Gian Carlo Menotti
Part 1: In Scotland and Italy

Gian Carlo Menotti

"Menotti is by far the greatest of the living composers, and certainly one of the major composers of the 20th century, recognising that Stravinsky and Prokofiev both worked in the 20th century."
    Nick Rossi, Gramophone magazine

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 Medium and The Telephone on Broadway. This was the first time serious opera had been performed on the street dedicated to "show business". They played to full houses, every night for a year - a phenomenon which Menotti alleges, annoyed Stravinsky greatly.

Fifty years on these popular operas, together with The Consul, and the children`s Christmas favourite, Amahl and the Night Visitors, are regularly featured in the opera house repertoire across the United States and more recently in selected European theatres from Paris to Bonn. American, French, Italian and German commentators do regard his music and theatrical vision as an outstanding achievement and class Menotti as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

However it is a curious predicament that his music remains extremely unfashionable across the UK, even in Scotland which has been his adopted home for over twenty five years.

Now as he approaches his 90th birthday, it is a timely occasion to re-assess and evaluate his diverse contribution to opera, dance, music and the arts as well as his role as an important entrepreneur in the nurturing of young musical talent in Scotland and in Italy.

Seventh Son
Corpo Dance Gian Carlo Menotti was born on 7th July 1911 in Cadegliano, Italy, the seventh of seven sons. He came from a non-musical family but was quickly recognised as a boy with unique talent. His childhood influences came from puppet shows, and exotic Indian folk tales. Following study at Milan conservatoire on the advice of Arturo Toscanini he left for the United States in 1928 to study music at the Curtis Institute. His opera Amelia Goes to the Ball was given its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1937 and soon America became his second home after forming a close professional alliance and personal friendship with Samuel Barber.

After his Broadway success, Menotti had made a small fortune and decided he wanted to put something creative and cultural back into his native country. In 1957 Spoleto in Umbria, was an impoverished yet picturesque, medieval, town of narrow, steep cobbled streets, a magnificent Duomo, two enchanting but disused opera houses and a Roman amphitheatre. Years before, J. M . W. Turner had come here to paint his favourite view of the Roman aqueduct over the Tiber River. It doesn't take too much imagination to sense some of the same magic and tranquillity which has inspired so many artists, poets, and musicians over the centuries.

Laird of Yester House

"Italy is my unicorn, America my gorgon, and Scotland my manticore."
For over twenty five years Menotti has lived with his adopted son, Francis with his wife and family just outside Edinburgh in a Robert Adam mansion, where he enjoys relaxing in the `peace and damp tranquillity` of the Scottish Border countryside.

And the obvious question is why Scotland - far away from the warm Italian sunshine?

"I was living just outside New York for many years but around 1970 I began to look around Europe to find somewhere peaceful to live. I looked in Italy and in France. Francis and I had been to Scotland many times and on our return we came across this lovely village called Gifford in East Lothian. I fell in love with Gifford and some time later we came back to see if there were any properties for sale. I found a photograph of Yester House, but it wasn't for sale. It was owned by two interior designers and I asked to meet them. They said they were not thinking of selling but would be pleased to invite me to lunch. So we arrived and, rather embarrassed, I simply asked, "I want to buy your house". They said they would not sell but would I be interested in renting? No I said, I really want to buy it. And I did!

It took another two years but the owners finally decided to sell. I had no money and bought it on a ten year loan and the Bank of Scotland were really marvellous because they always made sure the payments were on time."

"It was a form of madness I suppose" he concedes. "But having had to live beyond my means keeps me working."

The beautiful Palladian manor house in the heart of the softly rolling, with pink-tinted Lammermuir hills, at sunset, is the perfect, peaceful setting for the Maestro to compose, and carefully plan the next Spoleto Festival. He finds Italy too hot and prefers the rain and snow as a more conducive environment in which to work. Yester protects him, he says, from the world of modern cities, "the plastic paradise".

Corpo Dance Here he is surrounded by the memorabilia of this long and successful musical career. Memories of former acquaintances and collaborations cover the walls - a signed photograph by Toscanini, framed letters from Puccini, stage designs of his opera productions.

Locally the villagers are rightly "chuffed" to have a famous composer in their midst and he is very much a part of the community. He is informally and affectionately known as "Mr. McNotty", the Laird of Yester House. There is a story that when a local shop owner won a considerable amount on the Lottery, a certain gift was given to the Maestro as part of vital funding for his various musical projects.

Most importantly, Menotti has had a long term dream to create a music school within the disused stables at his home. He has been fundraising for many years, with the aim to create a world class centre for opera and drama students. He wishes to attract young talented stars of the future; the school would be for all the arts, to prepare young artists working with important teachers. If they were good they would have a debut in Scotland followed by an international debut in Spoleto. The estimated cost to refurbish the 19th century stables, into a theatre and school, to be designed by Quinlan Terry, is 7.5 million.

It is a project which has attracted great support, not least from the Prince of Wales.

"One person who has encouraged is the Prince of Wales. He sent me a personal cheque. Unfortunately my vision does not seem to be working. The project was initially very well received and was all ready to go. People were more interested in supporting the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh."

Knowing the determination of the Maestro, he will keep pursuing his dream. Whether it is his own compositions, the Spoleto festival, the purchase of Yester House or his music school, the man has ambition.

People come to Yester to see my plans and say, "Why do you have to do everything so extravagantly.?" "Well, I reply, if you are going to travel on the Titanic, you might as well go First Class!"

Menotti may have a childlike naivety in his belief that he can achieve so much. But this is surely not a negative failing. He is a sincere and sensitive man, with a true vision of perfection and aestheticism.

"I would still love my music school in Scotland" he tells me, "so if you know of any millionaires who would like to help me, send them to me and I will embrace them immediately!"

Gian Carlo Menotti passed away in a hospital in Monte Carlo on 1 February 2007 at the age of 95.

Next page > Spoleto and the Festival > Page 1, 2.

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