Arts Review

A Tale of Two Composers


At best, an artist can find a certain kind of serenity in resigning himself to the curse of imperfection.
—Gian Carlo Menotti

 

Should opera composers write their own libretti? The advantages and disadvantages of single authorship are illustrated in the careers of two mid-twentieth-century American composers—Gian Carlo Menotti and Carlisle Floyd. The Italian-born Menotti and South Carolinian Floyd make an unlikely pair, but they share several unusual qualities. Both men wrote all of their own libretti. Both composed tonal music that ignored Modernist trends. Both achieved exceptional early success. They even shared longevity. Both men died at 95 after long, fortunate, and—this will be my subject—artistically disappointing lives.
 
Menotti had an extraordinary career that spanned seven decades. He composed twenty-five operas. For years he was the most widely performed living operatic composer in the world. He brought five of his works to Broadway for commercial runs—four hits and one flop—a record no other classical composer is likely to match. Not only did he earn two Pulitzer Prizes in music; in 1955 his opera The Saint of Bleecker Street won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best musical and the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for best opera.
 
The most famous moment in Menotti’s life, however, had come a few years earlier. On Christmas Eve, 1951, NBC broadcast the world premiere of his one-act Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, as part of Hallmark’s primetime Hall of Fame series. It was the first opera ever commissioned for American television. Broadcast live, coast to coast, on 35 NBC affiliates, it reached five million viewers, the largest audience for any opera performance in history—not only then but probably even now. A successful Met simulcast on PBS rarely reaches more than 700,000 households, even though the U.S. population has doubled since Amahl’s premiere.

 

 

Menotti’s elegant and tender opera about a crippled boy, who meets the Three Magi on their way to Bethlehem, created a national sensation. Olin Downes reviewed it on the front page of the New York Times as “always poetical and atmospheric, never obvious or banal.” The short opera, he declared, was a “historic event in the rapidly evolving art of television.” Christmas broadcasts of Amahl became annual events, but the opera’s appeal wasn’t confined to television. Conceived for the small stage of live television, the opera could easily be mounted by regional companies, colleges, and amateur groups. It soon became the most widely produced opera in the world. (Nearly two decades later in 1969, there were still 350 productions in the U.S. alone.) Menotti had been a well-known composer from the start. Amahl made the forty-year-old Italian émigré the chief figure of American opera.
 
Menotti also kept himself visible and relevant by creating two major international arts festivals—the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. The composer had both a soft Italian charm and the keen Italian passion for quarrels. He made headlines for his arguments with the management of his festivals—usually followed by his public resignation, backroom negotiations, and triumphant return. Even Menotti’s personal life seemed favored by the gods. Handsome and gregarious, he knew everyone from Arturo Toscanini to Jackie Kennedy. His lifelong partner was the composer Samuel Barber. The two had met as teenagers when Menotti came to America to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Even after Menotti ended their romantic relationship in 1970, the two men remained intimate friends. (The breakup was largely due to Barber’s depression and alcoholism aggravated by the catastrophic premiere of his Antony and Cleopatra at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House.) By the time Barber died in 1981, Menotti had relocated to Europe. He spent his final years commuting between his festivals or residing in Yester House, a Palladian manor in Scotland. Has any opera composer ever led a more active or gratifying life?
 
No one ever listed Menotti among the great composers of his time. His operas worked persuasively in performance, but his effective and efficient scores faded as one left the theater. His music lacked a strong individual profile. As most composers do, Menotti synthesized a style rather than invented one, but he handled his fabricated idiom with agility and confidence. His works have fluency, coherence, and striking economy. With the exception of The Consul, all of his best operas are short, each under an hour. Menotti’s music had a generic Italian sound rooted in the verismo composers—Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, and Ruggero Leoncavallo—to which he added touches of modern French orchestral color and lively Broadway pacing.
 
Menotti is often depicted as a musical reactionary, but it is more accurate to consider him a latecomer—the last Italian operatic composer to reach an international audience. Italian opera was still a vibrant tradition when Menotti was born in 1911. Puccini had just premiered La Fanciulla del West (1910) at the Metropolitan Opera, and his last five operas were still to come—La Rondine (1917), the three one-act works of Il Trittico (1918), which also premiered at the Met (Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi), and finally Turandot (1926). There was still international demand for new Italian operas. Italo Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re (The Love of Three Kings) opened in Milan in 1913 and moved the next year to the Met, Covent Garden, and other companies. Montemezzi soon came to America, married an heiress, and spent the rest of his life managing his career in both countries. No fan of Mussolini, he sat out World War II in a mansion in Beverly Hills, California.
 
