Gian Carlo Menotti & Samuel Barber in their home Capricorn


A sonic memoire in the life of Gian Garlo Menotti & Samuel Barber

by Slavisa Drobnjaković & Constantine Koukias

To date no one has given an operatic voice to the profound personal and professional relationship of Gian-Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber, two of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. This piece is a fictional memoire envisioned through the lenses of Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber, from the first day of moving into their home in 1943 until the sale of their house in 1973. A journey over three decades under the roof of their house, which they called “Capricorn.”

We see Gian-Carlo Menotti and Barber enter Capricorn. They are in the company of Mrs Bok Curtis, the founder of the Curtis Institute who helped them purchase this house. It is 1943, and the world it a war. Barber has just been released from the US Army Air Corps and is excitingly reflecting about his training missions on board the B–24 Liberator to Menotti. When night falls, Menotti stays awake endlessly listening to radio reports of his beloved Italy. He refuses to succumb to the Fascist regime. All his Italian performances are cancelled.

Menotti and Barber awake to the news that President Franklin Roosevelt has died. They read that Barber’s Adagio for strings will be performed at the funeral. It’s a big honour for Samuel Barber. Menotti is delighted and invites friends over to the celebrate Sam’s success. The war is almost over.

Barber and Menotti open their home to be featured in American Home magazine. They give the grand tour of the house pointing put some of their artwork and furnishings. At the point of being interviewed, Barber is reserved in his comments about their life together.

Menotti is rehearsing his chamber opera The Telephone in Capricorn with the soprano. He pleads with Barber who is cooking, to sing the missing Baritone role. Charmingly amusing himself, Barber deliberately sings badly. Menotti loses his temper and storms out of the house.

The couple enter the most prolific part of their musical lives. Menotti receives two Pulitzer Prizes for The Consul (1950) and for The Saint of Bleecker Street (1955). At the height of racial segregation, Barber choses the African-American soprano Leontyne Price to perform his Hermit Songs for her 1954 New York recital debut. Soon after, he receives his first Pulitzer Prize for his opera Vanessa(1959), for which Menotti wrote the libretto. Their relationship at this period could get very stormy. Barber is slightly jealous of Menotti’s success.

While Barber yearns for an eternal love that never changes, Menotti, with a zest for living, is absent more and more, leaving Barber alone at home. Menotti’s presence at Capricorn is the scene of many legendary weekends—dinners, parties and soirées attended by the celebrated of the day. Names such Laurence Olivier, his wife Vivien Leigh, Nureyev, Fonteyn, Callas, Horowitz and Andy Warhol, have been entertained at Capricorn. The death of Barber’s sister’s in 1961 put him into a depression that noticeably affected his ability to work for a long period.

Although not a recluse, Barber tires of the hectic social life Menotti prefers and resents his friend’s easy way with others, women and men. When the actress Tallulah Bankhead and others arrive at Capricorn, Sam locks himself in the bathroom to wait out their visit. He stays there for the entire night. Menotti has to bring him food from the outside window.

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Barber’s Adagio for Strings again is being performed for the funeral.

Barber gets the commission of his life from The Metropolitan Opera to compose Antony and Cleopatra. The Metropolitan Opera does not want Menotti to collaborate on this opera. Menotti is left deeply disappointed and bitter. This news creates a division in their personal lives.

The failure of Antony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan Opera is a terrible blow to Barber. The opera receives vitriolic reviews from all over the world. They spare him nothing and this pushes Barber into emotional depression, alcoholism and a creative block. By this time, Barber has become a very difficult man, rude at times, very bitter, though always with a marvellous sense of humour.

Menotti travels the world, with many professional engagements. The couple barely see each other. Menotti’s suggestion to sell Capricorn is a major shock for Barber. Barber becomes highly emotional, seeing the closure of their years in the house as marking the end of their youth, even of their relationship. Menotti decides to leave America and cuts himself off from his past, a place where he could hide.

We now see the new owners, a family moving into Capricorn for the first time. They are an everyday American family getting their children ready to go to school.

Preliminary Treatment
The opera is envisioned through the lens of three decades that resemble the filmic styles associated with those decades. We start in the 1940’s with a black and white mise en scène employing the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, typical of the Film noir aesthetic.

The audience will experience ‘colour’ for the first time though a TV set in house of Barber and Menotti, watching Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors which was broadcast on Christmas Eve of 1951. We progress through the 1950’s with the conservative visual style of classical Hollywood cinema and enter the impact of the ‘new waves’ of the 1960’s.

The scene in which Tallulah Bankhead and others arrive at Capricorn, Barber has locked himself in the bathroom to wait out their visit, is a tribute to the film The Exterminating Angel 1963 by Luis Buñuel. Tallulah insists on staging a séance, which was fashionable with thedecadent upper class. They were so transfixed that they could not the leave the house for eight hours as in Buñuel’s daring masterpiece.

The epilogue for the opera is inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse 1962, by abandoning a final resolution of the story and moving the focus to a new situation. The viewer now follows a new life cycle under the roof of Capricorn.

The development of the libretto for this opera has been supported by Fonds Podiumkunsten.