Failing to Soar
Keen to see Gian Carlo Menotti's Goya—his final, giovane scuola-style opera—on its feet, on 15 November 1986 I took the train from New York to Washington to attend the premiere. A few days later, the music critic Donal Henahan, with a casual, calculated cruelty astonishing even for him, described Goya as "a rather stupefying exercise in banality ... a parody of a Menotti opera." At the time, I found the review (slipping the word "rather" in like a shiv before the word "stupefying," as though Menotti had failed even at being entirely stupefying) insolent and fatuous. But I was still too young to understand how profoundly disrespectful he was being, and how wounded to the core—after two-dozen operas and a lifetime of service to his art—Gian Carlo really was.
The pain in his voice on the telephone when I reached him at his hotel the morning it ran in the newspaper was heartbreaking. "He's just a critic. You're Gian Carlo Menotti," I sputtered uselessly, unable to believe that somebody who had accomplished so much could be so hurt by someone whose opinion mattered so little in the end.
I realized during the next three or four beats of silence on the line that I had overstepped. What did I know about life at his age, his level of achievement? What did I know about his art, his soul, really? Nothing. I was twenty-five and had accomplished little; he was seventy-five, had founded two music festivals, written two-dozen operas, and won two Pulitzer prizes. I felt embarrassed. "I'm sorry," I said. "I know that what I say doesn't matter."
"Ah, caro, someday you'll understand," Gian Carlo sighed. "Be a good boy. Good luck revising your Edward Albee opera. Send it to me when it is done." I promised I would, but ultimately didn't. "Let's plan to speak soon," he said by way of farewell. If I could have hugged him through the phone, I would have.
I have come to understand how Gian Carlo felt that day. I have learned that the more people in the audience that are visibly moved by a piece, the worse the review this sort of critic writes. Do they feel that the audience, a member of which they are, it must be said, may be moved, but that they themselves are too sophisticated? If a composer is having any serious impact with audiences, he is bound to accumulate some truly terrible reviews. I've received my share. I have been fortunate, for the most part. I was nearly fifty before a music critic played the "inspiration" card, writing that my Amelia "fail[ed] to soar because its music is the well-crafted music of a good composer, not the inspired music of a great one."
"How ironic," I mused, reading the review, "that, you who create nothing are evidently able to identify inspiration so well. How unfortunate for me, whose entire life has been spent creating things, that I evidently do not have access to inspiration."
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