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An Interview with GIAN CARLO MENOTTI --Part One

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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Gregor Benko


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We met at Menotti's Manhattan apartment in late April 1987. One could tell from the obviously much-used desk, the shelves of reference books, and the unending series of telephone calls that this was where the composer, immaculate and elegant, tend­ed to details and accomplished a lot of work. Although it was early morning, Menotti had already been working for some time. He greeted us, and then volunteered:

I hate interviews!

There was hardly a beat in which to ponder the implications of this before his phone rang. He talked rapidly in Italian and, after a few minutes, returned.

OK, here we are.

We discussed a recent performance of one of his operas.

You should come and see the two of my operas [ Tamu-Tamu and Amelia at Batto] at theJuilliard on the 24th; I wouldn't tell you to go unless 1 knew that they were go­ing 10 be very good performances. The kids are marvelous. Two girls are so talented; my God! I think they"re going to be future stars. Don't ask me their names-that's going to be your trouble with this interview. You'll ask me names, and I've reached the age when names and dates are all sort of very vague in my mind. I'll do my best, anyway.

The man saying this could hardly have appeared more incredibly youthful, vibrant, and energetic.

Are you conducting?

No, I staged both works; I don't conduct. That's one thing I don't do. I studied the piano, but I never was a pianist; I always hated to practice. Curiously enough, since 1 was six years old I knew I wanted to be a composer, and I was never interested in the interpretive arts at all. 'Til nowadays I'm not particularly fascinated with pianists or violinists--I use them. I've always been in­terested in creative people; I love to talk to painters, to writers, to other composers. That's what's always fascinated me, the creative process.

We mentioned that one of the greatest fans of his had recently been rhapsodiz­ing about his particularly masterful and unique way of using the piano in his or­chestral fabrics.

I'm glad to know I have a few [fans]!

The phone rang again.

There we go. I think I'll take: it off the: hook after this one. !kilo. yes' Ah, at ten o'clock tomorrow morning? Yes. fine. llow arc things going? Ah, si. Ten o'clock tomorrow morning--I'll be there.

The phone was left off the hook, but soon started making its own loud noise. Quickly it was replaced, and many more calls came through regularly, with conversations just like the one transcribed above. Clearly this is a very busy, organized man. Back to the piano:

I use it mostly because I find that the or­chestra lacks one instrument: it does not have any instrument that can play all the low register with percussive clarity and that can go fast. They're all very slow: the bas­soon, you know, can hardly speak down there; the trombone cannot speak; the bass clarinet can but becomes very, kind of, lipid. There's nothing that can go "pah pah prowr, pah pah pah puh." That's why I like to use the piano, because it gives a very agile and percussive tone, especially to my basses. When I was studying the piano at the Cur­tis (Institute of Music] my piano teacher in­sisted that I audition for Josef Hofmann. She thought I'd make a good pianist.

Who was this?

She was a Russian teacher who became the character of Madame Euterpova in Help, Help, the Globolinks! because she had big boobs. Madame Vengerova, she was quite an eccentric character--now she's dead, poor thing. I wrote to her that I had made a caricature of her, and she didn ·1 mind at all. I did play for Hofmann, and Hofmann said very wisely, "Yes, you might turn out to be a good pianist, but I think you should concentrate on being a composer." And ac­tually, that's what I wanted to do because I hated practicing.

My musical background is actually very unremarkable. I come from a very big fami­ly, five boys and three girls. At that time it was fashionable for a girl to learn how to play the piano, so my three sisters played the piano as well, or as badly, as was expected of them, no more than that. Then I had one brother that tortured the cello, but with great love all his life (now he's dead); and I had another brother who flirted with the violin for a short time. Only my mother really practiced the piano with a sort of passionate perseverance, or determina­tion. She had no real technique; but curious­ly enough her one passion was Beethoven, and she played all the sonatas except the last few. The adagios she could do very well, but the allegros were always twice too slow--but she loved it. When I was a little boy, in the evenings she got together with my two brothers, the violin and the cello ones, and they used to play trios, very amateurishly--but I was allowed to stay up late at night. My mother had made a kind of little bed for me to fall asleep in the living room, and I was able to fall asleep at the sound oft he Beethoven and the Mozart and Mendelssohn trios being murdered by my family.

Then when I was six years old I started com­posing. My mother wasn't surprised at all and she got a teacher to come from Varese. (We lived in the country on the lake of Lugano. At that time it was far away from the city. Now you can get to Milan in three-­quarters of an hour, but at that time it was quite a journey.) She was my first piano teacher. Then we got another one who taught me for a while, but when I was 11 or 12 or 13-I'm vague about my own dates at one of those dates my mother insisted on moving to the city. First of all, she was very unhappy always being out in the country, while her sisters and cousins were in Milan going to balls and going to I.a Scala, and we were stuck with all the peasants up in Cadegliano. So she finally convinced my father, who loved the country--he didn't want to go to the city at all--convinced him that for our sake we'd better move to Milan.

