Opera in the Heights opens its double bill of Menotti's The Telephone and The Medium this weekend, with shows Fri 10/30, Sun 11/1, Thur 11/5, and Sat 11/7. It has been a joy to prepare, and I am extraordinarily proud of the product. Since I cannot quite contain my excitement for opening night, I am posting my program note here:
In a 1947 radio interview, Gian Carlo Menotti described the then-current state of opera by quoting Nöel Coward: "People are wrong when they say that the opera isn't what it used to be. It is what it used to be — that's what's wrong with it!" Menotti then went on in his own words, "People don't realize that opera is theatre. It must be live theatre. Just as the plays change with the passing centuries, so should opera." He made his point, in part to reject the notion that opera had become a museum piece in his time, and also to explain his practice of writing his own libretti. "In writing The Telephone and The Medium, I purposely set the action in modern times, and I chose two subjects that I certainly don't think have ever been used before in opera."
His assertion is a fair one, and these works were undoubtedly progressive. His musical language, with its frequent meter changes and free use of dissonances, might also be considered modern, though only to a limited extent. Opera professionals today celebrate Menotti's ability to wed 20th century techniques with a melody-driven aesthetic that draws a great deal from 19th century Italian lyricism. In The Telephone, Lucy's most impassioned phone conversations deliberately recall Donizetti, and the influence of Puccini, however distorted through modern devices, can be heard everywhere in The Medium. His approach to words and music eventually earned him two Pulitzer Prizes (the first composer ever to do so), as well as the distinction of having authored the most performed opera in the United States (Amahl and the Night Visitors).
In The Telephone and The Medium, Menotti charted a way forward for opera, one in which composers and interpreters tackle contemporary subject matter while continuing to engage with the past. Menotti's artistic vision and craft were such that nearly seventy years after their successful premiere as a double bill in 1947, The Telephone is perhaps more relevant than ever, and The Medium continues to transport, shock, and haunt audiences today.
As a double bill they are somewhat of an odd couple, one light and silly, the other dark and tragic. They are polar opposites, and yet they are linked. In some sense, The Telephone is about noise, and The Medium is about silence. In the former, Lucy's incessant chatter will not allow Ben to ask his very important question, and in the latter, Toby, who cannot speak at all, ultimately speaks volumes. Together, they act as a study in mankind's need to be heard, our desire to communicate against all odds.
I will close with another quote by Menotti and a personal note. Projected on the walls of Casa Menotti in Spoleto, the composer's summer home and now a museum dedicated to the composer's life and work, are the words, "Sono convinto che l'arte debba essere un atto d'amore," or "I am convinced that art must be an act of love." These words perfectly encapsulate the joyful experience I have had working with the wonderful Lynda McKnight, the extraordinary design team, cast, crew, and the OH Orchestra.
I can also think of no one else who has embodied Menotti's sentiment more than Keturah Stickann Grünblatt and her husband and collaborator, the late Jeremiah Grünblatt. Their miraculous work on last season's La Clemenza di Tito was an act of love that the Opera in the Heights family will never forget. It is in Jeremiah's memory and with hopes and wishes for healing that we dedicate these performances.