Total Pageviews

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why Menotti Operas Are Flawed

I'm coaching The Telephone right now. It's an awful piece, for so many reasons.
But not as awful as, say The Medium or Saint of Bleeker Street.

Yeah, you read that right. I'm stating my opinion about something.

Opinions are hard to come by nowadays. So many people try to bend over backwards to see both sides of an argument, or an issue, that they become literally mediocre in their opinions. What happened to old-fashioned opinionated people?

My opinion on Menotti does not stem from ignorance. I've done lots of his operas, lots of times. My undergraduate studies were filled with full productions of Amahl, The Telephone, The Medium, and The Consul as well as scenes from everything from Help! Help! the Globolinks! to The Old Maid and The Thief. We loved Menotti, we also loved Mozart and Britten. Those were the three operatic temples there. I grew out of loving Menotti and so should you.

Menotti really didn't write for opera houses. He wrote for outside of the opera house. Television operas: Amahl (okay, I do LOVE Amahl. It's, in many ways, a perfect opera) and Labyrinth (which does have a cool aria in it); Radio opera: The Old Maid and the Thief; and Broadway stages: The Consul, The Medium, The Telephone. The few he did write for the opera house are rather dull: Amelia, Bleeker, Goya. I give him credit for trying to push the limits of Broadway. Sadly his influence wasn't staying. I think Broadway didn't want his over-sentimentalized stories or his oddly-colored harmonic world. I'm sure many Broadway audiences were confused by his music after hearing years of Noel and Cole.

It's not really his music that bothers me. Although musically the scores are pretty dismal and certainly written at the piano (they fit my hands really well, so I do like playing them), the incessant play of tonality with dissonances overlaid like spice in a generic pasta dish that would do better with actual tasty ingredients in it, just becomes tiring after a few decades. What really gets under my skin are the two-dimensional characters (some are even one-dimensional) spitting out text that is maudlin at best and disconnected from humanity at worst.

The young love Menotti. That's for certain. Young directors especially. I think the melodramatic leanings of Menotti's libretti are certainly one of the reasons why the young think that Menotti is "theatrical", "intense", and "moving".

Examples to back up such awful thoughts about a cherished composers' works?

Here goes:

1) The "Horizons" ensemble that ends The Consul. Sheer and total rubbish. Can you believe they gave the Pulitzer to a piece that ends so horribly?

2) The Telephone's terrible, slightly misogynistic look at a woman obsessed with her telephone back in the 1950s. It's not an uncanny pre-cursor op-ed on why social media is disconnecting all of us from each other. It's an un-funny look at a woman who lies, chatters about without any thoughts in her head, and then is asked for her hand in marriage by a loser named Ben.

3) The Medium's Toby. I just can't even begin... The best thing about The Medium is the chord that gets played when Baba turns out the light over the table. Love that chord. But "Black Swan" or "Monica's Waltz" are two of the most hated audition arias for a reason folks.

4) The libretto to Old Maid and the Thief. "Steal my lips, steal my heart, steal my cheeks, steal, oh steal my breath." And then there's the liquor store scene...

5) The Consul's dead baby moment.

6) Magda sticking her head in the oven moment.

7) Endless use of same harmonies. If you've heard one Menotti opera, you've heard them all. Same should be said for Poulenc, but it isn't. Why is Poulenc so revered? Killing a bunch of nuns to the best music written for the operatic stage should not mean that he is untouchable. Poulenc should be taken to task for simply copying himself in his operas La Voix, Carmelites, and Mamelles. It's fantastic music that he copies, for sure. And it's in French, so it somehow seems more cultured...

8) Menotti's music was written at the piano, it just had to be. Someone tell me otherwise. Good composers don't do that. It's called a table, and the music's supposed to be in your head, not discovered via a keyboard.

9) He wrote his own libretti, and I think some of them have good parts. His best libretto was Vanessa, which was Sam's great opera. Perhaps Sam should have offered a bit more advice from time to time?

10) While most of Menotti's music is really simplistic, he'll put in a measure or two of ridiculousness that comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere. It happens throughout The Medium. Just random awkwardness, musically speaking.

Now, what I haven't said are good things about Menotti. Here goes:

1) His operas are nicely written for the voice. Most young singers can sing them.

2) Amahl has some incredibly emotionally satisfying moments -- from the Mother's aria to the "Oh woman you may keep the gold" to Amahl's miracle. It's a great opera, especially cause it is so short!

3) The Consul has a couple of great moments - the trio in act one, the Magician's scene, and of course "Papers, papers, papers". The role of the Secretary is one of the best roles written in the 20th century and then Menotti doesn't even really give her an aria...

4) Saint of Bleeker Street has some intensely dramatic moments for solo voice that pack a good punch if you have good singers.

5) Domingo sang some of Goya really well.

6) The Old Maid and the Thief is the first time a barihunk role was created. Sadly, it was on radio so no one could see the "beautiful torso" that Bob, the baritone, revealed. Nowadays one needs a beautiful torso to not just sing Bob, but any baritone role it seems from Giovanni to Marcello (and boy it's cold in that garrett...)

7) Most of his operas are short, so you suffer little. But I'd swear Monica's waltz is longer than the actual opera it is in.

8) His one acts come in handy when you're trying to pair that masterpiece Gianni Schicchi with something other than Suor Angelica.

9) His operas are cheap to produce, again this is handy for young companies and young directors.

10) It's fun to change the texts to his operas. There is a whole opera re-written to "Amahl and the Night Visitors" that I can sing for you.

Next up: Bach?


  1. Hey! No such thing as bad press! If you're in Montreal, give us a chance to prove Patrick wrong. Come out and see a group of fantastic singers, an even better director, conductor (and an orchestra!) put on a superb, intimate production of MENOTTI'S The Medium in an unconventional art gallery/home venue. In this production you will see a moving Monica's Watlz, a disturbed and frightening portrayal of a very humanized Baba, and best yet, a phenomenal Toby, who is, in fact, quite multi-dimensional, and is literally never spitting out "maudlin text"...because he's mute...get it?! You know you want to see if you agree with Patrick's blog or not. Let this show be the chance to let you make that decision, I agree with Patrick. FORM YOUR OWN OPINION!

  2. More info for Menotti's The Medium can be found on facebook at:

    Or online at:

  3. I'd like to point out that many great writer's have their own extremely different approach at bringing music into their works. Menotti just so happened to create his pieces, by planning them out on the piano first. There is nothing wrong with that. It's like saying Albert Einstein created his theory of relativity all wrong, compared to the approach of a physicist like Max Planck. The way someone think's is a section of science that can not be proven wrong or right. There is no formula for correct musicality, or idea formation. So what I would like to know is how someone could say Menotti's process of musicality was not acceptable.