The Other Spoleto 

What drew composer Gian Carlo Menotti to a forgotten, hillside town in Italy?

A dot on the map to some, since 1958 Spoleto, Italy has hosted the overseas companion to Spoleto Festival USA

Jon Santiago

A dot on the map to some, since 1958 Spoleto, Italy has hosted the overseas companion to Spoleto Festival USA

In travel guidebooks to Italy, Spoleto is problematic. It gets no love at all, or it gets little more than a glancing, miserly peck on the cheek.

Rick Steves' famous "back door" to authentic travel experiences does not lead you there. Spoleto is only a dot on his railway map of Italian hill towns. Fodor's guide mentions it, but fumbles a full endorsement. "For most of the year," it says, "Spoleto is one more in a pleasant succession of sleepy hill towns, resting regally atop a mountain." Lonely Planet Italy sounds like it might be passing a kidney stone as it strains to assert that "Spoleto has more than enough museums, Roman ruins, restaurants, and wanderable streets to keep you busy for a good day or two," before quickly urging you along to more diverting locales where, presumably, you won't feel like you're just killing time. Frommer's is rather more generous, but at odds with itself over the place. It tells us that the town is "unfairly ignored" most of the year, then steps back and shrugs: "Spoleto's beautiful Duomo and the odd reliefs on its early Romanesque churches draw a small but select crowd of admirers."

While keeping mum on those "odd reliefs," The Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria delivers the most effusive review, calling Spoleto "an essential feature of any itinerary," noting also how conveniently it leads elsewhere ("one of Umbria's more stimulating bases") and wrapping up by mentioning "its many Romanesque churches and other monuments and cultural events."

In fact, to find just one unadulterated compliment for this Umbrian hill town we must dig back in travel literature to the 19th century when, in one of his Letters from Italy, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote: "We came to Spoleto ... I never saw a more impressive picture; in which the shapes of nature are of the grandest order, but over which the creations of man, sublime from their antiquity and greatness, seem to predominate."

This minority view from a long-dead poet may only confirm that the Romantics could wheeze admiringly about nearly anything, even when they were sober. But Shelley's insight about the "creations of man" predominating over everything else in Spoleto sounds, in retrospect, prescient.

Taken together, these impressions form the dispiriting consensus of Spoleto's place in history from its Etruscan/Roman antiquity until the mid-20th century, all neatly encapsulated by Frommer's: "This once-proud town became a central Italian nonentity for 500 years." Ouch.

Left to itself, Spoleto might easily have remained as invisible to the modern tourist as that luckless island on Lost. But the guidebooks are relieved to tell you that in the last 50-odd years the market in Spoleto futures began to soar as a whole new international currency started being minted there. That new currency was the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds (the "Festival dei Due Mondi" in Italian) and it became something bright and marketable, like an annual commemorative coin, only one that didn't bear the profile of a Roman emperor but, for a time anyway, the likeness of a coffee importer's son named Gian Carlo Menotti.

Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti - WILLIAM STRUHS
  • William Struhs
  • Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti

More than anyone else in recent history, the Italian composer Menotti helped pull Spoleto out of obscurity, cleared a way forward, and left his mark there. The guidebook writers say "Spoleto" and in the next breath they say, "Menotti." There are those who wish it wasn't so. How that came about and what's become of it all since cannot entirely obscure one nagging contention of this legacy. A debt of some sort exists.

Spoleto station is a mere countryside railway depot, long since worn down to a serviceable nub. Trains making their five-minute pause here connect this dot on the twisted spur line climbing north from Rome to the railway center in Foligno which further on will happily deliver you to Assisi, even Florence. But if you insist, you can get off the train here, among lushly scented Umbrian hills beloved for their secret caches of truffles and lavishly praised olive groves. The arrival at Spoleto station betrays none of this. There's no whiff in the air of inherent greatness. It smells only of espresso and impatience deferred, like any other Italian railway stop. Yet Spoleto would prove to be an ideal launch site for Menotti's dream: bringing the best Italian and international arts together in one energetic showcase. What drew Menotti here, of all places?

Spoleto is an oft-ignored Italian hill town that in many ways was revitalized by its founder Gian Carlo Menotti - JON SANTIAGO
  • Jon Santiago
  • Spoleto is an oft-ignored Italian hill town that in many ways was revitalized by its founder Gian Carlo Menotti

The city has geographical advantages. Spoleto commands a long valley in the Apennine Range that forms the spine of central Italy. Frenetic Rome lies southeast, an hour and a half away by train. From the north, one leaves behind tourist-stuffed Florence or all-business Milan after breakfast and arrives here in time for an early dinner. When Menotti first began knocking on doors around town, Spoleto also had attractive cost advantages over rival locations and he discovered, tucked among the steep ascents and descents of the town's streets and crowded, sunny piazzas, a surprising variety of venues. Two theaters, the Teatro Caio Melisso, a 300-seat 17th-century gem, and the 19th century Teatro Nuovo with more than double that capacity, join an outdoor Roman theater. The raw potential was already in place when Menotti arrived with his bold ideas. And his timing was right.

