This year’s Spoleto Festival USA production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium is the first staging of a Menotti opera at the festival since 1993, his final year as festival director. 2011 marks the centenary of his birth, and with this production, Spoleto audiences may be invited not only to revisit a classic work that appeared in the festival in 1979 but also to re-examine Menotti’s place in contemporary opera.

Spoleto USA, along with the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, has kept Menotti’s operas continuously before the public, at least as long as Menotti himself was involved with programming. As the opera scholar Judith Wilbanks notes in her study of Menotti’s role in the festival, he appeared to consider Spoleto USA a “forum for his music,” such that in nearly “every year he was with the festival, at least one of his works was scheduled.”

A quick overview of Menotti operas performed during his years in Charleston illustrates how closely operatic productions reflected his direction: The Consul (1977), Martin’s Lie and The Egg, both one-act operas (1978), The Medium (1979), Chip and His Dog (1980), The Last Savage (1981), Juana, La Loca (1984), The Saint of Bleecker Street (1986), Maria Golovin (1991), and The Singing Child (1993), the last the lone premiere among these performances. Menotti also programmed his instrumental music and works in other media, such as his “madrigal ballet,” The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore (1983).

In his remarks in the official souvenir program from the inaugural 1977 season, Menotti promised that Spoleto USA would “not be like most festivals — little more than glorified or popularized winter seasons — but a unique and fertile ground for the young with new ideas and a dignified home for the masters.” The 2011 season reflects this initial ambition: Alongside the production of The Medium will be the American premiere of Émilie, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and a staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

After his death in Monte Carlo at the age of 95 in 2007, Menotti’s status in the operatic world is perhaps no more certain than it was during the last several decades of his life. Do Menotti’s works now count among those of a master? Have they found a home in the operatic repertory? In his Opera News obituary, Menotti was hailed as the “20th century’s most prolific opera composer.” Currently, it seems that only Amahl and the Night Visitors has achieved a firm footing in the repertory, having been performed (according to recent estimates) more than 2,500 times since its stage premiere in 1952. Opera America lists Amahl as the most often performed North American opera. The Medium and The Consul have appeared in revivals with sufficient frequency, perhaps, to count as repertory works.

Menotti’s career was marked by critical ambivalence and a striking divide between early critical and commercial success and gradually diminishing visibility on the international stage, beginning in the 1960s. The Medium achieved prominence after being mounted on Broadway with The Telephone in 1947. Menotti’s success on Broadway continued with The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954). Among his numerous awards were two Pulitzer prizes (for The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street), two Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, and the Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of lifetime achievement (1984). In the last years of his life he was given enthusiastic ovations at performances of Goya (Vienna, KlangBogen Festival, 2004) and Maria Golovin (Opéra de Marseille, 2006).

Despite his early successes, critics sounded notes of dissent. The most common criticisms were those leveled against Menotti’s conservative harmonic language, derivative musical style, and melodramatic subjects. Joseph Kerman famously lambasted the composer in the 1956 edition of his widely read Opera as Drama. Indeed, Kerman’s comments were so caustic that he later retracted them in the 1988 edition of the book. In 1959, Meredith Lillich argued that Menotti “seldom strays far from the original tonality, using modern dissonance as a superficial icing on his traditional cake; Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, now 30 years old, moved operatic writing miles beyond any point Menotti is likely to reach in his lifetime.”

Harold C. Schonberg, writing a sharp critique of the Met premiere of The Last Savage, asked, “How can one write about a modern theme when one’s language is of the 19th century?” More recently, in 2001, Michael White surveyed the composer’s legacy in the New York Times and posed a question that remains open, then going on to offer a more positive judgment that reflects critical consensus: “Whether music history will dismiss him as a minor figure who got lucky in the 1950s remains to be seen. But his career as a one-man theater industry — composer, director, librettist, impresario and administrator — has been extraordinary.”

Menotti’s compositional style can be traced to the tradition of Italian verismo opera. It is melody-driven and, whether for good or ill, conservative in its treatment of harmony. It is tonal, if often chromatically intensified, and occasionally Menotti dabbled with serialism and electronic media for satirical effect. Although he viewed Mussorgsky and Debussy as his most important precursors, he is more often viewed as a successor to Puccini. The influence is detectable in at least two respects: musical style and subject matter. In addition to lyrical melodies and tonal orientation, his operas often achieve a Puccini-like musical continuity through a dramatically flexible recitative.

As far as subject matter, Menotti had a clear preference for plots, characters, and particularly settings drawn from everyday life. This everyday world is often disrupted with violence and intimations or manifestations of the otherworldly: the deaths of the baby and grandmother and Magda’s suicide in The Consul; the ghostly, cold hand Madame Flora senses on her throat in The Medium; Annina’s stigmata and mystical visions in The Saint of Bleecker Street; and the invasion of the aliens in the children’s opera Help, Help, the Globolinks! The plots and situations of the operas are often melodramatic — Puccini’s Tosca, with its sordid mix of sexual desire, power struggle, and violence, seems an inescapable reference point.

The charge of musical conservatism, however, is perhaps less incisive at the present time. When Menotti felt compelled to offer a defense of his music before the premiere of The Last Savage in 1964, he invoked the “nobility of gracefulness and the pleasure of sweetness” as his ideals, and he rejected what he called the “fashionable dissonance” of musical modernism. In the critical climate of the 1960s, with the dominance of serialism and the musical avant-garde, Menotti’s style was bound to seem regressive. Today, in a more pluralistic (or even “post-modern”) climate, the idea of a single line of stylistic development or progress has lost its hold in many quarters. Several recent American operas, such as Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000), share with Menotti’s works of the 1950s a concern with realism and a more conservative harmonic language than that of “modernist” tendencies of the 1950s and ’60s. These works might prompt a reconsideration of the relevance of Menotti’s harmonic language and choice of subject matter. Realism and the cross-fertilization between “opera” and “theater” are characteristic of certain strands of recent operatic production, including Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Menotti’s legacy might be more assured when it comes to his innovative use of media for operatic production. In 1939, he produced the first radio opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, and in 1951, the first opera commissioned for television (Amahl and the Night Visitors). He directed a film version of The Medium, which many critics continue to view as one of the outstanding examples of the genre. In the ’40s and ’50s, Menotti virtually invented the form of chamber opera, writing for smaller ensembles and lending his operas a flexibility and accessibility, ensuring that certain works lived long after their premieres.

Contemporary directors and audiences seem interested in evaluating Menotti’s place in the canon. Santa Fe Opera is mounting a production of The Last Savage this summer, an opera that was reviewed in harsh terms at its Paris premiere in 1963 and the U.S. premiere at the Met in 1964. Conducting the Spoleto USA production of The Medium will be Joseph Flummerfelt, who has a longstanding and close association with Menotti’s music. The Medium was the first opera Flummerfelt conducted as undergraduate director of the opera workshop at DePauw University in 1956. For him, Menotti counts as a major “theatrical genius,” both as a composer and director. Flummerfelt believes that with this new production, honoring the founder of the festival in the centennial year of his birth, the time may have come to rediscover the “masterpieces” Menotti produced in the 1940s and ’50s.

If this is now the right time to re-evaluate Menotti’s legacy and place in operatic history — perhaps even to judge his contemporary relevance — there could be no better way than to experience The Medium, a work Flummerfelt describes as “powerfully dramatic and artfully constructed,” in the festival which stands as perhaps Menotti’s most significant contribution to American musical life.

Blake Stevens is assistant professor of music history at the College of Charleston.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.