Gian-Carlo Menotti, it’s true, was born into a wealthy and privileged Italian family and was taken, by his mother, at the age of 17, to study music at the Julliard School in New York.
But he was also a man with a keen passion for justice. He wanted his art to be popular and for his dramatic work, in particular, to be accessible to people. He wrote the first TV opera. He wrote a lot for children. He called The Consul a ‘Musical Drama’. It was on Broadway for six months. It won a Pulitzer Prize. There was a TV version in 1950 and when the show travelled that same year Laurence Olivier brought it straight into the West End.
It’s also telling that when people criticised Menotti for not choosing the ‘best’ singers or not working with the great ‘stars’ he always replied we was looking for performers with heart and passion, who understood what they were singing about and what he meant with his words, his stories and his music. Beautiful but empty singing wasn’t for him.
Nor is it surprising to learn that The Consul was based very powerfully on Menotti’s own experience. After the Second World War he was returning to the US and at immigration found himself helping an elderly Italian women whose documents were incorrect, who spoke no English and was being refused entry to the county. At the very moment when Europe was awash with stateless people and war refugees the great democracies were closing their borders and erecting their barriers – much as they are today with their walls and security fences, databases and iris scans.
Menotti tried to help the woman, staying as her translator, but after many hours he was forced to leave. And never found out what finally happened. But the experience haunted him and he put her story right at the heart of The Consul, his most famous opera. A woman, a deserving woman, who through no fault of her own, has been excluded and abandoned.
A story, tragically, that has not gone out of fashion.