Italy in the 1950s was in an economic boom that seemed nothing short of a miracle. Recovery from wartime ruin sparked a massive migration from rural to urban centers and with that, a taste of consumer society. As many as 24 million Italians traded their parent's and grandparent's close-to-the-land way of life for the hustle and bustle of the city. In the wake of this hopeful, gold-fever dash toward a better future, hill towns like Spoleto, already frayed by neglect, inevitably fell to the wayside. It had become a ragged heap of discarded glory.

Menotti's pitch to the ailing town could not have been simpler. It amounted to this: "Give me your town, for three weeks a year, and I'll fill it with music, dance, theater. An international arts festival here in your own backyard. Help me build it, and they will come."

The town had reason to entertain this stranger's proposal. In 1958, Menotti had reached a mid-life high point in his career, a career that with all its peaks and valleys was like a landscape bearing a fateful resemblance to Umbria's own terrain: fertile, bumpy, and as melodramatically rich as an old-fashioned opera. Perhaps Umbria and Menotti were made for each other.

The townspeople bit. Maestro Menotti had chosen well and by most accounts Spoleto was thrilled to have him.

Born into a large, prosperous family in Italy, Menotti's talent had been recognized early on. His mother, Ines, brought private music tutors into their home. The children — eight in all — enjoyed staging elaborate puppet shows, notably doing all their own writing, music, lighting, special effects, and directing. These youthful productions may have formed the DIY attitude that followed Menotti into his adult career.

  • Jon Santiago

Menotti wrote his first opera at age 11. At 14, he entered the Verdi Conservatory in Milan. Then everything changed all at once. Menotti's father died. The family business took a nosedive. Ines took a friend's advice and enrolled her son in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1928, where he lived with an Italian-American family. Suddenly alone at 17, Gian Carlo found himself taking up his studies with a task-master instructor in a foreign country whose language he did not speak.

All the same, Curtis got him on track.

He studied composition with Rosario Scalero, who invited another of his Curtis students, Samuel Barber, to help the new kid get up to speed on American life. At the beginning, Menotti and Barber spoke to one another in French, the only language they had in common. The two young men flourished in each other's company and quickly formed what was to be a decades-long relationship. Menotti was a frequent guest at the Barber family home, and the two spent vacation times together at the Menotti clan's villa in Lake Lugano, Italy. After graduation, they explored Europe and shared a house in Austria where Barber wrote his "Adagio for Strings," (widely known for being featured in the movie Platoon) and Menotti composed his first hit opera, Amelia at the Ball. He also wrote the libretto for it as he would do for all his theatrical works.

The Other Spoleto
The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto The Other Spoleto

The Other Spoleto

By Jon Santiago

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Amelia premiered at the Philadelphia Academy in April 1937. In quick succession, the opera moved to New York, where it was met with great success, and in 1938, the Met offered to produce it as part of a double bill with Strauss's Elektra.

Amelia ushered in some of Menotti's most productive years and his subsequent work garnered mostly favorable reviews. He was busy. NBC Radio commissioned him to write an opera in 1939, The Old Maid and the Thief. During the war years, he returned to his alma mater, the Curtis Institute, as a teacher.

One eye-opening reality check arrived in 1942. The Met wanted a full-length opera. Menotti delivered The Island God, but that one stumbled badly, and Menotti, who by this time had grown to enjoy the glamor of his new social circle, saw the effects that a clunker can have on that reassuring stream of party invitations arriving in the mail. (The sting of The Island God's defeat at the Met stayed with him. For decades thereafter, he shunned traditional opera houses and would stage his works in theatrical venues, becoming one of the first composers to give operatic productions a home on Broadway.)

After The Island God, Menotti turned away from opera for almost four years, offering his audience instrumental music instead: a ballet, Sebastian (1943), and the Piano Concerto in F. But his heart remained fixed on creating another triumphant opera, another Amelia. His moment arrived, but not without a wrinkle or two to test the composer's resourcefulness.

Commissioned by Columbia University, The Medium, a two-act tragedy, premiered there in 1946. Ever mindful of leaving his fate in another's hands, Menotti, wrote the libretto and directed the production. (In the following years, he would regularly involve himself in casting, staging, and sundry other tasks with each of his productions. These interventions were not unknown to raise hackles among his associates.)

