Seizing the Menotti Moment: Opera meets McLuhan meets Millennials
Published online: 14 November 2016
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2016.56.sr.11166
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574429
This co-authored paper examines how theories about the effects of technology on society, developed by communications theorist Marshall McLuhan in the mid-twentieth century, are represented in Gian Carlo Menotti’s double bill, The Telephone and The Medium (1946-47). Many of the themes raised by the composer-librettist resonate with McLuhan’s research on the technological extension of human faculties in the post-Guttenberg era. Compounded in updated university productions informed by postmodern readings, stagings of Menotti’s operas by savvy directors tap into contemporary concerns about the role and repercussions of technology in society today.
This collaborative project involves a professor, a graduate teaching assistant, and seven undergraduate students (Kyra Assaad, Anna-Julia David, Adam Kasztenny, Patrick Kelly, Duncan Martin, Elliott McMurchy, and Kevin Matthew Wong) in a course entitled The World of Opera. Students were required to attend a university opera production of The Telephone and The Medium and then write a review of the production engaging selected writings by Marshall McLuhan and two later theorists of contemporary technology—Giles Slade and Sherry Turkle. The resulting paper represents a compilation and distillation of the student reviews, edited and expanded collaboratively by the course instructors. While past theoretical and critical engagement with Menotti’s operas has been slim, together we argue that updated productions of Menotti’s double bill resonate profoundly with McLuhan’s positive analyses of new modalities of communication. Riding a wave of renewed interest in the social and psychological impact of communication technologies in our contemporary world, innovative stage productions of Menotti’s double bill resonate with new audiences in stimulating and thought-provoking ways. Exemplified with audio-visual clips from the University of Toronto Opera.
The Italian-American opera composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was among the first to embrace new media in the mid-twentieth century. His innovative theatrical works were the first to be composed for radio broadcast (The Old Maid and the Thief, 1941) and the new medium of television (Amahl and the Night Visitors, 1951)1. Yet, while enthralled with writing for the newly emerging media of entertainment, including radio, television, and film as well as the operatic stage, Menotti remained both highly intellectual and in a sense inertly theatrical, demonstrating a high degree of cynicism. Such cynicism was at the center of his inception of The Medium (1946), a tragic two-act chamber opera to which he was obliged to append a light-hearted yet in some ways more sarcastic “curtain raiser,” The Telephone (1947), premiered as a double bill at the Heckscher Theatre on 18 February 1947 in New York before moving to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in May of that year2. Together, The Telephone and The Medium form a dyad that, in the cultural context of the mid-twentieth century, unites in a similar malevolence toward, if not frustrated agitation with, a rapidly changing world. As this article explores through a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, Menotti’s engagement with the distancing effects of technology on the operatic stage in the immediate post-WWII years offers a unique avenue for examining our continuing fascination with the human condition in response to technology. Like his mid-century contemporaries, who engaged in philosophical introspection and existentialist angst in various artistic media (think of Ingmar Bergman’s films Through a Glass Darkly, or The Silence, or Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot), Menotti was similarly invested in employing satire and irony when exploring the deterioration of human relationships. But, as we argue in this collaboratively written article, it is Menotti’s investment in media and technology that makes The Telephone and The Medium resonate beyond their existentialist counterparts and speak directly, if sarcastically, to millennials. Despite the composer having fallen into relative obscurity for decades3, Menotti’s double bill communicates to modern audiences now in a new and powerful way; indeed, finding their McLuhan moment, The Telephone and The Medium, as this article attempts to demonstrate, are riding the new technology wave foretold by Toronto communications and media guru Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). When considered in relation contemporary technological concerns, these two Menotti miniatures ably bridge the generation gap.
Displaced Cultural Contexts
Menotti and his contemporaries lived through great technological, economic, political and social change in the Western world. The Telephone can be read as a notable response to these immense technological and social changes of the mid-twentieth century. While communications theorists such as Marshall McLuhan pondered the social impacts of technology in a wide range of scholarly and popular writings—McLuhan argues that “with technology, there occurs the extension of the ear and voice”4 —Menotti’s The Telephone tackled technological and social questions through the operatic medium. Corroborating McLuhan’s assertion on the technological extension of human faculties, Menotti, for example, uses Lucy’s telephone calls to demonstrate how she is able to connect with those far away to circumvent her physical restrictions. Menotti also criticizes this newfound power with humor, showing that as a result of increased use of technology, Lucy’s consequent neglect of Ben—her beloved who is physically beside her in her apartment—can be perceived as normative. In a similar manner, The Medium can be seen as a response to the political and economic changes of Menotti’s time. Written merely two years after the end of the Second World War, its dark themes and characters, in particular the mute orphan Toby and the shrewd con artist Madame Flora, called Baba, may be seen as representations of the social repercussions of war and the general spirit of a war- and world-weary era.
