersinger after the big
fight. They are just magic moments.
BD. How did you approach the Tristan?
GCM. I dont try to be avant-garde in my stagings; I try just to do what I thought the composer
would want. And if you do that, if you really look over the librettos very carefully, youll find out
that there are so many things that people never do. Without really trying to be shocking or
anything, I found things in Tristan that of course shocked everybody. For example, in the second
act, Isolde comes out in kind of a very transparent gown, and she was naked under it. I said You
must come out just with that, and she gasped, Oh, Mr. Menotti! She was a very beautiful girl,
and I did that not because I wanted to shock but simply because at the end of the love duet with
Tristan, when King Marke comes in, Wagner puts in the staging that Tristan runs over to Isolde and
covers her with his cloak. So it means that she must have had something to hide! [Laughter]
There are little things like that. Even in old familiar Bohme, there are so many things people
never do, amusing touches. For example, in the last act, when the boys are all together and they
are about to start to eat this meager little thing, one of them gets up and they say, Where are you
going? and he says, Im going to visit the king. Well, what do you think it is? Hes going to the
bathroom. He even makes a joke about the newspaper he is going to look at because, at that
time, in the bathrooms they had pieces of newspaper, you know. There are very funny touches
like that. Most any libretto has them. They always make Don Pasquale into such a silly opera, and
it is such a marvelous work. It was, perhaps, the first realistic opera buffa opera ever written. It
has to be done in that spirit, the tragedy of an old man who falls in love with a young girl. The old
man should not be made ridiculous. Its a sad story, in a certain way. Actually, the evil people in
the opera are Norina and her lover. They take advantage of this poor old man.
BD. Let me ask about Bohme. Would it be wrong for a designer to include in the first and fourth
act garret a little room off to the side with a sign on it that says Washroom or Men or
something like that? Would that be out of place?
GCM. No. At that time they would not have a sign. But when I did it in Paris, I just had sort of a
screen, and he took a pail of water and went behind the screen and went to this little door. I
remember, when Liebermann was rehearsing, he said, Gian Carlo, what are you doing? I replied,
Well, read the libretto." It did not cause any scandal, but there are many charming touches. I
had great fun especially with Don Pasquale. I find so many things in that opera. People feel so
near this old man.
BD. Thats the thing, to make the audience identify with him. Would there be any point in
changing it around a little bit so that the old man does get the girl? Maybe have Ernesto get his by
a motorcycle or something?
GCM. [Laughter] I think its better for the old man the way it is. Its a happier ending if he
doesnt get the girl.
* * * * *
BD. Is art like this cyclical? Does it come for a few years and then go dormant and then come
GCM. Of course it changes. We were talking about Mahler. Twenty years ago, nobody could
even mention the name of Mahler. He was never played anywhere. At that time, it was Sibelius.
Everyone was playing Sibelius.
BD. And all of a sudden Bruno Walter does some Mahler symphonies.
GCM. And then Walter starts with Mahler, and now its Mahler. Mahler, Im afraid, will also go
down. Its a fluctuating thing. Something remains at the end.
BD. Are you conscious of this when youre writing?
GCM. No, I dont think about that. I had my period when I was supposed to be a great genius of
opera, and now everybody spits at me. Im sure that after I die, I hope the way will come up
again. [Laughter] Everybody always says, Why do you have so many critics against you? But I
feel that in a certain way it is almost as if God gives you a challenge. I think that a good work of art
must be stronger than any bad criticism. If it doesnt survive bad criticism - for that matter, if it
doesnt survive good criticism - its a weak work. Im very proud that my operas are all still alive in
spite of all the insults they got. They go on and thats important for me. The fact is that The
Medium and The Consul are done all over the world, and thats important. I feel in a certain way
its almost as if it is a challenge. All right, you have a point of view. Now lets see whether the
opera will fall under the blow. And if they dont fall, then I know theyre in good health.
BD. Is there a place in the modern repertoire for works by really unknown composers or lesser-
GCM. There should be. In chamber music, I think that the contemporary artist is doing pretty
well. In opera, alas, I think that the contemporary repertory is very limited; there are very few. If I
may say that very modestly, except for Benjamin Britten and me, who else is there that can really
hold? There are a few like Von Einems, but they get one or two performances and then they are
just like paper napkins. They are used and they are more or less thrown away.
BD. Have you seen the works of Thomas Pasatieri?
GCM. Yes, but I dont know much of his music. I must say I was disappointed about his last work,
the one-act that he did at the New York City Opera. I thought it was rather weak. I told him, as a
matter of fact.
BD. Has he written larger works?
GCM. There are some. He sent me the tape of one and Im going to listen to it, but I really dont
know it. I know some of my own pupils - Lee Hoiby, for example. Hes almost good, but he
doesnt yet have the dramatic force in his work to become an international composer. You must
be able to speak not only to your local audience, youve got to be able to travel over the world
with music nowadays. Believe me, I think we need more names in the modern repertory because
so many contemporary operas are so boring, and they get the audience so bored that now, even if
you put any contemporary opera in any city, everybody goes: Ahhh! [in a tone of disgust] Who is
going to want to go? Well, thats bad for us, for anybody.
BD. Its given opera a bad name.
GCM. A bad name. Really, a bad name. The people say, Well Ive heard Cavalleria, Ive
heard Tosca, Ive heard this one and that one, so then they dont go because theyve heard it so
many times. And they dont go to the new one because theyre afraid of being bored.
BD. Is the answer to revive the unknown operas of the last century?
BM. We need also new operas.
BD. Is it the responsibility of the composer to make it accessible, or is it the responsibility of the
audience to go and access themselves, really?
GCM. No, I think the composer must make clear what hes saying. Even Mozart made quite a
distinction between the start of his string quartets to his operatic style. The most clear melodies
are all in his operas. You have to make your point then and there. You cannot wait until the
curtain is down and the people go home and they say, Ah! Thats what you wanted to mean."
You must. Youre speaking. It is a conversation. It is a very direct conversation. Its not like a
string quartet that you can think about it. People are saying something to you then, and the
emotion must be made then and there. I think that it is important for any artist to express himself
as clearly as possible. I dont mean easily or just to say stupid things...
BD. But it must be clear.
