Menotti talks of opera on TV: it works -- sometimes

Gian Carlo Menotti, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose own operas are performed regularly on television, derides opera on TV. In New York for just a few days -- between his ongoing Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., and his famous "Festival of Two Worlds" in Spoleto, Italy -- this shirt-sleeved maestro-impresario sits back in a comfortable chair to chat for a few moments.

He's in his stopover apartment on New York's stylish East Side in the midst of packing his books and manuscripts in crates to be sea-mailed to his neoclassical Adam house in the Lammermuir Hills near the Vale of Gala Water (could there be a more appropriately named place for a composer of opera?), southeast of Edinburgh. He does most of his composing of operas there.

The Charleston/Spoleto festival is now being broadcast piecemeal on Wednesdays through August on many Public Broadcasting stations (check local listings for dates and times). The 10-part PBS coverage, hosted by National Public Radio's Bob Edwards and brought to PBS by South Carolina ETV, features prefestival activities, excerpts from Menotti's "The Last Savage," some country music, chamber music, Neapolitan pop music, jazz and dance offerings, mine, and solo concert excerpts. The eighth in the series, titled "Happy Birthday, Gian Carlo," focuses on festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti's 70th birthday celebration.

"I am going to say something very naughty," says the youthful-looking gray-haired master of the one-act opera, a mischieviously boyish glint in his eyes. His own perennial "Amahl and the Night Visitors" is shown every Christmas on TV stations throughout the world. "I think that opera on television loses as much of a new audience as it attracts. That is because most opera shown on television is so bad.

"Opera is not for television unless it is written for television. To adapt an opera for television, you need a superb cameraman and a superb director. I frankly believe that most operas are directed abominably, and once you put on television a close-up of a heavily made-up fat singer with her mouth wide open revealing her wobbly tongue and she acts with exaggerated gestures, people just laugh and close the television."

Mr. Menotti speaks with just a trace of an Italian accent, revealing his place of birth, although he now, as he says, pay taxes in the USA.

"So, you usually lose as much of an audience as you gain. Now if opera could be presented as well as TV as it sometimes is on stage . . . ."

Has he been happy with the presentation of his own "Amahl and the Night Visitors"?

"I think so, yes," he says with an embarrassed smile. "But I am patting myself on the back, because I direct it myself. But even when I have not done it -- the last version I did not do, the one with Strata -- I was very happy with it. But 'Amahl' was written wtih TV in mind.

"The 'Manon Lescaut' they did from the Met -- that was beautifully filmed. It was transmitted all over Europe and that certainly gained an audience.

"But I think the 'Don Giovanni' filmed by Joseph Losey was absolutely abominable, unmusical, boring. I hear that Ingmar Bergman's 'Magic Flute' is very charming, but I haven't seen it. It will gain an audience if it is well done, but just filming an opera and putting it in theaters or on television does no good. Opera is anticinematic by nature. It must be exaggerated in gesture, in emotions, because it has to project over an orchestra pit. If the same production is put on the screen, two steps away from the viewer, the whole concept has to be changed. What seems very convincing on the stage becomes ridiculous on the screen. And the same thing holds if you do a cinematic technique in an opera. It will also be completely ineffective, because it is something else again.

"I've never been especially moved by the theater of the shadow, as I call the cinema. I like flesh and blood and bones, and I like to see my actors live. A film can move me once, but I will never want to go back to see a film a second time, while I can go see a live performance of 'Don giovanni' 50 times and still enjoy it."

Does Menotti enjoy composing for television?

"Yes. 'Amahl' was the very first operatic work ever written for television. I think it was in 1951 for NBC. I also wrote the first opera ever written for radio -- 'The Old Maid and the Thief.' I kept an eye to the stage and television because I recogznized that radio, stage, and television are part of the popular theater of today."

Is he disappointed because more contemporary composers do not seem to be writing for television?