The story of The Telephone, as we have alluded, centers around Lucy who is, to put it lightly, obsessed with her telephone. “To Lucy, the telephone is her lifeline to the world,” writes John Ardoin.5 If the phone rings, she must pick it up, even at the expense of conversing with her soon-to-be fiancé, Ben, who is urgently trying to propose marriage to her before leaving on a trip. Although telephones were still largely reserved for wealthy urbanites in the 1940s, and the technology was not nearly as pervasive as it is today, Menotti was able to predict and illustrate the effects of over-reliance, and even addiction. By updating the rotary phone to a smartphone, which is capable of calling, emailing, texting, internet browsing, connecting on social media, Skyping, and many other features that make these devices invaluable today, a modern-day director is able to leverage audience sympathies towards Lucy’s addiction and Ben’s predicament. As the University of Toronto Opera director Michael Albano observed in a preconcert lecture: “telephone addiction has reached a level that would surprise even Menotti,” and consequently, “the author is more timeless than ever.”6 This assertion becomes even more pertinent if considered through the lens of Marshall McLuhan, who spent much of his scholarly career examining the social and psychological impacts of various media of communication on social structure and perception. How could media impact society? How could this be reflected in art? Menotti’s Telephone fit right into McLuhan’s theory.
To give an extremely brief overview, consider, as McLuhan did, the development of communication through typography—in other words, the mass reproduction of the written word afforded by the printing press. McLuhan believed media to be extensions of human faculties and senses. Where writing extended human speech across time and space in ways previously impossible, it also transferred a sonic medium—the voice—to the realm of the visual, be it written, or later printed. Thus, the period between the invention of the printing press until the epoch of sound recording is referred to in media ecology more broadly as “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” as he termed it, so named for the inventor of the Western printing press.
For McLuhan, the psychological and social ramifications of the print medium were ideas of abstraction. As he rationalized, the word and its encapsulated ideas, abstracted from sound and placed in print, enforced linear thought, leading to the development of “grammar.” The shortest distance between A and B became a straight line. In the ages preceding the adoption of print media, perceptually speaking, points A and B (thought and speech) existed simultaneously; no measure of space and time existed in between. This is likewise the case with eras following the age of print, such as, for example, that of Menotti, or, our own for that matter. During the Gutenberg era, Western society existed in “visual space.” Today, as in the days of agrarian society, we occupy “acoustic space”—a metaphor in reference to the simultaneous experience of sound instigated in the wake of telephonic technology. The onset of any new media, however, retains elements of the former: “we drive into the future looking in the rearview mirror” as McLuhan once so eloquently put it. Indeed, the twentieth century was the first age to incur the consequences of the return to aural space, and, not surprisingly, it is the artist who is famously most sensitive to these changes. The plot of The Telephone can thus be interpreted as a cultural reaction to the onset of new media. The slim narrative of the opera reinforces McLuhan’s observations about how “our Western values, built on the written word, [were] considerably affected by the electric media of telephone, radio, and TV.”7
Potential applications of a McLuhanesque interpretation to The Medium are far less obvious. Reframed in McLuhanesque terms, The Medium might be understood as articulating the tension between an aural mode of existence and linear “logic” as is found in print culture. As McLuhan explains, the printed book is “an extension of the visual faculty” that intensifies perspective and the fixed point of view. “Associated with the visual stress on point of view and the vanishing point that provides the illusion of perspective there comes another illusion that space is visual, uniform and continuous.”8 How this applies to The Medium is as follows: the illusion that Menotti creates, whereby the hostess purports to conjure up the voices of deceased children, suggests a tension between the aural mode of existence—that of faith (as exhibited by the believing parents for the unseen sound source)—and visuality. The predominance of oral media—like the telephone, the radio, and the television—enforces, for McLuhan, a simultaneous perceptual bias, not governed by the norms of visual space.9 However, these perceptual paradigms were at a point of transition in the mid-twentieth century. Again, the onset of any new mode of perception retains elements of the former. The frustration of the “literate” person with the telephone is no different than Menotti’s skepticism of faith in his inspiration for The Medium.10 As McLuhan wrote in 1964, “the ultimate conflict between sight and sound, between written and oral kinds of perception and organization of existence is upon us.”11 Menotti’s operas contemporaneously articulate unique parameters of this conflict, and McLuhan’s elaborations on this theme provide a framework through which to examine the altering ontologies of social life, and communication more broadly, as presented in Menotti’s double feature.