For the young Menotti, Italian opera seemed very much alive, and its future involved the United States. The death of his father led him to America, though he never changed his Italian citizenship. When the Met mounted its first Menotti opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, in 1938, the twenty-six-year-old composer would have seen himself in a living lineage. Who would have thought that after three and a half centuries of sustained creativity and innovation, Italian opera would cease to produce new works that commanded international attention? Most of the verismo masters were still alive—Mascagni, Umberto Giordano, Montemezzi, Riccardo Zandonai, and Francesco Cilea. Menotti seemed to be the first member of a new generation. As it turned out, that generation never arrived on the international scene.
 
Critical praise for Menotti always seemed to come with some reservation—not so much for what he had done as what he had not done. His best operas were excellent but never masterpieces. Yet no one could deny his obvious achievement. For the first time since George Gershwin, an American composer had written popular opera—not just one but half a dozen. As Ned Rorem observed, “Menotti single-handedly revitalized the concept of living opera in the United States.” As it turned out, that accomplishment wasn’t enough.
 
As a composer, Menotti was consigned to the bittersweet status described by Somerset Maugham to characterize his own fiction—“in the first rank of the second rate.” Maugham’s self-deprecating remark is no insult. Although he did not count himself among the great masters, Maugham also knew his work was likely to survive. His masterfully told novels and short stories remain popular, if not particularly fashionable; the same is true for Menotti’s best operas.
 
Menotti possessed a natural gift for lyric theater with none of the awkward self-consciousness that inhibited most American composers of his era. He instinctively understood something his Modernist contemporaries had forgotten: opera is a celebration of the human voice. Much of what opera communicates does not come from the musical score but the bodies that convey it. The expressive sounds formed in the lungs, larynx, and throats of singers make a primal physical connection with the listener. The human voice transforms abstract notes into visceral emotion—not just onstage but inside the bodies of the audience. The insight was not original to Menotti; it was the central impulse of Italian opera. His achievement was to re-create the traditional magic in English in works that attracted millions of listeners.
 
How can such a career be called disappointing? It is no small thing to make the first rank of the second rate. To be only a cherub and not a seraph is still a form of immortality. Just ask the seven lower choirs of angels. Not everyone can be Mozart or Verdi. No Italian composer since Puccini accomplished more than Menotti. (And no Italian American composer has come close.) Menotti’s heyday has passed, but a few works survive in the repertory along with a handful of operas by other minor “modern” masters in the generation of Mascagni and Giordano.
 
The true problem with Menotti’s career is not his honorable secondary status but the bewildering collapse of his creative instincts at the height of his success. Despite a working life of over sixty years, Menotti wrote all of his best operas in the decade after World War II—The Medium (1946), The Telephone (1947), The Consul (1950), and Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). To the short list, one should add his most original theatrical work, The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore (1956), “a madrigal fable” for chorus, dancers, and chamber orchestra. Eighteen operas followed Amahl. None has held even a minor place in the repertory. After its remarkable start, Menotti’s work never deepened or developed.
 
Carlisle Floyd had a similar though smaller career. Born and raised in the American South, Floyd was a twenty-eight-year-old professor in Tallahassee when his first full-length opera, Susannah (1955), premiered at Florida State. Retelling the story of Susannah and the Elders from the Book of Daniel, Floyd set his libretto in rural Tennessee. His tuneful and accessible score had a folkloric quality that seemed to grow naturally out of his opera’s Appalachian setting. Direct, lyric, and theatrical, Susannah was an immediate success. His young backwoods heroine, Susannah Polk, had the compelling dramatic presence of a classic soprano role as did her nemesis, the pious but lecherous Reverend Olin Blitch. Susannah was not just a milestone for Florida State; the American South had never hosted such an operatic premiere.
 
One year later the New York City Opera staged Susannah to general acclaim. Both critics and audiences saw it as key work in a new movement of populist American opera. Two years later the New York production was brought to the Brussels World’s Fair (which also featured a Menotti world premiere). The popularity of Floyd’s debut work has never wavered.
 