The Medium garnered positive reviews but was not shaping up to be the indisputable hit Menotti craved. Tepid box office numbers left his financial backers losing money. Menotti came up with a plan to kickstart the stalled show. He turned to his old mentor, Arturo Toscanini, who saw the opera and loved it. Menotti made sure the press got hold of this bit of praise, and from that point forward, excellent publicity in tow, The Medium was off to the races, running for 211 performances. The Medium went on to acclaimed productions in London and Paris. Menotti became an international success. He was back on top.

More triumph lay ahead.

Nineteen-fifty was a banner year. His opera, The Consul won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Drama Critics Circle Award, and it ran for eight months. In May, his likeness, staring off, humbly pensive, peered out at his adopted country from the cover of Time magazine. Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) came next, the first opera in America written specifically for television. NBC broadcast this Christmas favorite for the next 16 years.

In 1954 Menotti rode the winning streak further with The Saint of Bleecker Street. Set in contemporary New York, the opera enjoyed a modest run of four months, but won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics' Circle award, and the Music Critics' Circle award.

By the time Menotti arrived in Spoleto, he was 47 years old, a composer of international stature with a track record of hitting most of them out of the park, and ready to step into the fray with this new challenge. The question arises — why do this? What could he possibly gain from this wild gamble on a speck of a town in the Umbrian hills? A town, he would later recall, "with no restaurants, no hotels, no tourists." Why?

It became the question that would not go away. Over the years Menotti answered it, over and over again, from different angles, each new angle revealing fresh enthusiasm or frustration with the ongoing project. His shortest answer was "for the joy of it." But that was early on.

In recent years, the Festival dei Due Mondi has favored theatrical offerings over musical ones - LUIGI LASELVA/COURTESY OF SPOLETO FESTIVAL DEI DUE MONDI
  • Luigi Laselva/courtesy of Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi
  • In recent years, the Festival dei Due Mondi has favored theatrical offerings over musical ones

In a 1981 interview, Menotti revealed in greater detail the overarching motives behind his festival idea. He observed that while artists are always part of our daily lives, they often go unnoticed. In this, he did not distinguish between commercial artists and fine artists. The necktie the businessman wears? The dress his wife has chosen? The silverware and table setting at dinner? All designed by an artist.

"I think the artist in general, especially in America, has been always on the margin of society," he said. "We are supposed to entertain people rather than really be part of their daily life. In a certain way, I would say that we are the after-dinner mint of society rather than being the bread of society. That's why I founded my festival in Spoleto, Italy. I want to be the bread of the community. I want to be part of the community. So I looked for a small town that was on the verge of bankruptcy, a very poor town. It just happened to have two gorgeous theaters. I went there, and I tried to help this town with my music and with the help of my fellow artists."

Menotti also thought of the Spoleto Festival as an "intellectual commune," somewhere young artists could reach for the brass ring. He was proud of the international exposure the Festival offered these emerging talents and Spoleto launched many careers. Choreographers Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp are notable examples.

The Spoleto Festival established itself just as Menotti had hoped it would: a prestigious international success. But there was another dream, too. The Festival of Two Worlds could not be considered fully accomplished without that world on the other side of the Atlantic.

  • Luigi Laselva/courtesy of Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi

Menotti ultimately selected our very own Charleston, and in 1977, Spoleto Festival USA came into being. The new festival had a rocky start, mostly owing to financial difficulties. But eventually it settled in and proved itself. It was only later that those other difficulties, reminiscent of the ones at the Italian Festival, began to surface.

Stories of Menotti's wrangling with administrators, board members, and city officials now began to span both the Old and the New World. He was often at loggerheads with individuals, mostly over artistic choices. Pride and micro-managing (that DIY ethic) seemed to go hand in hand in Menotti's character. He could be charming and he could be infuriating, in either case, tenaciously so. Undoubtedly, this clash among leadership was a strain on everyone involved.

Squarely at the center of it all was Menotti. He called them both "his" festivals. Where else would he be but at the center? Over time, it became increasingly apparent that this center could not hold. Accusations, recriminations, every expression of ill will that any relationship going sour can exhibit, played out, periodically in newspaper headlines.

In 1993, Menotti cut all ties with Spoleto Festival USA.

"I no longer feel it is my festival," he said, "and this has been my life for 15 years. I feel a bit lonely among them. I'm treated like the clerk."

He summed up his feelings more bluntly in a later comment: "There's only one Spoleto, and that is in Italy. The one in America doesn't exist anymore."

A chapter had closed. Menotti never really turned the page.