More directly pertinent to an appraisal of the thematics and imagery of The Telephone is the opposing view articulated by current Canadian social critic Giles Slade in the “Story of Technology and Loneliness,” the introductory chapter to The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness (2012). Building on McLuhan, Slade argues that since media technology extends our speech and senses, collapsing space and time, so to speak, then it stands to reason that the extension of self comes at the cost of intimacy and more “traditional” relationships. Slade's fundamental point is that lack of interaction, impeded by technological reliance and mediation, becomes reciprocal, breeding a further lack of interaction enforced by subsequent technological developments created in the wake of continually emerging social trends. So, since the telephone extended the voice and hearing, it was no longer necessary to interact physically with the contact. Distances could be bridged easily, at the expense of human touch or proximity. But does this communicative conservatism described by Slade fully account for changes of modes of communication and perception? Does Slade’s criticism fail to account for a renewed definition of communication itself within renewed and diverse contexts?
McLuhan and Slade, each in opposing ways, suggest a certain skittishness over silence and solitude that has become increasingly prevalent through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.12 McLuhan, of course, was famously optimistic about the communalism he saw emerging through new electric media, including the telephone and television.13 Some extent of this fawning asseveration is undoubtedly true, evinced by broadcast media taking increasing interests in the last century’s growing social conscience through events like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Gulf War, and continuing through to contemporary online concern with police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and also in Toronto.14 It remains unclear, however, exactly how much of this burgeoning preoccupation with media can be attributed to the technologies themselves and how much is only leveraged by them. Giles Slade, after all, takes a more paranoiac view of these social and communicative technologies, suggesting indignantly that new technologies like the ones in which McLuhan took such fascinated interest are to blame, “shrinking man to an atomic unit orbiting, serving, and servicing the machinery of his city and his economy.”15 But have both of these critics of modernity, for all of their disagreement over how we should judge our new relational instruments, not ignored a crucial existential function of the human self? As John Ardoin notes, Menotti includes “a barb or two that inflicts a surface wound of recognition—of discovering something of ourselves in his characters.”16 After witnessing a live performance of The Telephone, it seems (to us) that Menotti's personal philosophy reflects values closer to those of Marshall McLuhan's than those of the Giles Slade, who at times comes across as somewhat of a Luddite.17 Although Menotti seems to touch upon some of the same issues that Slade does, he offers a more positive view of technology.
Giles Slade, writing well into the era of ubiquitous smartphone technology, paints a bleak picture. As he opines: “Machines still proliferate. Human relationships are still in decline. We no longer have the time to take time even with those closest to us.”18 He goes on to describe how modern society is a slave to technology, and how it is making us increasingly lonely, isolated, and dependent. “You carry your phone, your music device, your tablet with you. For today’s carefully trained consumers, sharing is an intrusion on personal space.”19 Worst of all, this technology is taking us away from our core purpose. “We no longer have sufficient time, attention, or energy to devote to the one thing that makes life truly worth living: our relationships with others.”20 This statement is reminiscent of Lucy, not having enough attention, and Ben, not having enough time to have a meaningful conversation with Lucy about their relationship. Indeed, Slade observes the increasing tendency for people to anthropomorphize electronic devices as a way to “replace intrapersonal interactions.”21 He describes how “chronic loneliness is a powerful human force” that is responsible for the increasingly prevalent tendency to imbue “non-human agents with humanlike characteristics, motivations, intentions and emotions.”22 Lucy does exactly this when she finds Ben about to cut the telephone cord, or—as in the University of [blank] updated production—smash the smartphone with a hammer. She seeks to protect her beloved telephone from Ben’s increasing rage. So, whereas Slade writes about loneliness in terms of how people resort to devices when lonely, or how devices create loneliness, in The Telephone it’s not clear that Lucy is particularly lonely (although a deeper psychological analysis might yield this fact). In fact, in the opera Ben comes across as being more alone than his girlfriend (who is always chattering away to someone on the phone), as he cannot communicate in the traditional sense (upheld by Slade) with the one he loves. Although Ben and Lucy are beside one another for much of the 22-minute opera, he is unable to command her attention. Only when he leaves and is able to contact her via telephone does he get her attention. No wonder Menotti ironically subtitles the opera “L’amour a trois”!