Susannah arrived just as the regional opera movement gained momentum in the United States. New companies emerged in Santa Fe, Seattle, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, and other cities. Even philistine Washington, D.C., launched a fledgling company. Those large municipal institutions were only part of a larger trend. As Menotti remarked, “Now, all of a sudden, every college and every university has an opera theater. Every little city has its little group.”
 
In this new musical landscape Susannah gradually became the most frequently produced full-length American opera after Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Singers loved the roles, all so diatonic, demotic, and dramatic. There were no tone rows to memorize or angular vocal lines to navigate. All a singer had to do was to master a Tennessee accent. It is hard to attend any American vocal competition without hearing Susannah’s radiant opening aria, “Ain’t It a Pretty Night?” Sopranos learn it in school and dream of singing it on stage.

 

 

Floyd wrote ten more operas, including Wuthering Heights (1958), The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962), Markheim (1966), Of Mice and Men (1970), Willie Stark (1981), and Cold Sassy Tree (2000). None achieved lasting success, though Of Mice and Men is occasionally revived. Floyd continued to be an influential figure in American opera. The courtly Southerner flourished as a symbol of the vanishing populist tradition in classical music. He served as composer-in-residence at Houston Grand Opera, which premiered, revived, recorded, and televised his work. Floyd was an inspirational figure, especially in the South; he proved that a composer didn’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles to make a mark.
 
Menotti and Floyd helped establish the dominant mid-century style of American opera—resolutely tonal and emotionally direct music with realistic libretti depicting the struggles and obsessions of ordinary lives. The new operatic aesthetic became a conservative alternative to the progressive mainstream of American classical music that was incorporating European Modernism. The regional opera world insulated itself in a sort of parallel universe—the last refuge of big tunes and graceful vocal lines. The only acknowledgement of the Second Viennese School came when Menotti used twelve-tone music for parody.
 
The mid-century American operatic style is often called neo-Romantic, but that description is misleading. “Neo-Romantic” was the period’s code word for contemporary music that was not atonal or experimental. The mid-century style was melodic and dramatic in the traditional manner, but it was more restrained than late European Romanticism. No one would confuse Douglas Moore’s popular The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956) with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (1920). Both are tragic operas about love and obsession. Korngold’s music is rapturous and lush; the singers vacillate between emotional extremes. The Ballad of Baby Doe, which has a libretto by Broadway lyricist John Latouche, is a well-paced melodrama which could have been a major studio film. Moore’s eclectic score was an accessible mix of operatic, theatrical, and folk styles. Compared to Korngold’s feverish opera about necrophilia, Moore’s depiction of a doomed romantic triangle in a Colorado mining town feels like an operetta.
 
For the regional opera companies and their new audiences, populism was the style of choice—an American sound, classical but democratic, and not too far from Broadway. Operas continued to be written in more challenging styles, such as Hugo Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1959), Lou Harrison’s Rapunzel (1959), and Roger Sessions’ Montezuma (1964), but they had few productions. Sessions had to premiere his opera in Berlin. Until the rise of Philip Glass and the Minimalists in the 1980s, the populist school of Floyd, Menotti, and Moore held sway in America’s opera houses.
 
Despite the public success of Menotti and Floyd and their undeniable impact on American opera, a sense of artistic failure haunts their reputations. Their marginalization has little to do with their musical conservatism, though that doesn’t help. The perplexing issue is that neither composer realized his early promise nor meaningfully developed his artistic gift. For both men, their earliest operas were their best. By their early forties, both composers were stuck in a simple idiom they could neither escape nor keep vital. They received many commissions and much institutional support. Yet neither composer wrote an enduring opera in the last fifty years of his career.
 
This observation is not designed to belittle the achievements of either Menotti or Floyd. The goal has been to assess their careers accurately—for better and worse. To compose one opera that outlives its creator is a rare accomplishment. How many American operas from the first half of the twentieth century survive today? No more than half a dozen, most of which were written by Menotti. Nonetheless a half century slump is hard to ignore. What went wrong?
 
Single authorship was a challenge that both men surmounted in their early work. It gave their first operas a seamless quality. But as their careers progressed, writing their own texts undermined their creative growth. Menotti and Floyd were accomplished vocal composers but only serviceable writers. Their streamlined plots and conventional characters gave their early operas an appealing simplicity, but their words never rose to the evocative level of the music. Simplicity and sincerity are powerful artistic qualities, but they are difficult to sustain. They harden over time into a practiced and predictable manner.
 
