An Italian Composer in Scotland

Gian Carlo Menotti talks about his pet project, an opera theater on his estate

Tall and stately it stands, its classical facade framed by a forest of trees, its green lawn a plush carpet leading to the portal of Yester. Yester - the Gaelic word for valley - is an 85-room, 17th-century pink sandstone mansion located 18 miles east of Edinburgh in eastern Scotland.

Since 1973 it has been the home ofthe Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti whose opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," is today probably the most frequently performed opera in the world. (He's also known as the founder of the two Spoleto festivals, the one in Italy dating from 1958, and the one in Charleston, S.C., from 1977.)

"Why Scotland?" I asked the maestro as he relaxed over an espresso. "After all, you were born in Italy and have lived for over a half-century in the United States."

"I moved to Scotland for a very simple reason: I wanted to live in a country where silence is not too expensive. You see, in Italy you have to be a millionaire to buy silence. People think composers are looking for music, but what a composer wants most is silence."

The story of how Menotti discovered Yester is an interesting one. "I was born in a 19th-century house on Lake Lugano in Italy, and have always loved living in an old house. But when I first approached the Scottish heritage society, they showed me pictures of ruined old castles. I tried to explain to them I wanted a gracious house for living, not a fortified house.

"They then pointed to a photograph of Yester in a magazine and suggested perhaps it might be the answer. Shortly afterwards they introduced me to the owner. "When I actually saw the house, I thought it was just the most beautiful house I had seen in a long, long time. But when I asked for the price I nearly fainted.

"Fortunately it so happened that the man who owned it was an Australian who loved my music. `I want you to have this house' he told me and took a third off the price, but I still couldn't afford it. I told him that even if he cut the price in half I couldn't handle it. `I tell you what I'll do,' he said. `I will give you ten years to pay for it with no interest. Will you accept it?' Who could say `no' to that?"

A new opera house

Now in his eighth decade, Menotti is active in scouting talent from around the world for his two festivals. Tired of constant jet travel, an idea occurred to the maestro. Why not take the elegant old building that had served originally as a stable (Menotti owns no horses) at Yester and convert it to an opera house?

"I met a youngish architect whose style is neo-classic and asked him if he could make a model of an opera house which could be made out of my stable, a theater which would seat about 450. A short time later I met Prince Charles in Italy, and I mentioned this idea to him and showed him some sketches the architect had drawn. Then I just forgot about it."

One day, Menotti got a call from Buckingham Palace, saying that Prince Charles, who was then in northern Scotland, wanted to talk to him further about the project. The secretary asked if Menotti would go up the next day to see him. What Menotti thought would be a brief meeting and conversation turned into a three-hour discussion.

Prince Charles was enthusiastic about the idea and liked the style of the building, Menotti says. The composer persuaded him to host a fundraising event, which turned into a performance last May of Mozart's little opera "Apollo et Hyacinthus" - written when Mozart was 11 and sung by the 40-member Tolzer Boys Choir from Munich - in the Grand Ballroom of Yester followed by a sit-down dinner for 66 in the banquet hall.

Once the opera house is complete (not even a tentative date has been mentioned yet as there are still substantial sums to be raised) it will mean that the maestro will no longer need to travel so much to audition singers and artists for the two festivals. They can come to Yester and present their recitals and concerts. "It will become a workshop, a school, a theater of research," Menotti proudly emphasizes. "It will help and guide young talent, it will train them and prepare them for performances at my two festivals. It will serve as a springboard for a triple debut: Yester in Scotland, the Festival dei due mondi in Italy and Spoleto USA in South Carolina."

Menotti's record for discovering young talent is remarkable. He helped launch the careers of such then-young artists as Shirley Verrett for whom he specifically staged "Carmen," he introduced the now-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as first introduced a young dancer named Antonio Gaddes.

Other musical projects

When he's not searching out new talent, Menotti will be working in his new post of artistic director of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera. The composer has just signed a three-year contract, renewable for another three.

In his spare time, he's writing hism emoirs and composing a one-act opera for the Spoleto USA Festival - "The Singing Child" - and a Gloria for a new mass commissioned by the International Peace Foundation. Each section of the mass will be written by a composer from a different country. The mass will be premiered in Assisi, Italy, under the baton of Loren Maazel. Menotti will bring the completed mass to both his festivals.

All in all, the maestro may have found silence in Scotland, but he has surely found music ringing through his head as these creative efforts show.

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