In contrast to Slade, Marshall McLuhan writes, “why should the phone create an intense feeling of loneliness? … Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension? … The answer to these questions is simply that the phone is a participant form that demands a partner.”23 What is perhaps most sad about The Telephone is that Ben is not that partner for Lucy. But when Lucy realizes that Ben is no longer there, she sings, “I don't know why I feel depressed.” Giles Slade has the answer: we have “fabricated the means to no longer be psychologically alone, but only at the cost of actually being alone.”24 “One of the principal jobs of personal electronics,” he states, “is to distract us or to provide prosthetic substitutes for human company.”25 In Menotti’s scenario, however, Lucy uses the telephone not so much “to dull the pangs of loneliness,” as Slade would have it, but to isolate herself from the one who loves her. She jeopardizes forming a closer, bonding relationship with the one who is nearest to her, proximally and emotionally. Only when she is physically left alone does she realize her loneliness—either that, or she misses the sound of her own speaking/singing voice.
Although The Telephone takes a very literal approach to showing the problems with technology in modern society, the message of The Medium (pun intended) is more subtle. As the counterpart to The Telephone, it offers a more allegorical depiction of technology as preventing positive human interaction. Over the course of the drama it becomes clear that Baba earns her income by holding sham séances and deceiving her patrons into believing that she is able to communicate with their lost loved ones. She does so through a combination of her own theatricality and the manipulation of technology. Her manufactured deceptions include using descending lights, a moving table, and most importantly, a somewhat transparent wall that appears to show spirits on the other side, all of which require the use of manufactured technological innovations on Baba’s part. Through these deceptions she prevents her patrons from holding real conversation. Instead of conversing about their grief over the loss of their dead son, one set of patrons, the young couple Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, find more comfort in the false truth that they can hear their deceased child laughing. Baba effectively uses technological interventions to prevent them from talking with or consoling one another, or interacting with others in real life, and instead manifests in them an unshakeable belief in something that has essentially no proof of being real, but is more comfortable to believe. The false comfort that Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau feel is reminiscent of how Lucy receives comfort from social interaction through technological means, such as her Skype call with Pamela.26 In both cases technology is used as a way to provide a more comfortable interaction with distant others than the alternative of having to socialize in the real world.27 Deeper consideration of the updated settings and musical content of these conjoined and symbiotic chamber operas, however, suggest a renewed definition of communication in the twenty-first century—one fought against by Menotti and Slade, but embraced by today’s millennials.
Renewed Staging, Renewed Context
Although the production by the University of Toronto Opera follows the longstanding tradition of presenting Menotti’s two operas in conjunction, its directors Michael Albano and Anna Theodosakis both deviate from the original stagings of these works, taking liberties with their interpretations of the librettos and, in particular, the settings. Like many a modern-day opera director, they readily adapt and update the original texts and settings to suit their personal interpretations as well as to meet the demands of modern audiences. Michael Albano’s version of The Telephone shifts the dramatic action from Lucy’s apartment, a 1940s private domestic space, to a 2015 Starbucks. Using a contemporary public milieu, he is able to emphasize the inherent luddism in The Telephone and engage with twenty-first-century concerns about technology and altered perceptions of mediated communication. Similarly, Anna Theodosakis changes Menotti’s deliberately unspecified setting in The Medium to Great Depression-era New York City, evoking a troubled historic era to connect the concerns of an economically weak America with that of our immediate context—i.e., a weak Canadian economy and depressed exchange rate vis-à-vis the US dollar. Despite their deviations from Menotti’s intended historical settings, updates and changes to The Telephone and The Medium successfully augment the themes and social criticisms inherent in Menotti’s librettos and effectively relate these operas to the lives and concerns of their contemporary Canadian audience. Similarly, both directors’ productions use art and ideas contemporaneous with Menotti’s era to cleverly acknowledge the social sentiments of the mid-twentieth century. For instance, Michael Albano’s set for The Telephone is reminiscent of American painter Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), depicting a Greenwich Village diner. Based on the contemporary set and production designs of Patrick Du Wors, the Starbucks setting demonstrates how concerns of the past are readily connected with those of the new millennium.
