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A Menotti opera, from radio to the stage

Menotti's "The Old Maid and the Thief" has found audiences on the airwaves and in theaters
April 29, 2019

Gian Carlo Menotti

On May 3 and 4, Yale Opera will stage Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief as part of a double bill in Morse Recital Hall. Menotti, who emigrated from Italy to the United States as a teenager in the 1920s, was among the first great composers of American opera. His operas, which set English libretti in a compositional style appealing to popular taste, found popularity across wide audiences. Many of his operas were produced to great acclaim on the Broadway stage. In addition to successful stage productions, Menotti was a pioneer of using the technology of the day to present his work. He is perhaps most famous for his Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, whose 1951 premiere introduced audiences to the first opera composed specifically for television. But even before the rise of televised operas, Menotti burst onto the popular operatic scene with The Old Maid and the Thief, composed at the height of popularity of the radio opera. In the late 1930s, having finished his studies at The Curtis Institute of Music and on the heels of the success of his first opera, Amelia al Ballo, Menotti was approached by NBC to compose an opera to be broadcast on the radio. The Old Maid and the Thief premiered on April 22, 1939, and was so well received by radio audiences that Menotti adapted it for the stage two years later.

The opera, a performance of which lasts about an hour, is organized in 14 short scenes. It has only four roles: Miss Todd, the spinster or old maid (mezzo-soprano); Laetitia, Miss Todd’s maid (soprano); Bob, the mysterious traveler (baritone); and Miss Pinkerton, Miss Todd’s gossipy neighbor (soprano). The plot explores the ambiguous morals and suspicious activity behind the seemingly sweet façade of a sleepy, small town. Menotti says, in the libretto, “The devil couldn’t do what a woman can—make a thief out of an honest man.”

Menotti (1911-2007) was an Italian-American composer and librettist. He is most well known for his numerous operas, for which he wrote his own libretti. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his 1950 opera The Consul, and another for his 1955 opera The Saint of Bleecker Street. Menotti founded the Spoleto festivals in Spoleto, Italy, and in Charleston, South Carolina. His longtime romantic and professional partner was American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981).

Yale Opera’s spring production pairs a fully staged version of Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief with Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, directed by Dustin Wills, with music direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin. Performed with piano accompaniment in the intimate Morse Recital Hall, this double bill showcases the ascendant young artists in the Yale Opera program.

Yale Opera presents Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief and Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol on May 3 & 4, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall. 

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