SAN DIEGO — Among the ironies of the domestic opera scene, it should be noted that the most popular modern American opera composer is an Italian who resides in a castle in Scotland.
While Gian Carlo Menotti has never been the darling of the critics, the crafty composer, librettist, director and impresario has kept himself stage center since the late 1940s through works ranging from the ubiquitous "Amahl and the Night Visitors" to his well-publicized annual Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.
Saturday night at the Old Globe Theatre, the 76-year-old composer of "The Telephone" and "The Medium" returns to San Diego Opera to direct his frequently paired one-act operas. But if the melodramatic message of Menotti's "Medium"--a tale of creaky seances, child-beating and murder--seems slightly old-fashioned, it doesn't bother mezzo soprano Beverly Evans one iota.
"I love that word 'old-fashioned,' and that's exactly the way you approach this piece. It's a period piece and that's the charm of it," said Evans, who is singing Madame Flora, the title role of "The Medium." Having learned Madame Flora under Menotti for a 1979 Spoleto Festival production, Evans subsequently sang it to acclaim in Washington, Edinburgh and Jerusalem. She is easily the leading interpreter of this role.
Learning the role even had an oblique connection to San Diego Opera. "The first time we did 'The Medium,' Menotti was in the middle of 'La Loca,' so we only worked two hours a day," she said. "Of course, I would have liked to have worked 10 hours a day with him to develop this role."
In spite of Menotti's judicious scheduling in South Carolina, he was still finishing San Diego's "La Loca"--a grandiose vehicle commissioned for about-to-retire diva Beverly Sills--holed up in his room at the Westgate Hotel well into the new opera's final rehearsals.
A native of Buffalo and veteran of New York City Opera, Evans describes herself as a character mezzo.
"I like strong women roles," she said, listing Amneris in "Aida" and Azucena in "Il Trovatore" as typical character mezzo roles she sings. She characterized Verdi's Azucena as "one of those ugly old bags. You have more fun with their personalities, however. I could never have been an ingenue; I'm not a weepy person who could sit in a corner, pine away and be demure."
Being demure is an attribute remote from Evans' Madame Flora. "It's such a violent role that it takes me several days to get into it. In her you see the human deterioration, the madness," she said. "And the beating scene is one of the ugliest I have ever seen. The first couple of times I do it, it makes me sick to my stomach.
"I use a whip, and since I'm usually working with Chip Menotti (Francis Menotti, the composer's son, will also appear in the San Diego production as the mute Toby), I whack myself with it a couple of times to assure myself that it's not going to hurt him."
In spite of the opera's violence, Evans insists that "The Medium" is a great piece of theater. Opera critic Ethan Mordden has disdainfully classified Menotti's three early pieces --"The Medium," "The Consul" and "The Saint of Bleeker Street"--as, "a trio of shudderfests," a typical evaluation among critics and opera historians.
Evans countered: "After seeing 'The Medium,' everybody walks out of the theater weak; they know they've really seen something. It's true of all of his operas, even when it's a piece of fluff. He has the ability to charm, to emotionally sneak in on an audience. When you meet him, you love him right away. He's a smoothie--he's just all charm."
In spite of the composer's Old World manners and Italian pedigree, Evans claims there is no doubt about his American conversion.
"He's ours. He likes money and all the things Americans like," she said. "He went to Scotland because it was very smart. It's cheaper to live there. His home, his castle, is magnificent, spectacular. You can't live like that here, but he can do it there."
Joining Evans in the cast of "The Medium" will be soprano Nadia Pelle in her San Diego Opera debut; baritone Harlan Foss, a San Diego regular; soprano Barbara Hocher, and mezzo soprano Nancy Carol Moore.
The comic curtain-opener, "The Telephone," will feature baritone Wayne Turnage and soprano Amy Burton. Both operas will be conducted by the company's resident associate conductor, Karen Keltner. The pair of operas will run through May 17.