Image 1: In this photograph, we see Ben nervously standing over Lucy as she appraises her gift: a new MacBook. The replacement of the unique vase Lucy receives in the original staging with a modern computer works in tandem with Michael Albano’s onstage recreation of Starbucks to confront the audience with their own world. Indeed, the opening scenes of The Telephone bear a striking resemblance to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942). (Photo: Richard Lu)
The director’s clever choice of Starbucks also acknowledges the shifting role of coffee shops in mediating social interactions and the increasing role of corporations in everyday life. While coffee shops are often perceived as places of communication—they are associated with dates, meetings, and quick coffee runs for the office—they are also, paradoxically, places of isolation. Given the context of a university audience, students and academics often associate cafes with focused, individual studying. In this staging, seldom do characters share tables at Starbucks, and those that do struggle to communicate. Furthermore, the idea of a multi-national corporation connects with the idea of prescribed social interactions. Deception and exploitation are inherent in corporate marketing tactics and slogans from institutions like Starbucks. Through the use of Starbucks as a setting, Michael Albano subtly suggests that corporate marketing tactics have also found their way into our everyday interactions. In short, the added “extras” in the Starbucks setting—a couple of baristas, a student with laptop and knapsack, a skateboarder, a young businessman with iPhone, a construction worker with tool belt and hardhat, an elderly woman pushing a walker, a sunglass-wearing shopaholic with her fashionista daughter carrying Holt Renfrew bags—all emphasize the prominent role that technology and consumerism play in modern society.
Menotti himself was obsessive about effective staging, which resulted in his role as the stage director in the first production of The Medium.28 The University of Toronto Opera production may even have met his high standards of staging, since the set itself acted as a metaphor for the suffocating environment where communicating with death was the only release. On the capacious stage of the MacMillan Theatre, a smaller raised stage with shallower depth was set up downstage, conforming to Menotti’s conception of the opera as a “chamber work” for an intimate space.29 This stage within a stage trope is repeated with ever-smaller spaces within the space, including the closet where Toby stage-manages Madame Flora’s séance, the puppet theatre where Toby presents his puppet plays and where the makeshift curtains become his death shroud. The motif of puppets resonates throughout the opera, with Madame Flora, the deft puppet master, controlling the action and emotions of all the other characters. In this production, Toby contributes to the puppetry motif, by himself controlling the levers of Madame Flora’s manufactured séance from a control booth located on stage left. By allowing the audience to view Toby in the control booth working the leavers and special effects used to create a sense of authenticity around the séance, this production made obvious the multiple layers of deception and manipulation at work. This set design allowed us to see that even if Baba’s paying customers were not actually in communication with their dead children, they did communicate to the off-stage Toby, who felt, and reacted to, their grief. Monica’s ghostly presence behind the translucent wall at the back of the stage added to the scenic effect.
Image 2: This image from the opening séance of The Medium exemplifies stage director Anna Theodosakis clever divisions of stage space. It demonstrates to the audience how Baba is able to manipulate her customers to such dazzling effect. Toby, in the far-right division of the stage – invisible to the customers – manipulates a series of levers to achieve supernatural lighting effects. In doing so, he accentuates the seemingly ghostly presence of Monica, appearing from the far-left behind a translucent backdrop as she eerily sings in character to Baba’s customers. (Photo: Richard Lu)
Menotti’s musical representation of what appears to be materialistic disconnect is accomplished through the invocation of musical motifs, strategic instrumentation, clear musical characterization, and differentiations in timbre. The musical setting parallels the libretto’s narrative, exploring aspects of the material world of the stage through its immaterial sonic dimensions. For example, it is the telephone that ultimately stands between Lucy and Ben, preventing them from being emotionally and physically attached and interacting with each other. However, it is only through the telephone that Ben is finally capable of proposing to her. The comical scene is ultimately a parody of the lack of communication caused by technological devices. Similarly, it is Baba’s trunk with all the silks and jewelry that maintains a distance between her and Toby by allowing them to transform in separate ways. Baba used the costumes to become Madame Flora, a medium who preys on the sorrows of others, while Toby dons the robes of princes and kings to escape to an imaginary place where he feels validated.
