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Composer Gian Carlo Menotti: taking opera to people

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''I rebelled against the idea of the artist being what I call the 'after-dinner mint' of society,'' says composer-librettist Gian Carlo Menotti. ''I didn't want them to be just the entertainers, but rather part of the community - the bread, not only the dessert.''

This premise worked so well for the Italian-born, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner that he started an international culture exchange 25 years ago in Italy: the famed Spoleto Festival. Eight years ago he copied the idea as ''Spoleto, USA,'' and in those eight years the new version has started on the road to international status on a par with its prototype.

Between his twin duties as festival director and opera director (of his own opera ''Juana La Loca'') at the US version of the festival, Menotti took time out earlier this summer to reflect on his art, his international career of 45 years, and his influence on the state of opera in the United States. Although born in Italy, he was educated at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and has done what he considers most of his important work here.

''It is in America that I started my experiment of trying to take the opera away from the sacred barns like the Metropolitan (and) La Scala,'' he says from the parlor of a restored antebellum mansion that is his Spoleto, USA, base this time around.

''It was my contention that opera can not only pay for itself if it is well given, but it can also command a much wider audience if given like a play with lots of rehearsals and wonderful singers that fit the role. If they don't have to look at the conductor all the time, and can really act the drama - all of a sudden they really can convince audiences that are not musical even that opera can be valid theater.''

Besides his two Pulitzers (in 1950 for ''The Consul'' and 1955 for ''The Saint of Bleecker Street''), Menotti has been for more than 30 years the most-produced living operatic composer in the world. Perhaps best known for his work ''Amahl and the Night Visitors,'' Menotti has also written ''The Unicorn,'' ''Juana La Loca,'' ''The Medium,'' ''The Telephone,'' and ''The Old Maid and the Thief.''

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