GCM. Yes, clear. Even Marcel Proust says rather complicated things, but he says it in a very
precise and a very elegant way. Sometimes you read cheap novels that you dont quite
understand what its all about. Theres an awful lot of bromides which are said in a very
complicated way, and it means nothing. But an artist has to be clear. Thats why I adore
Schubert. Most of all, I love his absolute clarity. He says what he has to say in a harmonic scheme
thats almost childish sometimes. Its nothing but tonic dominant, tonic dominant. Then he puts a
little dissonance, and it becomes so dramatic that you go: [Sharp intake of breath] You sit up,
like that. Thats a wonderful thing. Very often when I hear some modern music, I think about the
old saying that they burn down a whole house just to fry themselves two eggs. Sometimes you
need a very complicated setup if you have something very complicated to say, but it must be a
necessity and not part of a style.
BD. Are too many composers writing for the edification of other musicians?
GCM. Yes, I think that so much music today is just written for other musicians. When people talk
about writing for the public, Im not writing for them. Theyre writing for the public, but their
public is the other composers, the critics, the musicologists, and thats their public. They are
writing really for that public, not for themselves. Ive spoken to so many composers and say, Is
that really the music you want to write? They say, Well, Mr. Menotti, my teacher said that I
have to be more modern. I say, Oh, my God.
BD. You write the music you want to write.
GCM. You have to. You have to. More than that, it is the only music Im capable of writing,
which is the important thing. We all have our own limitations.
BD. Its given so much pleasure. This is the thing. I read the critics, of course, and see them
malign you occasionally...
GCM. Oh, more than occasionally.
BD. I appreciate your taking the time today. Thank you so very much.
GCM. It was great fun talking to you.
=== === ===
-- -- --
=== === ===
Now we jump ahead about twelve and a half years to October 28, 1993.
BD. We will chat a little bit about all kinds of things. Do you like being a wandering minstrel?
GCM. No, at my age Ive learned now to be a pater familia for many years. I love my home in
Scotland. I love to be there with my son and my two grandchildren and of course my daughter-in-
law. I have a very quiet and happy life there. Life in Scotland is life the way it used to be fifty
years ago, and thats the way I like it. [Laughter] [For more about Menotti's life in Scotland, see
the article at the end of these interviews.]
BD. Is there any correlation, then, because you write operas the way you wrote operas fifty years
[Time Magazine, May 1, 1950]
GCM. I write operas the way I wrote them fifty years ago simply because I think an artist writes
always the same kind of opera. Im eighty-two, so fifty years ago I was thirty, and at that time I
wrote I wrote The Medium, The Consul. I think that in a certain way, an artist always writes the
same opera, the same book, paints the same picture. Of course, it develops, but its always you. It
mirrors your soul and your being, so you just dont have to change. Of course I write the same
way because Im the same man that I was fifty years ago.
BD. But I would hope there would be quite a bit of progression and development, too.
GCM. I dont think that art progresses or develops. Thats one of these horrible things people say
about progressive art, and there really is not such a thing. Art is not something that is a
commodity that gets better as it goes on. Its value is always the same. Pre-Columbian culture is
just as good in its way as a Michelangelo statue or as a Henry Moore statue. You arent going to
say that Henry Moore is better than Michelangelo; its just different. Henry Moore is Henry
Moore, and Michelangelo is Michelangelo, but one is not better than the other simply because its
nearer to us.
BD. So, then, you are different from any other composer.
GCM. Well, of course.
BD. But are your works different at all in amongst your oeuvre?
GCM. Well, of course, because we change as we get older, and sometimes when I hear the works
that I composed when I was in my twenties and my thirties, I say, Oh, look, how strange! Did I
really do that? [Laughter] But then, of course, I find its just the same when suddenly you
remember things about your childhood, about your youth that you have forgotten, and you
wonder how did that happen? How did I ever fall in love with that person? Or why did I act like
that? But still its part of yourself always.
BD. Do you, as the composer and usually the librettist, too, fall in love with your characters?
GCM. You have to actually, because especially in the theater, the only way you really can create a
character is that you have to live their life, and you have to find yourself on the stage with them, in
a certain way. So yes, I do. And generally, if I write a comic opera and I dont find myself smiling
and laughing, I know its not a good scene, its not a good opera, or I will not create the character.
It's the same when I write a tragedy, if Im not moved, myself. I think that that happens with every
artist. I remember when Tennessee Williams came to Spoleto to see one of his plays... He wrote
two plays for us in Spoleto; one was The Night of the Iguana, which was the world premiere, and
the other one was The Milk Train Doesnt Stop Here Anymore. I was sitting in the box with him,
and I was very amused to see how he would laugh at the funny lines as if hed never heard them
before. [Laughter] It was charming. That is the way, actually, sometimes I feel when I hear my
music. I get moved by it because I live within the character. As a matter of fact, that reminds me
of a charming story that Toscanini told me about Puccini. One evening Toscanini called up Puccini
and asked him for dinner, and Puccini said, I cant because I have to go and hear Bohme. That
was in Milan, and Toscanini said, Bohme? Were not doing Bohme at La Scala tonight. No,
no, no, Im going to Teatro dal Verme, which was a second-rate theater. And Toscanini said,
Youre not going to hear Bohme there, for Gods sake! What a horrible orchestra. There are
more clarinets than violins, and theyre second-rate singers. How can you bear it? Forget it! Just
come and have dinner. Puccini said, No, I promised. I have to go there. Theyre expecting me.
So Toscanini said, All right, lets go late, just for one act, and then well go and have dinner. And
Puccini said, All right, as long as I go, but I must go there. So they went there for the third act,
and Toscanini said, It was a terrible performance, and he was so embarrassed, and all of a
sudden he looked at Puccini, and Puccini was crying. And so at the end of the act, Toscanini
turned to him and said, I cant believe it! You have heard me conduct Bohme. I give you a
marvelous performance of it at La Scala and I never saw you so touched. And here, you come to
hear this horrible performance, and I see you this way. And Puccini said, Well, you give me
perfection, and they give me their heart. Its wonderful that Toscanini, himself, told this story on
himself. But I think that Puccini probably was touched by that. Im sure that every time he
heard Bohme, he also got touched by his own music.
BD. I assume, then, that you are touched by your own music, even if its thirty, forty, fifty, sixty
GCM. I do, but I rarely listen to my old works because they make me very nervous. I always think
I could do better or should have done better, so I only listen to them when I have to. [Laughter]
BD. But does it give you a sense of satisfaction to know that some of these old works are
performed over and over again, all over the world?