These material boundaries separating the characters themselves are represented musically through both a series of interrupting motifs and the construction of a unique sonic world for each character. Menotti “had affection for his instruments, [and] he always thought of them as friends.”30 Instrumentation plays a key role in the unfolding drama; indeed, through the use of instruments Menotti creates a distinctive musical personality for individual characters and explores aspects of their inner psyche and relationships with others while also emphasizing their differences. An interesting example is the characterization of the “the telephone” itself in The Telephone. The phone is granted a unique personality, becoming anthropomorphized by Ben during an attempt at retaliation for its incessant interruptions. The characteristic “orchestral” ring of the telephone—a motif featuring trills followed by rapid riffs sounded in different instrumental pairs (oboe and trumpet; oboe and clarinet; flute and clarinet)—is associated with Lucy. In contrast, a four-chord thrumming heartbeat rhythm is associated with Ben each time he hesitantly attempts to propose to Lucy. In each case, the proposal is interrupted by the ringing telephone. A variant of the telephone motif, followed by a downward cascading riff on solo piano, foreshadows Ben’s attempt to “kill” his enemy (the telephone) with a hammer blow. Menotti’s score subtly yet deftly depicts the competition between the two rivals—Ben and the telephone—for Lucy’s attention and love.
#1 Score p. 12 – Ben’s and Lucy/telephone motifs (6 mm. after rehearsal no.7)
#2 Score p. 44-45 – Ben’s rage/hammer blow (rehearsal no. 30)
(stage directions: he notices a pair of scissors [hammer] on the table. He arms himself … and approaches the telephone slowly and menacingly.
Suddenly the telephone rings out loudly and desperately, like a child crying for help. Lucy rushes in and takes the telephone protectingly [sic] in her arms.)
Lucy’s musical characterization is dependent on the varying nature of her phone calls. These include: a lilting melody with virtuosic outbursts to convey the frivolous nature of her conversation with Margaret; a syncopated rhythmic figure to convey her frustration upon receiving—yet again—another “wrong number” call; and a heavy brass passage to represent George’s anger with Lucy on the other end of the phone. In a fourth phone call, a two-way bel canto “duet” for one voice, across the phone (Skype) lines, conveys the overly melodramatic tale of pain and woe experienced by a distraught Lucy as she converses with her friend Pamela. Throughout the drama, instrumental color, rhythm and changing musical styles help delineate character actions and demarcate dramatic moments.
In The Medium, Menotti similarly uses music to draw attention to the inner psychology of the characters, illustrating their individual standpoints on ensuing events, and imbuing each with a deeper “symbolic dimension.”31 Lilting conjunct melodies, lullabies and waltzes are used to portray the youthfulness and innocence of Monica. As Madame Flora’s exploited daughter, Monica’s melodies frequently create a bleak and distant soundscape, as if to convey an emotional distance between parent and child. In the “Black Swan” lullaby (“The sun has fallen and it lies in blood”) a regular pulsing rhythm that sounds like a hypnotic gypsy drum beat (created by cello drones) underscores Monica’s haunting melody—an effect heighted in this production with Toby beating time on a tambourine, an instrument associated with his gypsy heritage. While the unchanging rhythmic pattern is suggestive of a soothing lullaby, the modal melody is more ominous than comforting, cultivating in the listener a sense of apprehension and foreboding. A rare moment of phenomenal song in the opera, Monica’s lullaby subtly communicates to the audience where her loyalty lies. Although she is singing to Baba, the sonic “otherness” of her song (e.g., lowered seventh scale degree, drum-beat rhythm, repetitive melodic lines, and simple folk-like structure) aligns more with Toby, the orphan Roma boy from the streets of Budapest. Obliquely, she sings to comfort him, not Baba.
“Black Swan” lullaby (score p.116; 4 measures after rehearsal no. 32; Allegretto con moto, 5mm total; a couplet)
Baba is a manipulative woman preoccupied with her own survival, teetering between this world and the next. Distrustful of those around her and given to sudden bursts of temper, she is initially preoccupied with the material world and with making money through deceptive means. But in the second act, having succumbed to her manufactured spiritual world where her convictions are shaken, she realizes the superficiality of the material world and, with the aid of her wanton drinking habit, escapes into herself. Defined by a declamatory recitative-like vocal style—as depicted, for example, in her opening shout at Toby—Baba readily conveys her “mercurial nature.” Indeed, she is “quickly defined by the manner in which she fluctuates from icy control to fiery flare-ups.”32 However, upon being assaulted by a “ghost” during the opening séance, her characterization begins to change—a transformation that Menotti aids through music. The declamatory style is never fully abandoned; rather, it is interspersed by tenuously elongated lyrical moments, as when she describes the ghostly hand that grabbed her, or dropping to “sotto voce” to suggest her complete and utter terror, and delusion. A contralto, her lower register is exploited by Menotti during more lyrical passages when, for instance, she muses on her fears, or attempts to mimic Monica, usurping her vocal style. It’s as if the composer is seeking to convey Baba’s last effort to hold on to some kind of grounded faith or reality by employing conjunct melodic lines previously associated with Monica.
