Spoleto will honor Menotti's spirit

If ever a life testified to the power of art, Gian Carlo Menotti's did.

He wrote his first opera as an 11-year-old in Italy, and he was still at work in his 90s. In between, he composed copious amounts, most famously operas - such as his Christmas classic "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a hymn to the healing power of generosity.

When he wasn't composing, he founded arts festivals that transformed two towns: Spoleto, Italy, and Charleston.

It's only been four years since Menotti's death. Yet the 100th anniversary of his birth falls soon after this year's Spoleto Festival USA.

Even though Menotti and the festival split in 1993, Spoleto - offering its own lesson about generosity - will celebrate his memory. The festival, which opens May 27, will unveil a new staging of "The Medium," Menotti's thriller about a fake psychic who loses control of her scam.

The designer and director of the production, John Pascoe, is returning to an opera he designed for a staging Menotti was to direct in 2007 in Monaco. But Menotti took ill.

"We opened the production in the Monte Carlo opera house on Friday, then the next morning had the funeral service in the cathedral," Pascoe recalls. "It was incredibly moving."

After all, "The Medium" focuses on grieving families who hope the central character can contact deceased loved ones. As the scam artist loses her grip on the scheme, she tries to reassure herself by crying: "The dead never come back!"

For the people mourning Menotti, Pascoe says, that had "immediate resonance."

"The dead never come back, but any composer lives in his music," Pascoe says. "It's the same as Mozart or Puccini. They do come back continuously, because their music lives as long as the public appreciates it." And in Menotti's case, "the public has always loved his work."

'Help people along'

Pascoe once asked Menotti why he started his festivals.

"He said, 'I've seen so many young artists who needed work and weren't getting it, and who were so brilliant. I love seeing people shine. It makes sense of life for us to... help people along on their way.'"

Menotti's career took off without much help.

While he studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in the 1930s, his opera "Amelia Goes to the Ball" attracted notice far beyond the school. When he was in his 20s, NBC commissioned him to write an opera for its radio network. In his 30s, "The Medium" had a six-month run on Broadway. NBC called again and commissioned "Amahl," which premiered on TV in 1951.

His successes continued. To understand his strengths, look at "The Medium."

Its story touches on powerful emotions and urges. The music is rooted enough in tradition to include a catchy waltz in a lighter moment, but the music erupts as the medium falls prey to her obsessions. All of this is concentrated into roughly an hour.

Regardless of his success and honors, Menotti had detractors. Some thought his music was too backward-looking. He shrugged off the criticism.

"A bad review may spoil my breakfast," he quipped, "but never my lunch."

Centuries-old towns

All along, Menotti had more than music on his mind. He always wrote his own librettos, and he eventually took charge of his opera's stagings. His interests extended to literature and plays written by others, too. He combined his passions in 1958, when he established a festival celebrating all the arts - music, theater, dance, visual arts - in Spoleto, Italy.

Spoleto, a picturesque hill town dating to the Middle Ages, was a vital part of the festival's appeal. Arts lovers flocked there each summer. In 1977, after his assistants scouted locations for a U.S. branch, Menotti brought the recipe to another town with antique charm.

Charleston of the 1970s wasn't the prosperous tourist magnet we see today. Like many inner cities, the old town was "in a period of ebbing tide," recalls Mayor Joseph Riley, who has held office since 1975. The sidewalks were mostly empty. The King Street shopping area was "frayed around the edges." Tourism was meager.

Then came the first festival.

"All of a sudden, you saw the city much more alive with people," Riley says. The festival - and with it the city - received international press coverage. That set off the growth of year-round tourism business. The city flourished around it.

"Now, Charleston is more beautiful than any time in its history," Riley says. "Spoleto helped that happen."

Menotti himself helped attract the spotlight.

"Very consciously, he lent his celebrity," says Nigel Redden, the festival's general director, who started the first of two stints in 1986. Menotti added a second quality that he could switch on at will:

"When... I saw him being charming to someone, he was amazing," Redden says. Menotti could bewitch people with stories about famous colleagues and friends, from Leonard Bernstein to Doris Duke.

To "Medium" director Pascoe, who saw Menotti in both his public and behind-the-scene roles, "He was an incredible courtier.

"He knew how to placate or to charm when he wanted to, as well as being absolutely hideous when he wanted to. He was terrifying sometimes."

A monument to Menotti

The combative Menotti emerged in Charleston in the early 1990s.

Part of the festival's board thought he was profligate with money; Menotti thought they were interfering. A second issue: Menotti wanted his son, Francis Menotti, to take over eventually as the festival's chief, but the festival balked. Menotti relished airing his criticisms in public.

In 1993, he left. Redden, whom Menotti had ousted during the disputes, was brought back. Yet even in the wake of the breakup, Redden thinks the Charleston festival is a monument to Menotti.

"What Gian Carlo imagined was brilliant," Redden says. The fact that the festival is still here, long after its founder left town, "is a tribute to the richness of the concept he left us."