"No, because that is not true all over the world. In Italy there is an annual prize given for the best opera written for television. I have actually written one opera that can only be given on TV -- 'The Labyrinth.' That cannot possibly be done on stage, and it has had only one performance on television. But it is being revived now in France." Mr. Menotti then proceeds to tell a long , funny story, complete with comic gestures, about the time when William Storke, one of American television's most innovative culture programmers, commissioned an original opera for NBC for a $50,000 fee. Menotti was given $25,000 in advance, and he was to bring in the synopsis for approval, then a go-ahead. Mr. Storke approved the synopsis, but then there was an upheaval at NBC and Mr. Storke moved on. his successor loved the idea but, when the time came for a final OK, he, too, had moved on.

The next successor felt the new opera would be too expensive to mount, so Mr. Menotti suggested they do his already-completed work "The Egg." But once again, an NBC upheaval, and this time the person now in charge suggested that Mr. Menotti adapt "The Egg" for "Live From Studio 8H." Mr. Menotti told him that the opera needed a desert rather than studio and refused.

It was agreed they would think about the project, but, the maestro says, "This time did not wait for the man to be fired. I went to my lawyer and he sent them a letter demanding the other $25,000. Within two days I got my check and an agreement to forget the whole thing.So I got $50,000 for writing nothing. and this was NBC television, where they always say things are too expensive to do."

Mr. Menotti is unhappy that American television seems so uninterested in original opera. "I don't think anbody has been commissioned to do an opera for TV since I was commissioned to do 'The labyrinth.' What I find very sad is that with this incredible interest in the arts in America, the creator is still in last place. People say, 'I am interested in music,' but they mean they are interested in conductors, singers, instrumentalists. But they couldn't care less who the composer is unless he is dead." The play "Amadeus," which has won the 1981 Tony Award on Broadway and concerns the composers Salieri and Mozart, is of some concern to Mr. Menotti. He resents the fact that Salieri is portrayed as the poisoner of Mozart. "First of all, I don't believe that Mozart was such a silly idiot as he is portrayed. This legend that one can be an idiot and a genius, I don't believe. To write beautiful music you have to use your intelligence, too. It just doesn't come out by itself. And I think it is very unfair to poor Salieri, because as far as we know he was innocent."

Mr. Menotti agrees, however, that Salieri, despite his prolific works, lacked the genius of Mozart. He says, "Genius is hard work, but not only hard work. The inspiration must come first."

Does Menotti find inspiration in his house in the Lammermuir Hills of Scotland?

"If's very difficult to getinto the habit of working hard, but I do it well in Scotland. I'll be there for most of the summer, after Spoleto. I'm working on an opera commissioned by Placido Domingo about the life of Goya, and on a piece for the Westminster Choir. Also on a little opera for children called 'The Bride of Pluto.' I've already written a sort of science-fiction children's opera called 'The Gobbelings.' I'm becoming the Hans Christian Andersen of opera. But alas, children only seem to be interested in extraterrestrial things these days -- they don't care about fairies and gnomes."

How does he feel about being known among large segments of the music public -- especially children -- for "Amahl and the Night Visitors"?

"I love it! I love it!" this marvelously childlike adult responds, clapping his hands in glee. "I know that some artists get irritated when they are 'cursed' with one big success that sort of puts the rest of his work in the shadows. Certainly 'Amahl' has shadowed some of my other works -- but works like 'The Medium' and 'The Consul' get around almost as much as 'Amahl.' I am sure that Mascagni must have come to hate 'Cavalliera Rusticana,' because that's all he is remembered for. But it is nice to have so many children remember me for 'Amahl.' So many of them write to me and tell me that this is their favorite opera. I feel I am doing missionary work. Just the other day I got a letter from a boy who wrote: 'Mr. Menotti, Amahl is the first opera I have ever seen and I think it is the best.'

"But what I do find a bit depressing at the same thing as I find it charming at this stage of my life is when an a bearded old man comes up to me and says: 'Don't you remember me, Mr. Menotti? I was your third Amahl. And now I want you to meet my six children.They are all Amahls.'"

But man-child Gian Carlo is ageless . . . just as ageless as his operas will probably prove to be.

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