Moreover, Menotti sharply contrasts these moments of calm with bursts of syncopated rhythms and disjunctive declamatory lines, heightening Baba’s unsteady and delusional state of mind. Only in her “conversations” with Toby do Baba’s vocal lines rigidly adhere to an unwavering declamatory style. Even when Baba, “with calculated tenderness tells Toby she loves him as if he were her own,” in order to extract answers from him, does Menotti’s music reveal her more ominous agenda as “dissonances are subtly introduced into the orchestra [to] contradict her.”33 Although she fails to see that her reality is crumbling before her, nothing is drastic enough to bridge the gap between her and Toby—a chasm that Menotti makes explicit through music. A mute who is unable to represent himself vocally, Toby must depend on others to communicate for him, or, more accurately, the music associated with Toby is, for the most part, determined by others. This means that the actor playing Toby receives much of his instruction on how to play a particular scene from Menotti’s music. When Toby is with Monica, for instance, the power of their vivid imaginations to create and explore fantastical worlds is expressed through joyful sounds that simultaneously convey their genuine affection for each other. In contrast, during the séance, the sorrowful music of the participants as they lament the loss of their loved ones also communicates Toby’s empathy for others. Thus Baba’s declamatory style characterizes her as an aggressor, while the dissonant chords that interrupt Monica’s lyrical ariosos suggest that Toby inhabits a harsh, cruel world.
Through her interruptions, Baba becomes a symbol for practical, objective materiality that destroys the innocent, immaterial fantasy world created by her daughter. One example is Baba’s interruption of Monica’s waltz at the beginning of Act 2. Here, Monica and Toby are united in the immaterial world of sound. Menotti conjures up a virtuosic carnival-style waltz to mimic the child-like imaginary space the young couple escapes to together. Assuming the role of a shy court minstrel or troubadour in wooing Monica, Toby silently demonstrates the strong bond between them through his actions; they intuitively understand and trust one another and share an abiding love. This blissful, carefree moment quickly turns to fear, however, when a drunken and disheveled Baba bursts in and interrupts this childlike fantasy. Her brutal interruption symbolizes practical, objective materiality destroying the innocent, immaterial fantasy world created by Monica and Toby.34 Through her actions, Baba’s deceptions, guilt and self-doubt are revealed to all.
opening of Act 2
Menotti wrote his own librettos, meaning that, like his nineteenth-century forbear, Richard Wagner, he was able to give equal attention to details of the text and the score. Like Wagner, he too was attentive to the visual parameters and cinematic—or televisual—capabilities of operatic theatricality.35 The color red, for instance, which foreshadows Toby’s death in the final scene, permeates the libretto; in the waltz, Monica speaks of a “red tie” (Monica’s Waltz), and other references include “bright red silk and golden scarf” and “bolt of red silk” mentioned during Baba’s inquisition of Toby. Sensitive scenic and lighting design, as in the University of Toronto Opera production, can build on Menotti’s subconscious communication with the audience, as for example in the lighting of a reddish hue incorporated at the opening of Act 2 that gradually suffuses to a deeper and darker shade of red as the climactic moment nears. Weaned on sophisticated cinematography and visual stimuli in other dramatic contexts, millennials are accustomed to knowing how to read visual clues such as this, especially in the soap-opera-style aesthetics employed by Menotti in the closing murder scene. As in many a stage play by Tennessee Williams, a contemporary of Menotti’s, Baba’s alcohol bottle and pistol, conveniently stashed below the floorboards, foreshadow a tragic ending.