GCM. Well, of course. It is nice to have the works done, to have the works remembered. It is
nice that almost everywhere I go, somebody says: Oh, I remember this performance or that
performance of your work. Even tonight, the boy who came to meet me at the airport started
singing a phrase from one of my very little-known operas, The Most Important Man, and he still
remembered all the words, even in the Italian translation. [Laughter]
BD. Then Ill tell you that I remember the Tamu-Tamu that was here. Along with many of the
others, of course, but thats a lesser-known work.
GCM. It was not very well received here.
BD. Well, I enjoyed it.
GCM. I thank you. Im fond of that work, and I'd like to bring it back. It was a big success in Italy.
It went very well, and I dont know why it was received with such hostility here.
BD. Is there any way that a composer can predict the reaction of the public?
GCM. No, never. No, never, never. You cannot tell it from the general rehearsal. Of course, the
theater is a very mysterious animal. You never know how its going to act in front when the
audience is there. Its just like a stubborn child when you ask him, Please say hello to Daddy or
something. Theyre, [Makes growling sound.].
GCM. And the same thing with a play. It seems to go very well in rehearsals; everybody laughs,
its a wonderful success, and then in front of the audience it becomes another play. That explains
why great playwrights like George Bernard Shaw, after having written such brilliant plays, all of a
sudden he could write something absolutely which was so untheatrical you wonder how is it
possible? Even Tennessee Williams, to go back to him. It's the same thing with an opera
composer. If you think of Bizet, who wrote such a wonderful operas like Carmen and Les Pcheurs
de Perles, also wrote Ivan IV, which is nothing to be remembered forever. Its hard to believe its
the same composer. [Laughter] So you really never know how an audience is going to react. As a
matter of fact, Ill give you an example of how unpredictable theater can be. I always like to
remember the premiere of The Consulin Paris. It was my debut in Paris. No, actually, I had already
done The Medium. But anyway, the concert was quite a premiere. Tout Paris was there, and all
the composers and all the musicians and the artists, and we were doing it in English, which was
also very dangerous. People had heard it had been a success in New York, and they were all ready
to kill it, if they could. [Laughter] So I put in the program, No applause between acts. But it was
a marvelous performance, with that wonderful Magda, Patricia Neway. I felt that there was a
tremendous electricity in the audience, but I couldnt tell because at the end of the first act there
was no applause, so I was a little bit nervous. Thomas Schippers was conducting, and it was a
brilliant, but the audience was very silent. Then at the end, we got to the last chord after she dies,
taking gas, and the last chord, and the curtain was to come down, and no curtain. Schippers holds
the brasses as long as he can until theyre all blue in the face, and then finally had to stop.
Silence. Still no curtain. I was standing at the back of the main floor, so I ran backstage, and I said,
Rideau, rideau! They said, The man with the curtain has gone to have a beer. I said, Oh, my
God! Well, let me... Can you imagine how long that silence was, with poor Patricia Neway dead
and just kind of saying, whispering as loud as she could, Curtain! Curtain! So finally they
showed me a button, and I said I didnt care about the unions. I was not supposed to, but I rang
down the curtain. Then, of course, we thought, well, the whole performance has been destroyed.
Patricia Neway was hysterical, and everybody was saying, Oh, my God! What a disaster! What a
disaster! What a disaster! The first person who came backstage was a friend of Jean Cocteau, a
famous actor. The name escapes me, but it doesn't matter right now. He comes and he sees me
and says, Menotti, that silence at the end! What a stroke of genius! How marvelous!
[Laughter] And all of a sudden I heard everyone screaming in the audience, so of course we
presented it as though it had been planned that way. But then we had a meeting for the second
performance. Should we do the silence again? I said, No. It worked that night because the
electricity was so high, but never again. Lets not do it.
BD. Can you, as a composer, account for different reactions of different audiences to the same
work or even the same production on different nights of a run?
GCM. A work can be interpreted in many ways. That is an old fight Im still waging now, with all
those stage directors that think they can do anything they want to a work. Do you know what
Jean-Paul Sartre said in his book about art? He said, A work is finished by the audience; a book is
not finished until it is read. So actually the audience finishes the work. The music, your music,
lives in other peoples ears. So actually every performance is different because the audience
receives the opera in a different way.
BD. And this is a good thing?
GCM. Yes, and its very important, as long as it is received, because if it is not received, it doesnt
matter how perfect is the performance. If you are not able to reach the audience, then you might
as well forget it and not write for the theater.
* * * * *
BD. Coming back to that Puccini story, would you rather have perfection or heart?
GCM. Oh, heart. [Laughter]
BD. Is there ever a chance that you get perfection?
GCM. Perfection actually does not exist. I always mention the wonderful phrase of Paul Valry:
A work is never finished; its just abandoned. So we know that nothing is perfect, and, of course,
an interpretation is never perfect because it is felt by another person. Its never what actually you
felt. But as you write, you know that youre speaking to another person, and the other person
must understand. People say, I only write for myself. Thats a stupid thing to say because then
you only have a half-finished work. The work will only be finished when it is heard, so as you write
an opera, especially for the theater, you must leave room for the person who has to finish the
work for you, who has to receive it and feel it in its own way. And its never the way that actually
you wrote it.
GCM. No, never. Its always a little bit different. Sometimes I say, Oh, why such a slow tempo?
Or I will say, Its the wrong tempo actually, but that person makes me feel that it will work
because he feels it that way. He really feels it deeply that way, and finally he convinces me that it
is almost the right tempo, although it is not my tempo.
BD. I see. So youre willing to be convinced, then, by a lot of different ideas.
GCM. Yes, you have to. You have to. When people asked Wagner what was the right tempo for
some of his music, he said, There is no right tempo. Just listen to the melody, and you must go
with it. Also with different generations the feelings of what is presto or what is adagio changes a
little bit. For example, for me now, all Chopin is played too fast. To me, when I hear some of the
pianists today, the way they play Chopin is almost like Mickey Mouse. I remember the old pianists
that had much more leisure. Their allegros were much more leisurely.
BD. Are you advocating that we get back to that?
GCM. Probably. Maybe things will change again. The important thing is that the person who
receives the message must try to interpret what is on the page. He receives a proposal, a
question, whatever you call it, and he must try to understand it. But I will not condone those
interpreters who try to make the work their own. That, I think, is a rape of a work.
BD. So the composers name should always be on the top, not the producers.
GCM. Of course, of course. These stage directors nowadays that think they can just take an
opera and change all the historical background, all the tradition that goes with it, should not be
allowed. There should be a society for the protection of composers.