Then I had my first contact with opera houses; before then I had never been to an opera house. When I was 13 or 14 I went 10 see my first opera. It was Rigoletto. Not at La Scala; I think they were closed at that time because of the First World War. We went to a theater in Milan which had taken the place of La Scala. I was bitterly disap­pointed because one of my brothers, who loved opera and was going to the Universi­ty of Milan and used to go to the opera, had described for me these marvelous perfor­mances. I imagined the most marvelous scenery, the most incredible things as described by my brother; when I went to see Rigoletto and I saw those cardboard sceneries fluttering in the air-they trembl­ed every time you touched them--and these ridiculous singers, I was so disappointed. Then shortly after that I was taken to La Scala and I heard Toscanini and I heard some of the great singers of that time, all the great singers at the time of Toscanini, like Pertile ....

Did you hear Battistini?

Yes, Battistini, and that girl. Dal Monte, and et cetera--they were all there at that time. And then finally when I was 15 or 16, but then again-I really was a very bad student. First of all I was so interested in so many things: I thought I was a writer and a poet, and I wrote plays and I wrote my own librettos, and I tried writing operas and so on: I was not really studying seriously. So when my father died my mother had to go to South America because my father had had some business there In Colombia. First she went to Toscanini and asked what to do with this impossible son she had. Somebody recommended me to him. Toscanini said the best thing was just 10 take me away from Milan, take me away from the Conservatorio where I was studying solfege and harmony and counterpoint, because the musical education in Italy was very poor at that time-and still is, actually. Most of the Italian people come to America or go to England or Germany, Austria to study. It's getting a bit better, but not much. At that time it was hopeless, it was very academic and lackadaisical.

I'm not sure who spoke to Toscanini on my behalf, for he didn't see or hear any of my works, but I'll tell you who heard my works at that time: Giordano, of all people, and he may have talked to Toscanini. I had writ­ten an opera on The Death of Pierrot and one on Andersen's The Little Mermaid. l still have a few pages of these. I didn't even know how to write them down; I was a child. Actually, my first compositions were written down by a blind man! The music teacher at the school I went to was blind, and he wrote down my first compositions in Braille and I still have a few pages of those.

Anyway, Toscanini told my mother the best was to get me away from Milan. Well, I was probably very spoiled at that time--I must have been a horrible child--and I was taken to all these salons, playing for all the con­tessas who thought I was a little angel because I sang. I had a soprano voice and I used to put to music the most erotic poems of D'Annunzio without understanding what they were all about. They thought it was too cute for words. So Toscanini said, "Take him away from Milan, take him to America where there's a wonderful school in Philadelphia. I'll recommend this boy to the teacher, I know the teacher very well,"­Rosario Scalero, who was an Italian. My mother was at first horrified at the idea of dropping her darling Gian Carlo in an American city where she didn't know anybody, but she was a very intelligent woman, a very courageous woman. She followed the advice of Toscanini and one sad day she just dropped me in Philadelphia at Broad Street Station. I hardly knew any English at all; I spoke French and Italian but my English was very, very primitive. I didn't know anybody. She cried and I cried, and I found myself all alone in America. It was a hard beginning, and I was terrified because everything seemed to be so different from my life in Italy, and also I was alone.


During the interview we asked the com­poser to say a few words about the genesis of Amabl and tbe Night Visitors. He begged off, saying he'd told the story so many times. Couldn't we paraphrase part of one of his many earlier interviews and essays about it?

Amabl Is an effort of the composer to recapture his own childhood in Italy, where there Is no Santa Claus, but where gifts are brought by the Three Kings. In 1951 Menotti was commis­sioned by NBC to write an opera for television. He was stuck for an Idea and had a Christmas deadline. In November, while he chanced to be visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, he stopped In front of Hieronymus Bosch's painting of the Adoration of the Kings. This opened floodgates of childhood Christmas memories, and thus. was the classic work born.

Mr. Menotti did speak about recordings of Amabl:

l've been very much personally involved with this new recording of Amabl. I haven't heard the finished version yet, but I was very happy. especially because the little Amahl was marvelous; also I like the mother very much. I was very anxious to have a new recording. The old recording with Tommy Schippers conducting is, of course, very good; but it isn't even stereophonic. Then NBC, without consulting me, put out a second recording of it which, alas!, I don't like at all; and that's the one that people are still able to buy here and there. I think it"s a very bad recording. They did a film, too, and they were both very bad.

This recording I like very much; the boy has wonderful diction. And it mirrors my con­ception of Amahl now. You know, as I become older, even the tempi change very much in my operas. The way I do The Medium now .... When I see the film [made many years ago] just released of The Medium, I'm horrified at the way I used to do it. It's an interesting comment for inter­preters: their duty to the work is not only the way the work has been done before, but the way the work can grow, through the ages. I always feel it's stupid to say, "It has to be done that way because that's the way it was done in the I 8th century." A work is like a living person, it grows with the ages, it changes with the ages. I think we must perform the way we feel it now; it must not become a kind of museum piece. I change the tempo marks indicated in my original manuscripts myself; some things I take faster, some slower. There are certain things I like to be respected; for example, most conductors and most stage directors never observe silences. Silence is part of music; we learn that from Beethoven. If you put a fermata on a silence, so many people are afraid of it. They either cancel it or just take a little breath, even if I put a long silence­--they never, never do it. In Amahl I'll be in­terested eventually to compare our new ver­sion with the Schippers version--the mid­dle one I never listen to-to see what I"ve changed in the meantime. I'm sure I'll find many things.

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