A Cup of Tea, a Fireplace and the Cows | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features A Cup of Tea, a Fireplace and the Cows A renowned biographer shares personal recollections of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, the creators of Vanessa, which opens at New York City Opera on Nov. 4.

In the early 1960s, I had a title: General Manager of the American office of the Spoleto Festival, which was founded in 1958 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Menotti was "my boss" and the godfather of one of my daughters. My title may have sounded grand, but at that time the Festival was still new‹a wild card in the cutthroat field of European summer music celebrations. After all, Salzburg and Bayreuth were the favored destinations for many cultural travelers and they were aggressively promoted all over the world. The Spoleto Festival office, however, was a one-room cubbyhole on West 57th Street, which was long the unofficial music business capital of America. Every building was crammed with music management offices; hopeful young musicians and the world's most famous professionals swarmed the sidewalks and the restaurants, and Carnegie Hall was right on the corner.

It was through Menotti and the Spoleto Festival that I first met Samuel Barber, who for decades remained Menotti's closest friend and most trusted colleague. Having met when they were teenagers studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the two men established an enduring friendship and shared homes in Mount Kisco, New York, and in Menotti's native Italy, where they lived as hard-working artists and busy professional composers.

One day Menotti asked a favor of me: "Please take these papers over and give them to Sam." I called Barber first and was actually praying to meet the great man whose music I had first heard when I was in college.

Barber was then living in an apartment on New York's fashionable East Side, with a doorman at the curb, white gloves and all, and a concierge to escort me upstairs. When Barber opened the door, my first impression was of his immense dignity. He was so cool, so reserved, so polite, so proper. I handed him a manila envelope and stammered a couple of words, and then I said, "Mr. Barber, I revere you."

Well, it took a lot to unsettle Sam Barber, but that did it. For a moment he was speechless. But then, being the gentleman that he was, he recovered and held out his hand.

"Would you like to come in?" he asked. "I'll make some tea."

With that, he waved the concierge away, took me into the living room, and went to the kitchen to put the kettle on. I stayed for almost an hour while we chatted and he played the perfect host. Clearly his upbringing in the posh Philadelphia suburb of West Chester had served him well. Later I learned that very rarely did he show anger or let loose with one of his reputedly wicked imitations of people he did not like. (One of his best: Maria Callas as the World's Greatest Diva.)

From that moment on, Barber was my hero. I later visited him and Menotti in the house they shared in Mount Kisco, New York. Called "Capricorn," it was their real winter home, a place where friends chatted in the living room, sat by the fireplace, looked out to the woods (with no other building in sight) and took long walks in those woods. Built to accommodate the two composers, the house had a central living and dining area and a kitchen, but each man had his own wing: Menotti in one, and Barber in another. And "Capricorn" was so perfectly soundproofed that neither could hear the piano in the other end of the house. Barber was particularly proud of the fact that he owned one of Rachmaninoff's pianos, which Paul Wittke, their longtime editor at G. Schirmer, called his "prized possession." In Mount Kisco, too, Barber and Menotti entertained some of the most famous musicians of the era.

In Spoleto, where Menotti ran the Festival, Barber was very much a power behind the throne, but he often remained out of sight during his visits. He was, however, very much a presence there when the Spoleto Festival offered his Vanessa, with libretto by Menotti. Producing an American opera there was somewhat risky at the time. And because I was General Manager, I attended all the rehearsals and performances.

Before Menotti founded the Festival there, who had ever heard of Spoleto? It was then a small market town in Umbria, a remote province in the very center of Italy. How to get there? Well, you flew to Rome and went to the Stazione Roma Termini, a colossal monument to the Italian railroad system. It was so hot in the summer that you stood in the shadow of a telephone pole to get relief. And then there was the two-hour trip to Spoleto in a train with ancient cars and open windows and a coal-powered engine.

It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the Festival was the personal creation of Menotti, and arguably his best loved creation. Most people believed it would not survive, but he said he did not care. "The project was planned to teach young people and help them in their careers," he said, but when asked why he really founded the Festival, he laughed. "The only true answer to that question is this: I did it just for the joy of it."

If anyone seemed out of place in a festival town, it was Barber, so modest, so shy, and so Philadelphia Main Line. But sharing Menotti's joy and standing behind him at every step was Barber, whose Vanessa was a kind of landmark in the history of the Spoleto Festival. Performed in Italian, the stunning production in 1961 featured Ivana Tosini's riveting, neurotic Vanessa and Mietta Sighele's heart-rending Erika. After the dress rehearsal, an anxious Barber walked away alone, slowly, up the hill from the Teatro Nuovo. Seeing Sonia Haddad, who oversaw the Festival's artists' relations, he stopped her and asked: "How did you like it? Do you think it will be all right?"

He need not have worried, for the opera was a hit, with waves of applause greeting each act and a large ovation breaking out after Erika's blistering rejection of Anatol: "No, Anatol. La risposta è NO."

Barber, Menotti, and the cast took more than thirty curtain calls after the first performance of that production. In 1964, Barber and Menotti collaborated on a three-act version of the opera and worked on the Met revival of 1965. Other revivals since 2002 have been by large American companies and foreign organizations in cities as far-flung as London, Strasbourg, and Palermo.

After the Spoleto Festival, Barber and Menotti often moved on to the home they shared in Santa Cristina Valgardena, a mountain hamlet in the Italian Dolomites. Once while visiting there, I was asleep at five in the summer morning when I heard a strange noise‹cow bells! Clang, clang, coming closer and closer. Then "Moo! Moo! Moo!" I looked out the bedroom window and saw two cows inches from my face, their eyes looking into mine. By day the herder took them up to pasture in the high meadows of the Dolomites, and in the evening they came down again, with cow bells breaking into the profound silence of the place as they made their orderly way back to the barns.

Thinking back, I feel so fortunate to have visited the anchor-places of Barber's and Menotti's lives: New York City, Mount Kisco, and Santa Cristina Valgardena. In these places they worked as the dedicated musicians that they were: Gian Carlo, so outgoing, and Sam, so reserved, but both touched with genius.

Mary Jane Phillips is the author of books including Puccini: A Biography, Rosa Ponselle: American Diva, and the definitive Verdi: A Biography, which won the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and the New York Governor's Award of Excellence.

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