While the Charleston festival had rejected his adopted son, Francis, as artistic director, Menotti found a place for him in Italy. In 1997, Francis Menotti took up that post at the Festival dei Due Mondi. His father remained the Festival's president. That wasn't the end of it.

The new artistic director had his own stew of simmering issues with local politicians and the business community. The Italian festival was dogged with allegations — unpaid bills, wasteful spending, unaccountable accounting — none of that had anything to do with art, with the glorious, tilting-at-windmills quest that was Menotti's passion.

The wheels were bound to come off sometime. There was too much of some things — work to be done, mistrust to overcome, high-handedness to heal from — and not enough of anything else that might balance the scales. After an appeal for intervention from administrative and business leaders in Spoleto, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Affairs took over in 2007, ousting Francis Menotti and installing film and theater director Giorgio Ferrara as the Festival's new artistic director. In short order, after years of estrangement between the festivals, an olive branch was extended across the Atlantic to Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA.

The Italian Festival has changed, certainly. Menotti's vision, while multidisciplinary, emphasized music. These days, the festival-goer is likely to see Ferrara's hand in the growing number of theatrical offerings. In fact, the 2014 Festival also featured Ferrara in another starring role, in the August Strindberg play The Dance of Death. A new Festival era is in place, and it is a definitive break with the past.

It doesn't bear thinking about, all this blunt drama, while wandering the streets of present day Spoleto.

There are flowers everywhere. Balcony window boxes brim over with them. They catch the eye in sidewalk planters tended by the city and from within the cloistered intimacy of gated, private gardens. In one of those narrow byways dating back to the days of Imperial Rome, flowers woven through iron banisters cascade down from the door of a second-story home to the cobblestone vicolo below. The last gasp of spring has left behind a banquet of scent and color, a feast of beauty to be rivaled, one imagines, only by the Festival itself.

All around town, the Festival's colorful signs and banners greet you. The ones along the upper town's shopping avenue, the Via Matteotti, brighten the stroll for window-shoppers. There are three hard-to-miss Festival ticket offices within a 10-minute walk of one another. Festival staffers run errands around town in cute little Smart cars cheerfully emblazoned with the Festival logo. VIPs are ferried around behind the tinted windows of black Mercedes sedans which also (more discreetly) carry the logo.

All this visually underscores the reason I'm here, joining all the other visitors packing the hotels and restaurants, strolling along, all of us making our evening passeggiata.

The Festival hasn't begun yet, but already there are entertaining things to see. By day, final preparations for tomorrow's official opening create some ingenious vehicular maneuvering in the narrow, twisty streets. Cherry picker trucks work themselves into position in stuttering, back-and-forth waltzes accompanied by shouted instructions, warnings, and redirections, all so that workers can inflate, tether, and set aloft huge golden balloons bearing the words "Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi," leaving them to sway in the breeze above the streets.

Even these days, the Festival has enough draw to create a summertime bonanza for businesses here. It's Christmas in July.

Fact is, I hadn't come to Spoleto looking for Menotti at all. The Festival itself interested me, Menotti only peripherally. But he surprised me. He seemed to be lurking behind everything I saw. Menotti is the long shadow that gives context and dimension to the brightly lighted thing. He'd been there all along. Why?

The deeper answers to that question that wouldn't go away in Menotti's life might reflect less on the ambitious goals, the quixotic daring of it all and more on the man who offered himself up to the task.

When Samuel Barber was asked why Menotti had chosen to involve himself in this festival business, he said, "You could say it's a need for having people around all of the time. A need for a certain amount of power."

Menotti, in another interview, seemed to agree with the gist of Barber's answer but took a different slant. "The creation of Spoleto," he said, "was a social experiment. Because I've always suffered guilt from being a Catholic, when I was in my 50s, I felt a need of being needed."

Perhaps Menotti did need the Festival on some level far below the day-to-day issues of managing this hydra-headed beast, feeding it and keeping it alive. That would explain a great deal.

In 2001, Menotti sounded a defeatist note, "I think I've wasted too much time looking for money or making programmes and trying to bewitch artists to come here for nothing." He told The New York Times, "Fate has blessed me. But if there's one thing I regret, it's this accursed festival. It's robbed too much of my time from composition and from the chance to just be curious about life, art, and philosophy. Suddenly there's no time left, and it makes me feel desperate."

But that can't be the final word. Because even today there is so much life and light emanating from the thing he dreamed up. The artist and Spoleto itself co-created the other Spoleto.

Menotti once said, "It is quite touching to see how artists who come to Spoleto feel the dignity of being necessary to the life of the town." He must have been smiling when he added, "It's marvelous to feel wanted."

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