BD. [Laughs] Well, you have produced many or even all of your works. Are there times when
youre producing your work that you, the producer, fight with you, the composer?
GCM. All the time, yes.
BD. Who wins?
GCM. Very interesting. I try to let the composer win, which I think is a lesson to stage directors,
because I never write down my stage directions. As a matter of fact, whenever I stage an opera I
try to do it with a new eye and new ears. I try to remember what I thought when I compose.
There are certain passages where something has taken place. If I think, "Its so long. I wish I made
it shorter," then I say, Well, there must be a reason why I composed it. I must have visualized
something. And finally I discover why I wrote the music, what I thought at that moment. I think
thats what every stage director should do. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony interpreted by
Furtwngler, is very different from that of Toscanini, and that of Toscanini is different from that of
von Karajan. And they all think they are doing it the way Beethoven wanted, but of course they
received it in a different way. And the same thing is true for the stage director of a play.
BD. I assume, though, that you would not want someone to simply recreate your staging of any
one of your operas.
GCM. No, no, no. No, no, the theater allows for that. The interpretation can be received in
different ways. I can imagine that, but still with the intention of interpreting my message and
what I wanted to say and respecting also the atmosphere which I created, which my music
creates. But I dont want it to be mere repetition. For example, I love the remark that was made
by somebody when they heard Peter Sellars Don Giovanni. There was an old lady who said, Oh,
that was the most exciting evening. What a shame that the music was so old fashioned.
BD. Then where is the balance? Or where should be the balance, in opera, between the music
and the drama?
GCM. The music is the one that dictates it, absolutely. That, we all know. An unmusical stage
director just would never be able to direct an opera well. Thats what makes me very impatient
when I go to the theater and sit down and see... For example, when you hear Wagner, hes so
descriptive. When the music says WALK! and you see the singer standing, then the music says
JUST SING AND DONT MOVE AT THIS MOMENT, and then he goes all around, tearing at his hair
or picking at his nose or whatever, youll get angry because you know that the stage director is
very unmusical and does not listen to the music. The music can tell you, can practically describe
for you the movement if you listen to it well.
BD. So the stage director, then, is working from the text rather than from the score.
GCM. Yes, very often, very often, alas, alas.
* * * * *
BD. I assume that you are asked to write all kinds of new things. How do you decide which
commissions youll accept and which commissions youll turn aside?
GCM. Ill answer you the way Stravinsky did: I accept commissions when I need money.
[Laughter] Alas, we composers are always broke. Thats why probably Ive written so many
operas, because people keep commissioning me for operas, and I wish they would commission me
to write a string quartet.
BD. Would you rather go back to some instrumental music?
GCM. Yes, Im dying now. I think that I have said what I want to say in opera. I dont think Ill
write another one. Id like to write chamber music, also because in a certain way, in chamber
music you are apt to hear your works played much better. I mean they rehearse more. Theres
not all the hysteria that you have in the theater. You give your music to people who really want to
handle it well and with care and with love. In the theater, too often there are not enough
rehearsals or then one of the singers gets sick or the music is ready but the set is off or the lighting
is wrong. Theres always something wrong. There are too many ifs. And so very often, even if
you get a good first performance, then the second performance you have all the singers who have
not rehearsed with you, and its too much of an agony.
BD. If you were to hit the lottery and never need for money again, would you stop composing?
GCM. Oh, no, no, no. [Laughter]
BD. Thats good.
GCM. I wish I could! Ive explained it to my son, and he says, I understand how much youre
suffering when youre composing. In a certain way, I would say that I do my festival to escape
the torture of composing. Very often I do things just so that I dont have to compose.
BD. Is the torture a necessity, or is it a byproduct?
GCM. Its a necessity, but very often what is necessary is also not the most pleasant thing to face.
A composer always looks for something that is unobtainable. We look for sort of an ideal
perfection, of what we call beauty that we dont even know what it is, so it is a struggle. If you
really think how mysterious art is... When you read the aesthetiticians and I include practically
every philosopher from Plato to Adorno and they talk about music, its all sort of nonsense
because even the musician doesnt know what music is. Very often when Im composing, I
struggle. Should this be a B-flat or a B-natural? I reply to myself, Who gives a damn whether
its just going to be a B-flat? Why do I struggle so much? Its so stupid. But, alas, you struggle.
You struggle to satisfy an inner thirst for this sort of Platonic perfection, of which you have a
glimpse, a vague glimpse. When people ask me what I thought about when writing music, I always
say: It is the inevitable. I think great music is what is inevitable. Like, Schubert is inevitable,
Beethoven, Chopininevitable. When music is not inevitable, it doesnt interest me.
BD. While you are composing, are you always controlling where that pencil goes, or does the
pencil sometimes guide your hand across the page?
GCM. Oh, very often the pencil guides. Those are the wonderful moments when all of a
sudden... well, what you call inspiration, when you are inspired, then there are moments of great
joy. But if you think about Brahms or Rossini who went years and years without writing a note. I
always think the composers are like the people who search for water with a stick.
BD. Oh, a divining rod?
GCM. Yes, the divining rod. They just go and go and search and search, and suddenly the rod
begins to shake, and they say, I have it! There it is! Then you start digging, hopefully to find the
water, and when you find it, its a great moment. But some people just go around forever, and the
rod never shakes. [Laughter]
BD. Im glad your rod has shaken a great deal.
GCM. Well, I dont know. Oh, no, no, I wish it had shaken more. [Laughter]
* * * * *
BD. What advice do you have for others who would like to write for either the concert hall or the
GCM. Oh, I dont have advice for composers. Its very difficult. I would say my advice to other
composers is beware of your teachers, because I think theres a lack of good teaching today.
BD. What advice do you have for audiences?
GCM. I wish one could teach audiences what to like and what not to like. [Laughter] First of all,
what is an audience? There are so many different kinds of people in an audience. Certainly one of
the first things I would give an audience is not to let themselves be influenced by what they read
in the newspapers. I think especially in America, people are much too easily led by what the critic
says the next morning. They need to have the courage really to like or to dislike what they like and
what they dislike, and not to pretend to like what they really dont, and vice versa. That is
something that always irritates me. And to understand the one thing that I think is fundamental in
art. Ive always been against those courses that they call "Art Appreciation." Art doesnt have to
be appreciated, it has to be loved. What the composer and artist wants is love, just as a woman
doesnt want to be appreciated, she wants to be loved. It's the same thing. Art needs your
devotion, and it has to be not something that has been taught but something that has been felt.
