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MUSIC & DANCE : Menotti at Twilight : The Pulitzer-winning composer and founder of Spoleto Festival U.S.A. looks back on his six-decade career and ponders the future

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The personality of Gian Carlo Menotti does not translate well to the printed page. In the transcript of an interview, the composer, director and founder of the Spoleto Festivals in Italy and Charleston, S.C., may seem sullen and embittered.

Yet such is not the impression he leaves during a personal encounter. Menotti, now in his 80th year but looking at least a decade younger, is charming and full of energy, and he laughs easily and often. If his thoughts are pessimistic--and many of them are--they are inevitably uttered with an urbane wit, a serene resignation. One suspects that he has much in common with the gentleman who told Samuel Johnson that he had intended to become a philosopher but “cheerfulness was always breaking in.”

One recent afternoon, Menotti was in an expansive mood as he looked back over six decades devoted to the art of music.

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On Thursday, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. will begin its 15th season. In honor of Menotti, there will be a new production of his “Maria Golovin,” an opera that received its premiere at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.

Other highlights will include stagings of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” and Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea”; “The Mysteries, and What’s So Funny,” a collaborative effort by choreographer David Gordon, composer Philip Glass and visual artist Red Grooms (see accompanying story) ; the premieres of compositions by John Cage and Robert Starer; new dance works by Elizabeth Streb Ringside and Blondell Cummings; a production of the late Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit,” and a visit from the Circus Flora.

Although Menotti is described in the Spoleto literature as the festival’s “founder, artistic director, impresario, composer, librettist, stage director, chief spokesman, host, symbol, guru and star,” his relations with the organization are now strained. “We’ll see how it goes this year,” he said. “If I cannot have my freedom, it will be time for me to leave.”

Menotti resigned as artistic director in October and returned in December only when the board gave him unchallenged artistic control. At issue was an exhibit of conceptual art planned for this summer. Nigel Redden, the festival’s general manager, backed the exhibit; Menotti opposed it. The conflict exploded into the press.

“I feel the general manager and the board of directors have sided against me, and I will not accept that,” he told a reporter. “I’ve told them my ideas about the festival, and I expect them to share them. If they don’t, they can find somebody else. I think what has to happen is that the general manager must either resign or change his attitude.”

Redden did not resign, and it is unclear whether the conflict has in fact been resolved. “Beware of general managers,” Menotti said over lunch. “Beware of boards of directors. They are ruining the arts. They all want us to thank them for everything. I want them to thank the artists. See that woman over there? Her print dress would not exist if there had never been a Raoul Dufy. And any time you hum the Toreador Song, you should thank Georges Bizet.”

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Menotti is similarly opinionated about programming at Spoleto. Though every festival has had jazz, he has been criticized for his reluctance to embrace the music. He acknowledges that his position is controversial, particularly in a town that has such a rich heritage. “I have nothing at all against jazz,” he said. “Jazz is marvelous, but this festival is not about popular music. Jazz festivals don’t play Beethoven and Brahms, so why should we play jazz? The Salzburg Festival does not present ‘The Merry Widow,’ so why should we play popular music? It would change the focus of our festival.

“Still, I never wanted the festival to mirror my own tastes. I can’t possibly see everything, but I want to choose the people who choose the people. And I will accept anything that is honest art. For example, I hate the music of Pierre Boulez. I hate his books, I hate his philosophies, everything about him. But it is honest art. It is serious music. He is a very serious man.

“I must say that I am very disappointed in many young composers,” Menotti said. “It is all very well and good to talk about the return of ‘emotion’ to music, but music is more than just emotion. It is craft. It is style. It is a personal voice.”

Asked about “Hydrogen Jukebox,” a collaboration of Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg that has just been presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music but received its premiere at the Spoleto Festival last summer (and is coming to UCLA on Nov. 21-23), Menotti declined to comment. “I will not tell you what I thought of it.”

(A person close to Glass, who attended every performance, insists that to the best of his knowledge Menotti never saw the work.)

“Great art must have what I call an inevitability ,” he said. “I am a neo-Platonist, I suppose. I believe there is a Platonic ideal of beauty, and artists are given a fleeting vision of that beauty. The rest is a process of remembering. You try to catch the beauty you’ve seen, and it is a torture, because you can never quite do it. Why should an artist spend three days working on a single measure when nobody will really notice, nobody will really care?”

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When asked which of his own works approach that “Platonic” ideal of beauty, Menotti--who won Pulitzers for “The Consul” (1950) and “The Saint of Bleecker Street” (1955)--broke into laughter and said, “None of them!”

“But there are some works of mine that I can listen to without fidgeting--my double bass concerto, ‘The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore,’ my violin concerto, most of ‘The Saint of Bleecker Street.’ I like most of my piano concerto, but the last movement is weak.

“I’ll tell you a perfect opera--Puccini’s ‘La Boheme.’ Every opera composer is faced with the difficulty of telling a story in music, establishing character, moving the action along, and Puccini mastered it completely in ‘La Boheme.’ Melodic invention straight through, arias that are not arias but actual speech set to the perfect music. It is his great work, and he never managed it again.”

Menotti believes that artistic standards have fallen across the board. “I see these fantastic reviews of new books, and then I read them and they are just disgusting. And these modern productions of the great operas--Peter Sellars! I read a letter to the editor of one newspaper saying that his version of ‘Don Giovanni’ was all very exciting but it was too bad that he had to use such old-fashioned music.

“I have so much left to do,” Menotti said, a wistful smile on his face. “And I don’t have much time left. Death is looking over my shoulder every day, and I’m not afraid of him. We’re very good friends by now. And my door is open, but I hope he doesn’t come in just yet.”

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