Each composer chose a different literary strategy for his later operas. Neither approach worked well. Menotti continued to develop original plots. His works grew longer and more ambitious. The Saint of Bleecker Street, The Last Savage, Goya, and La Loca all strived for epic resonance. They were misjudgments of Menotti’s modest talent. Their larger scope had the unintended effect of amplifying their literary defects—sentimental plots, banal dialogue, and inconsequential lyrics. Floyd sought the safety of adapting established works. He wrote libretti based on Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, Cold Sassy Tree, and All the King’s Men. Adaptation requires a special literary skill, the ability to make the borrowed characters and situations seem fresh and new. Floyd’s later operas had the secondhand feeling—solid musical settings that never come fully alive in operatic terms. They leaned too heavily on their sources for effect. Worse yet, the texts lacked the poetic moments that would have inspired the memorable lyric passages that enlivened Susannah.
 
Consider the challenge of single authorship. Writing an opera is not as simple as writing a song. Operas are long and complicated. One must compose hours of music for multiple voices and orchestra. The text must create distinctive characters and arresting dramatic events, all conveyed with compression, lyricality, and coherence. To manage this feat once or twice is remarkable. In the history of opera, only one composer, Richard Wagner, sustained a major career writing all of his own words and music.
 
Wagner could spend years laboring over a “poem,” which is how he referred to a libretto. He knew that the music had to grow organically from its lines. His writing and music evolved together. The slow and expansive pace of Wagner’s late operas, which allowed the composer to enthrall the listener and build to overpowering climaxes, would have been impossible without verse designed to support the music’s cumulative effect.
 
To read Wagner’s libretti in chronological order is to see the continuous development of a great writer. Although rarely viewed from a purely literary perspective, Wagner was Germany’s major poetic dramatist of the nineteenth century. Among librettists, only Pietro Metastasio and Hugo von Hofmannsthal show comparable artistic range and growth, but neither wrote music. Wagner’s achievement is incomparable. He created a series of operatic masterpieces, each with its own musical and dramatic personalities, culminating in his four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen (1869–1876), which ranks with Goethe’s two-part Faust as the greatest works of German drama. There are many examples of how an exceptional libretto can inspire a composer to create a single work of exceptional quality. Wagner’s career demonstrates how treating every libretto as seriously as the music escalates a composer’s artistic growth.
 
In comparison with Wagner’s dynamism, Menotti’s and Floyd’s careers seem obstructed. By early middle age—the point at which most artists reach their prime—they were trapped in their own creative procedures. Their operatic styles had never been particularly original, but now their approach had lost its freshness. They prized creative control; but writing their own libretti divided their energy without stimulating their creativity. Neither composer could craft words or characters that surprised them. An opera can’t go anywhere its libretto doesn’t suggest.
 
“Great genius takes shape,” Heinrich Heine wrote, “by contact with another great genius, but less by assimilation than by friction.” The history of musical theater demonstrates how often the arrival of a new librettist, such as Lorenzo Da Ponte, Arrigo Boito, Hofmannsthal, or Oscar Hammerstein II, transformed and elevated a composer’s work. Neither Floyd nor Menotti ever had another strong imagination to lead or provoke them into new territory. They wrote the texts they already knew how to set, and their professional stature made them secure that there was always someone eager to stage them. (In Menotti’s case, he staged his own works at his festivals.) One wonders if their creative torpor couldn’t have been solved with a simple action—hiring a poet or playwright as librettist.
 
My thesis is speculative and therefore unprovable. There are other possible explanations for their decline. Perhaps neither composer had the inner drive to realize his full talent. Perhaps their populist aesthetic left them too little room to grow. Maybe they were too distracted by other events—personal or professional. Menotti’s festivals occupied much of his time and energy. Maybe all of these things are true.
 
Nonetheless the refusal of these composers to give up single authorship and seek collaborators seems a compelling diagnosis. It fits the facts and addresses the central problem in these composers’ careers. There are many ways in which promising young artists go wrong. Creativity at the highest level is hard to achieve and harder to sustain and enlarge. Sometimes even a genius needs help.