Then you appreciate different things later on, but the first thing is you must be sincere with
yourself. Do I love this music? And if you are attracted by that, just like a person, I meet you, I like
you, and so Im having a nice discussion with you. If you were somebody that repulsed me in a
certain way or I find unsympathetic, I probably would not be sitting here talking to you the way I
do now. And I think that the first thing is really to establish this sort of relation to a person. If you
dont like something, dont pretend that you like it. But unfortunately, so many in the audience
just read in the paper that that is a masterpiece, so they go. They sleep all through it, and then
they say: Oh, it was marvelous.
BD. But I assume you want people to give anything a chance.
GCM. Yes, but also there ought to be adventures to try all sort of things. Like in life, you just
dont sit always with the same three or four friends; you go out and try to meet other people,
different kinds of people in order to discover. For example, I remember I never wanted to meet
Jean Cocteau because I thought he would be a terrible poseur and an unbearable snob and so on.
But when I was in New York, a friend called me up and said, You know, Jean Cocteau would like to
meet you. And so I went. Of course I went. Then we became the best of friends, because, yes,
he was a terrible snob and a terrible poseur, but he was also a very charming person. After you
met him and were with him for half an hour, he knew how to enchant you right away. I think it is
similar with art. You just have to give him a chance, yes, but dont force yourself. If you finally
meet the person and still you think he is a fraud, just have the courage to say, For me, its a
fraud. I shock people because I say I dont like Bartk. They say, Oooh! You cannot say that.
Why cant I say it? I just dont like Bartk, thats all. They say, Oh, but the quartets... Well, I
think his quartets are a big bore. Everybody absolutely faints with horror when I say that, but I
know many people that really feel exactly the way I do; they just dont dare to say it.
BD. But you dont wish to stop other people who enjoy them from enjoying them.
GCM. No. Of course, of course not. Heavens no.
BD. So you include them, but you just dont want to include it in your own life.
GCM. Exactly right. As a matter of fact, in my festivals (now I have only one festival because one I
gave up), I dont always do the music that I like, I do a range of music. As long as I think it is not a
fraudulent art, I give it a chance. We do all sort of things. I dont have to go and hear it if I dont
want to. The secret of the Spoleto Festival is that it doesnt mirror my taste only. I try to give a
chance for people to hear all sort of things.
BD. Thank you, Maestro. Thank you for all of the operas that youve given us, and I look forward
to string quartets and other chamber music to come. I very much enjoy some of the older concert
music, the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto and the harp piece...
GCM. Well, thank you for your patience.
=== === ===
-- -- --
=== === ===
Two years later, in the fall of 1995, Lyric Opera presented The Consul.
Menotti was again in Chicago and asked to speak with me one more time.
GCM. Theyre doing The Consul, but Id much rather speak about the festival and Spoleto and
things in general. We also could speak about The Consul if you like.
BD. Thats fine. To start, you were mentioning that one conductor is sort of cold and you dont
particularly care for another conductor. Are you able to arrange for the right conductors for your
operas most of the time?
GCM. Indeed not. It is very difficult to find a conductor that would satisfy almost any composer,
because when we write music we hear it, of course, and we know what the tempo should be, we
know where we would like to have a little bit of a ritardando, where we would like a bit of this and
that, and we dont always write it down. The only composer who wrote everything down probably
was Debussy. Debussy always writes everything down, and he was right. Wagner, in some of his
writings says, When people ask me about what tempi my music goes, I always say, Just look at
the music. The music tells you what the tempo should be. And I always feel the same way. I am
more surprised when I hear a composer taking the wrong tempo for my music. It seems to me so
obvious what the tempo should be.
BD. Is there only one tempo that it should be, or is there any flexibility at all?
GCM. There is flexibility, of course, if you can be convinced. Take it a little bit faster, but there is
an ideal tempo, more or less. Actually, I remember when Toscanini told me that when he was a
young man he wanted to meet Verdi, and I think it was the only time he actually met Verdi. He
was about to conduct the Requiem, so he got an appointment to see Verdi. Of course, he was very
excited and very nervous, so Verdi asked what the conductor wanted to know, and Toscanini said,
Can I go to the piano and just play for you a little bit of it, for the tempi? Verdi agreed, so he sat
down, played the passage, and made a ritardando which was not written in the score. Then he
stopped because Verdi just didnt say anything, and he said, Maestro, I made a ritardando. And
Verdi said, Yes. But its not written in the score. And he replied, But arent you a musician?
Of course you would do a ritardando there. In fact, if I had written a ritardando, you would have
made too much of it. This way, I take it for granted you know that that has to be slower. And I
feel the same thing about my music. Perhaps its a sign of the times, but I feel there is a tendency
nowadays that people always come too soon on the downbeat. They always go, Tah-dah-dah-
rah-POM. They dont breathe, they dont let the phrase finish and then begin the next one. That
is very bad, especially in opera, because of the words they are saying. They must give time for the
words to be said, and when there is a comma in the words, in the phrase, that should also be felt
in the music.
BD. Feel the punctuation.
GCM. The punctuation, yes. For example, now Im about to stage the coming Spoleto Festival.
Im going to be eighty-five next July, and my son [in photo at left], who is the president of the
festival, said, We want to give you a present. Why dont you stage an opera, one of your favorite
operas? I said, I dont want to stage anything more of mine, but maybe I will stage Eugene
Onegin because I love Eugene Onegin. So we are doing it. You really have to breathe not only
with the music but you have to breathe with the words.
BD. So youre breathing with Tchaikovsky and with Pushkin.
GCM. And Pushkin, obviously. You cannot just listen to the music, you must know what the
words are saying.
BD. Youve done all of your own librettos, have you not?
BD. Are there times when Menotti, the composer, has fights with Menotti, the librettist?
GCM. Yes, but that takes place while Im writing the opera. [Laughter]
BD. But, then, as we get the score with the finished libretto in it, theres only really one
authorship for it. We are breathing with you, breathing with your music and breathing with your
GCM. Yes, of course. I just had auditions and I find that many of the singers, perhaps because
they think that by singing my music Im going to give them the job [laughter], they always bring my
music, which makes me very nervous. And I noticed that all of them sing the things too fast. They
dont let the phrase breathe with the words, and they are afraid of silence. In my music especially,
especially in The Medium and The Consul, the silences are just as important as the sound. Im a
great believer in silences, and most of contemporary music has no silences; its always a noise and
goes on all the time. I learned that from Beethoven in his marvelous Dah-dah-dah-DAAAH [the
opening notes of the Fifth Symphony]. Silence. Dah-dah-dah-DAAH. [Whispers] Silence. All
through his music are these marvelous dramatic silences, and I made use of that very much,
especially in The Consul and The Medium.
