Composer Gian Carlo Menotti: taking opera to people

''I rebelled against the idea of the artist being what I call the 'after-dinner mint' of society,'' says composer-librettist Gian Carlo Menotti. ''I didn't want them to be just the entertainers, but rather part of the community - the bread, not only the dessert.''

This premise worked so well for the Italian-born, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner that he started an international culture exchange 25 years ago in Italy: the famed Spoleto Festival. Eight years ago he copied the idea as ''Spoleto, USA,'' and in those eight years the new version has started on the road to international status on a par with its prototype.

Between his twin duties as festival director and opera director (of his own opera ''Juana La Loca'') at the US version of the festival, Menotti took time out earlier this summer to reflect on his art, his international career of 45 years, and his influence on the state of opera in the United States. Although born in Italy, he was educated at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and has done what he considers most of his important work here.

''It is in America that I started my experiment of trying to take the opera away from the sacred barns like the Metropolitan (and) La Scala,'' he says from the parlor of a restored antebellum mansion that is his Spoleto, USA, base this time around.

''It was my contention that opera can not only pay for itself if it is well given, but it can also command a much wider audience if given like a play with lots of rehearsals and wonderful singers that fit the role. If they don't have to look at the conductor all the time, and can really act the drama - all of a sudden they really can convince audiences that are not musical even that opera can be valid theater.''

Besides his two Pulitzers (in 1950 for ''The Consul'' and 1955 for ''The Saint of Bleecker Street''), Menotti has been for more than 30 years the most-produced living operatic composer in the world. Perhaps best known for his work ''Amahl and the Night Visitors,'' Menotti has also written ''The Unicorn,'' ''Juana La Loca,'' ''The Medium,'' ''The Telephone,'' and ''The Old Maid and the Thief.''

Because of this desire to make his operas accessible, he has written almost all his works in English. And he is known for writing very performable operas that combine theatricality with musicality. One of the best examples is his opera ''The Medium,'' produced on Broadway in 1947.

''Since then if I can take credit for anything it is that I have really changed a little bit the picture of operatic development in the United States. (''The Medium'') actually revolutionized the whole picture of opera in the US. Now, all of a sudden every college and every university has an opera theater. Every little city has its little group.''

His desire to bring arts to the people led him to found the Spoleto festival in 1958. He approached the mayor of the impoverished Italian town with the idea of helping the town and ended up completely rejuvenating it.

''The wonderful thing about it is that we have saved Spoleto, and we are still heroes, we are still the bread of Spoleto because without the festival Spoleto would absolutely go back to its former oblivion.''

One of the things that makes Spoleto festival artists ''heroes'' is that many perform for about half their regular fee, he says. ''They love going there because they love the idea of knowing they are needed. And that is something that is important today, because people don't realize how important art can be to a community.''

Another reason for the success of both Spoletos, says Menotti, is their opportunity for young artists.

''I'm asked, 'Why don't you invite famous performers?' and I say we don't need them. Why spend all the money for the sacred monsters that will give us no time for rehearsals, and will only sing the usual repertoire? Let us do it with young people. We'll create our stars. Finally I've given them the pride that the audiences in Italy have - the pride of discovering and creating our own stars. And we've created a thousand, beginning from Andy Warhol and (Pinchas) Zuckerman , and Yo-Yo Ma.''

One problem he has had with his American Spoleto is the pressure to include jazz concerts. He banned them in Italy.

''Here it was a shock when they heard that I wanted to ban jazz. I said, after all at the jazz festivals they don't play Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart, so I don't see why we should absolutely include jazz in our programs.''

In addition to directing both festivals, Menotti continues to write and direct his own operas, which involve the artist, he says, ''in looking for what is already there.''

''(The artist) is an explorer in a certain way,'' Menotti says. ''The only thing that interests me in music is to be able to reach into the, let's call it, 'collective unconscious' of what is noblest in the human spirit, the way you find in the music of Mozart and Beethoven and Verdi that wonderful quality that not a note can be changed.

''When you find that quality in music,'' he says, ''then you know it and it's a gift that only God can give you. That's why I give great importance to melody. It's something you feel you have already heard before, something that wakes some sort of memory. James Joyce said it: 'Art is nothing but a form of memory.' ''

One of Mr. Menotti major preoccupations is finding an artistic director to replace himself.

''This kind of successor I have not been able to find because I'd like to get somebody who is equally familiar with Italy and America, somebody who is conversant with all the arts. You know you can get a marvelous musician who would be loved, but who knows nothing about the theater, painting, dance. The same thing is true down the line - a dancer knows nothing about the theater, and so forth....''

Menotti just finished presenting his most recent work, ''Juana La Loca,'' at this year's festival. And now he begins looking for time to finish the opera he has promised for Placido Domingo. ''I also have to finish my opera for Domingo, who is waiting and keeps asking me, 'Where's my opera?' ''

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