BD. Should there, perhaps, be a letter from the composer to each conductor printed on the
flyleaf of the score?
GCM. I always say, Please, when I ask for a long silence, I mean a long silence. But the
performers are afraid. They are afraid. When they get to a silence, even when Im there and I say,
"Now, silence. Theres silence. Dont be afraid. They say, But Mr. Menotti, I have to sing. I
say, Yes, but wait, wait, wait, wait. Let the audience wait. Its very difficult to teach that, but
when they finally get it, then they understand it.
BD. Is there any chance at all that the singers might know, perhaps, more than the composer
about the feeling and the pace of the audience coming to performance that night? You composed
these things thirty, forty, fifty years ago for certain audiences and certain times and certain
heartbeats and certain lifestyles.
GCM. No. Both with The Medium and The Consul, Ive tried those two operas with so many
audiences, and I know. There are certain moments... For example, in the first act of The Consul,
when the chief of police comes and says to Magda, When did you see your husband last? And
she doesnt answer. Then he says, ANSWER ME! Now, the way they generally do it is they say:
Have you seen your husband? When did you see your husband last? ANSWER ME! I say, No!
Wait! They always say, Mr. Menotti, but I did it that way. But you didnt do it long. You must
feel the audience. If you say, When did you see your husband last? [Pause] ANSWER ME! Then
it becomes a dramatic moment, but if you dont wait that long, the thing that is important is to
have the silences, to stretch it as long as you possibly can. When you feel its too much, then you
do it. The audience itself must say, Is she going to answer or isnt she going to answer him?
Those are very important silences. The same thing in The Medium. There are countless moments
where I put a long pause or a long silence. They never do it. They never do it, but they do it
with me. [Laughter]
BD. Maybe we should put a copy of this interview on a little diskette with each score, and then
they would know that its right from the composers idea.
GCM. Perhaps... I feel another example in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The letter scene is
always sung so quickly, and she has so many phrases in there. I know I would have trouble with
the conductor and with the singer, with Tatiana, because I want to really say the words even if you
stretch the music a little bit. But if you follow the words, then the letter scene will not become
boring. It becomes a little bit boring when they repeat things so many times, but there should
never be a repetition of the phrases. Each phrase says a difference thing.
BD. She has to be composing the letter in her head.
GCM. The letter is in her head, so it must have a feeling of little pauses. I think its very
important. I dont know whether I succeeded in getting what I want out of my very young
Tatiana. I insisted on getting a singer that looks sixteen, and I was giving up trying to find one
because either they are too old to look like a Tatiana or they are too young to sing well, and I was
just giving up. Last night I had auditions all day in New York and the last singer that came in was
this young girl, thin, very innocent and charming, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, Im sure that she
has a terrible voice." And lo and behold, this lovely golden voice came out of her. I practically
kissed her I was so happy.
BD. Did you relate to her how much you had listened, how long you had waited for her?
GCM. Shes a young Russian girl. I wont tell you the name because I dont want anybody to steal
her from me. She never sang in America, and she will make her debut at the Spoleto Festival.
BD. Will this be in Italy or in America?
GCM. Theres only one Spoleto, and that is in Italy. The one in America doesnt exist anymore.
BD. Will the Eugene Onegin be sung in the original Russian or in Italian translation?
GCM. No, in Russian, Russian, Russian.
BD. Do the Italian theaters have the gimmick of the super-titles?
GCM. Yes, now in Italy, even at La Scala they have the super-titles sometimes.
BD. Do you believe in those?
GCM. Well, I think yes. I was always against them because I think they do distract the attention.
But still if somebody wants to really enjoy an opera and let themselves be involved in the action,
he should read the libretto first and then you really can enjoy the music without having to look up
and down all the time. But at the same time I also saw that the audiences used them. I
did Meistersinger in Spoleto two years ago and I was a bit nervous. You know it is a long opera,
and especially the first act is very long. But by having the translation and by having a long
intermissionI had almost two hours between the first and the second act so people could go out
and eat and come backmany people in the audience came back to hear it three, four times,
which for Italians is very unusual.
BD. You say you want the audience to enjoy it. Is this the aim of opera, to induce enjoyment on
the part of the public?
GCM. Well, enjoyment perhaps is not the right word, but involvement. I think Goethe said that
anything is right on the stage; everything can be done on the stage as long as it creates an
atmosphere that involves you, as long as you are part of whats happening on the stage. If you are
not involved and you just look at it, you miss the point. That is why I always think that critics never
really, cannot possibly enjoy a work of art the way it should be enjoyed or understood, because
they dont let themselves go and be taken in by what happens on the stage; they are judging it all
the time. So thats wrong. You know the wonderful French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a
wonderful book about art, saying that a work of art is always unfinished. The person who receives
it actually finishes the work. A book is not finished until it's read. A piece of music, unless it is
heard, is unfinished. So actually you must become part of the work of art to receive all its
message. If you resist it and say, I want to judge it, then you dont receive the whole message.
BD. I don't enjoy doing criticism, and have not done any for many, many years. Its so nice to go
to a performance just to enjoy it and not have to scribble afterwards.
GCM. To scribble, of course. Its a completely different way of receiving the message of the
artist, of the creator.
* * * * *
BD. How big a theater is in Spoleto?
GCM. We have two theaters. Actually, we have three theaters. We have an eighteenth-century,
lovely, small theater, only about 300 seats.
BD. What goes there?
GCM. This coming summer were doing Semele of Handel. And then we have an early
nineteenth-century theater, a very beautiful one, of 900 seats, actually almost 1,000. There, we
do the Tchaikovsky, we do the big works, we do Wagner. You have no
idea, Meistersinger or Tristan, how they sound in a small theater like that.
BD. I think it would be wonderful.
GCM. Ah! Its a completely different experience, with the rich orchestration in a small theater. It
has wonderful acoustics; its all wooden. Its almost too much.
BD. Now, which of these two theaters should your works be performed in? Would The Consul be
better in the 900 seats or in the 300?
GCM. Oh, the 900. It needs that space, yes.
BD. Then we come to Chicago, where we have four times that amount of seating.
GCM. I know. Im very nervous about that, because if it was The Saint of Bleecker Street, which
has rich orchestration and is made for a big theater, or The Last Savage... The Consul is meant to
be a more intimate sort of a work. Its very sparse orchestration, but its strong enough to make
its point even in a big house. It has been given at La Scala, in the Staatsoper in Berlin, in Vienna.
BD. Do you do anything to it to alter it, to spread it out just a little bit and make it larger, or do
you just let it stand?
GCM. No, I let it just stay. Anyway, in most operas, their orchestrations are always too loud and
they cover the singers. In these concerts its very important that the people can follow the texts,
so instead of all the screaming of the conductor to keep the orchestra down, I might as well have a
smaller orchestra. Its easier.
BD. Does it please you that a house the size of Chicago will give several performances of Consul?
GCM. Yes, Im very pleased, of course. Im only just sad that they didnt let me stage it. I would
have loved to have staged it.
BD. Do you have ideas about putting it into a big theater?
GCM. I have. I have many times. I did it at La Scala which is a huge theater.
BD. What kinds of things change from a 900-seat theater to a 4,000-seat theater?
GCM. First of all, you need much bigger voices, of course. Magda can be sung by a lyric or spinto
in a small theater. In something like La Scala, you have to have a real dramatic soprano.
BD. An Ada-type?
GCM. Yes, to make it work. And it's the same thing, the chief of police has got to be a bass like
Ramey. Then the woodwinds and the brasses are very small; its a small orchestration. I dont
remember exactly what it is, but when I gave it in New York, in a small theater, it was with a very
small string orchestra. In a big house, I hope theyre going to use the whole string section, even
though the woodwinds stay where they are.
BD. No doubling of the winds?
GCM. I dont think they need to, no. Most conductors think to make lots of noise theyve got to
have a big orchestra, and they do. [Laughter] But I think you can have some wonderful
pianissimos like Toscanini used to have, with a huge orchestra, and you can have really big
fortissimo with a small orchestra if you know how to use it.
BD. I would think that having wonderful pianissimos would then make the impact of the
GCM. More, of course.
BD. Does the large theater automatically make the conductor take a little more time, make the
pauses a little bit longer, as you want?
GCM. I hope. I hope. Im going to meet with the conductor soon, and Im going to tell him where
I want all those pauses, and I hope that he will obey me.
BD. Have you ever conducted yourself?
GCM. No, I never have.
BD. Why not?
GCM. Never interested me, really. I like staging it. First of all, I dont because there are an awful
lot of good conductors around, decent conductors anyway, and a few great ones. But there are so
very few good stage directors for opera who really stage the music and not only the libretto. I got
very impatient with my opera, and I got impatient when I go and see the staging of other
composers operas when the music clearly says: Walk, and they just stand there; then the music
says: Dont move now, just sing, dont move, and they start going around. Oh, my God! Cant
you listen to the music? How can a person move at that moment, when the music said: Dont
move, just sing, and dont move at that moment? They dont listen to the music. Just like
dancing. I mean, if you notice how very few dancers really dance in time with the music, they
always put down their foot either too soon or too late. [Laughter] Except Balanchine. Balanchine
really was a very punctilious about following the music.
BD. Is there anything else that we should know about The Consul here in Chicago, for Chicago
GCM. I think as far as I can see, it has a very good cast. I do not know the Magda, but I hear she's
very good. I know the other singers and I think thats a very good choice.
BD. What should audiences know about this specific opera before they come to it?
GCM. Nothing, really, because it should be self-explanatory. It should awaken in the receiver a
sort of indignation, which is the main emotion of the opera. It still works that way. The last
performance of The Consul that I staged it myself was in Monte Carlo, and I was nervous because
how could this audience of all these rich people that are retired know, what would they know of
such problems? But it worked incredibly, because actually so many of those so-called rich people
have been Jewish people that had to escape. And then the hatred of bureaucracy is in all of us,
and the injustice of the way bureaucracy steals our time and our freedom, and this sort of blind
obeisance of silly laws. Actually, at the moment when she says, Burn the papers, everybody
goes, Ah! Even people who have not suffered the indignation of having to find a passport and
being questioned on everything, even so, everybody has sort of this sense of protest toward the
* * * * *
BD. Youve supervised some of the recordings that have been made of your works, have you not?
GCM. Lets not talk about recordings because I have so very few of them.
BD. Well, my question really is: If you get a recording that you feel is right, should that serve,
then, as a model for all future productions, and would that perhaps put the future performers in a
GCM. Now, thats a very interesting question, and Ill analyze it from the very beginning. First of
all, the recordings I have are all pretty awful because my music was recorded at a time when they
had to cut it because everything had to go on one side of a disc, and to make it all stay on the disc
they also took a bit faster tempi so that you can get more music in. So I really dont like any of
those recordings. Now that you can have good recordings, yes, Id love to hear a good recording
of my music, but the interpretation of music, going back to Sartre, has to be received, and it all
depends on the mood you are in at that moment. Thats the wonderful thing, the relation
between the music that is played and music that is received or interpreted. It all depends on how
youre feeling at that moment. They're exciting things; its never quite the same. Something that
is too fast one day may be too slow another day. It depends on how you are. Thats why I dont
like recordings very much, because they are always the same. Its like frozen food. It may taste
good, but its always the same thing. I like the idea that its interpreted at this very moment and
then it becomes a great ceremony, rather than just putting on something that you just open the
can and then its music.
BD. You dont feel, then, that the ceremony can be experienced at different times and different
places (on a record) rather than just in one theater on one night?
GCM. Yes, the first time you hear a record, I get a better experience, but then I dont want to
hear the record again because I know exactly whats going to happen. Then it, to me, becomes
frozen music, and then it doesnt move me anymore.
BD. Maybe you should put a disclaimer on each record: Listen to this once, and then throw it
GCM. Once. Then throw it away. [Laughter]
BD. Should there be any kind of reaction because of the fact that different people will hear it at
different times and a record made, say, thirty years ago can be experienced for the first time
GCM. Yes, of course. Im not against recording. I wish people would record my music because
before I die, I would like people to know what are the tempi I like, and now that I could have some
good recording. I hope that before I kick the bucket they will let me do it.
BD. I assume that many of the performances that you have supervised have been videotaped and
transmitted on television, and some of those tapes must exist. Perhaps those could be eventually
licensed and distributed.
GCM. Actually, I have some tapes that I like very much. My cantata on Santa Teresa, Muero
Porque No Muero, theres a very good tape, and I like to listen to this one because its done very
well by Rafael Frhbeck de Burgos conducting. I like the recording that Munch did of The Death of
the Bishop of Brindisi. I think thats a good recording.
BD. Perhaps in amongst your papers, if you dont get around to recording these in the rest of
your life, you could list which are the performances that you really liked that you feel represent
GCM. Im writing my memoirs, so Im going to write a chapter about recording. [Laughter]
BD. Are you still writing music?
GCM. Well, yes, thats why Im still alive. [Laughter] I would be dead otherwise. Yes, yes. I just
finished a work. I was commissioned to write somethingto my great surprise, it is a
commission. Some big foundation commissioned a mass for peace. Its one of those silly ideas of
taking the Catholic mass and having five composers, each from five different countries, and
Messiaen was supposed to write the Kyrie, and I think Penderecki is writing some, and Lukas Foss
is writing some, and I was chosen for Italy to write the Gloria. So I thought it might be fun to do it,
and I started writing, and I almost finished the Gloria, and then Messiaen died, so everything
stopped. Everybody finished already all the pieces except Messiaen had not written anything, or
maybe had just started, because I know they have asked somebody else now to take his place.
Then about a month ago I suddenly got a letter, or actually a telephone call from this foundation,
saying that the project would go on and that Ashkenazi is going to conduct the finished Mass for
Peace in Oslo, and where was my Gloria? Well, my Gloria! Where was my Gloria? I couldnt find
it anywhere. [Laughter] So I set my whole household looking for my Gloria. Everyone was looking
for my Gloria all over the place.
BD. I hope it eventually turned up.
GCM. It turned up, it turned up, so I finished it. So thats going to be my next premiere.
* * * * *
BD. Youve been involved with opera so much in your life, youve written some but not very much
purely instrumental music.
GCM. Well, more than people know or people care to know. [Laughter] I have the Violin
Concerto, and I have a Cello Fantasy that has just been done now with Rostropovich conducting,
and then Ive written many cantatas. I wrote Landscapes and Remembrances, which is a long
cantata for chorus and soloists. And then I did the Mass, which has been recorded by the
Westchester Choir. But its difficult to find the records now because it was sold out. And then I
did a cantata on Santa Teresas words called Muero Porque No Muero. Theres another, a small
cantata, with words on St. John of the Cross.
BD. As you look back on all of these works that have been produced, are you basically pleased
with what has happened with your music over the years?
GCM. No, I think it should be played much more than it is. [Laughter] I think that probably my
best music is in my symphonic works, and nobody seems to play it. I like my Mass very much, and
by Like it I mean I dont squirm every time I hear it. And I like very much the small cantata on St.
Teresa, Muero Porque No Muero. I think its one of my best pieces. I like the Landscapes and
Remembrances. I like my Fantasy for Cello. I like some of my chamber music, my songs, the five
BD. That is kind of a surprising statement, I like some of my" music. There are some pieces you
GCM. Oh, no, there are a lot that I just dont like at all. I wrote a symphony for the Philadelphia
Orchestra and I dont like it at all. I cant bear it.
BD. What if someone comes and says, That was a wonderful work.?
GCM. They ask for it every once in a while, but I havent published it at all. I might revise it
maybe. I like some of it here and there, but I know I can do better than that.
BD. Who is right, though, the composer or the public?
GCM. Always the composer. There is a wonderful phrase by Paul Valry: A work of art is never
finished; its just abandoned. You always think you could have done better, but I am a neo-
Platonist. I believe the beauty actually exists as an entity and that the artist has a short vision of
this perfection and then must try to remember it. You come as near it as possible, but its never
the perfection that you just have seen, somehow.
BD. It is unattainable.
GCM. Its unattainable. People like Beethoven and Goethe and Dante almost got there, but its
always a search. We dont create anything; we try to find what I call the inevitable, and I think
that when you reach a sort of inevitability, you've caught a little morsel of this perfection that
waits for you. Maybe when we die it will finally be revealed to us.
BD. I think Menotti has come very close many times.
GCM. [Laughter] How very nice of you to say so.
BD. Thank you for coming back to Chicago.
GCM. Well, thank you. It was nice seeing you again.
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1981, 1993, 1995 Bruce Duffie
These interviews were recorded in Chicago on March 19, 1981 at the studios of WNIB; October 28,
1993 at the Drake Hotel; and November 30, 1995 at the Ritz Carlton.
Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1981 and 1996. A section was transcribed
and published in Wagner News in July, 1981. Audio copies of all three interviews have been
placed in the Oral History American Music Archive at Yale University. These transcriptions were
made in 2007 and posted on this website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this
website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in
various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series onWNUR-
FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected
transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your
attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the
automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments,
questions and suggestions.
[THIS ARTICLE WAS FOUND ON A WEBSITE DEVOTED TO SCOTLAND]
THIS FEATURE BY GUEST WRITER VIVIEN DEVLIN PROVIDES AN INTRODUCTION TO THE COMPOSER GIAN CARLO MENOTTI WHO HAS MADE HIS HOME IN GIFFORD IN EAST LOTHIAN WHERE HE IS THE LAIRD OF YESTER HOUSE - AND THE SPOLETO FESTIVAL IN ITALY WHICH WAS FOUNDED BY MENOTTI. THE MAESTRO IS APPROACHING HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY AND STILL MASTERMINDS "HIS" FESTIVAL.
MENOTTI IN SCOTLAND AND ITALY
GIAN CARLO MENOTTI IS INTERNATIONALLY REGARDED AS A LEGEND IN HIS OWN LIFETIME. AS A MUSICAL PRODIGY IN ITALY, COMPOSING HIS FIRST OPERA WHEN HE WAS ELEVEN, HE WAS ADVISED BY THE AGE OF 17 TO STUDY AT THE CURTIS INSTITUTE IN PHILADELPHIA - FELLOW STUDENTS WERE LEONARD BERNSTEIN AND SAMUEL BARBER, THE LATTER BECOMING A CLOSE FRIEND AND MUSICAL COLLABORATOR. HIS AIM FROM AN EARLY AGE WAS TO POPULARISE OPERA AND IN THE LATE 1940S HE STAGED A DOUBLE BILL, THE M