In The Medium and The Telephone, and especially in the former, we hear a profoundly meditative paean to silence. Of The Medium Menotti noted: “Despite its eerie setting and gruesome conclusion, The Medium is actually a play of ideas.” It “describes the tragedy of a woman caught between two worlds, a world of reality, which she cannot wholly comprehend, and a supernatural world, in which she cannot believe.”36 But exactly what that “supernatural world” is in which Madame Flora “cannot believe” would likely have been lost on the McLuhan of Understanding Media and the Slade of The Big Disconnect (and possibly on the producers of this university production as well). For Menotti has played on all of the theoretical or dramaturgical exponents of technological mediation a delightfully devious trick: the two operas, each replete with operatic convention and thus lots and lots of sound, evoke themes at semiotic odds with their own staging and composition. Craving a life reflective of the most delicate, genteel silent film yet finding the means for it nowhere, Menotti thumbs his nose artistically and proffers us instead two noisy, relentless, occasionally melodramatic operas as morbid satire of our aversion to silence! McLuhan, with his haughtily rhetorical style, and Slade, with his groundless alarmism, might have done well to attend Menotti’s double bill and think carefully on the performative (including vocal) dimensions and embodied significance of these works.
The Deafening Roar of Silence in the New Millennium
Menotti was a connoisseur of silent film. So recalls, at least, his biographer John Gruen, whose sympathetic portrayal of the twentieth-century Italian-American composer discloses a man of delicate taste and self-assured quietude. Tasked with screenwriting and film scoring by a contract with MGM, through which he was afforded the happy opportunity to partake of many silent films, Menotti was nonetheless quickly overwhelmed.37 Undoubtedly the mercurial demands of Hollywood producers and their audiences had taxed him in a way similar to his earlier European tour of The Medium and its curtain-raiser The Telephone. He recounted in a letter to his lifelong friend Robert Horan his experience as the London intelligentsia’s newest parvenu: “I’ve been seeing very few people, all of them only superficially amusing. That is to say, they quickly turn into bores, or, as some Frenchman or other said, ‘they steal your solitude without giving you any company.’ . . . I’m sick of them. The only thing that is keeping me here now is the filming of The Medium.”38 Given that he valued his solitude so highly, it should be no surprise that, in an era burgeoning with technological innovations linked to communication, both The Telephone and The Medium take silence as one of their central themes.
Baba’s own struggle throughout the opera can be viewed as allegorical to the struggle with technology that Lucy doesn’t realize she is engaging in. Caught between two worlds, Baba’s struggle initially begins when she originally feels the cold hand around her throat, and it continues forthwith throughout the opera. This can be seen as allegorical to the initial moment in The Telephone in which Ben gives Lucy a laptop; from that point on she is always being pulled away from the real world, in which Ben is trying to propose to her, by any technological stimulus she is exposed to. Extending this to Menotti himself, who is caught between the conflicting worlds of the visual and the acoustic, raises questions about what communication is, both on and offstage. Although much subtler in its themes on technology, The Medium can be seen as a piece that continues the idea expressed by The Telephone in which technology provides a way to avoid social interaction. This makes the two pieces very effective as a double bill, as The Telephone introduces the idea of technology as a barrier to social interaction in an easy way for the audience to understand, and then The Medium extends that theme later in the evening in a way that requires the audience to perceive the allegory between the two.
Communication, though mediated, is still communication. Despite not having a voice, Toby communicates his love for Monica at the opening of Act 2, creating a moment of sublimity in The Medium. (see Image 3) Within the fake world of Madame Flora’s chamber, this is the one moment of real communication in the opera: Toby grabs Monica, and with inarticulate noises conveying a desperate need to speak, declares his love for her through “the only love duet in opera sung by one person.”39 How is this effect achieved? By “sleight of voice,” of course! The scene is created by effective staging, in which Monica, playing the wooer and the wooed, continually exchanges positions during the duet, in front of Toby looking at him, then behind him, cradling him, all the while envoicing through song the exquisite words that the voiceless Toby wants to sing aloud himself: “Monica, Monica, can’t you see, that my heart is bleeding, bleeding for you?”40 Poignantly, she ends with the words, “Toby, I want you to know that you have the most beautiful voice in the world!”41 In those powerful words of irony, everyone in the audience understands that something real is being communicated.
Image 3: Here, at the opening of Act II of The Medium, we see Toby embraced by Monica following a performance in his ad-hock puppet theatre (pictured left) and his silent admission of love for her. The bolt of red fabric constituting the curtain of the puppet theatre later doubles as a symbolic representation of Toby’s blood after he is slain by Baba. (Photo: Richard Lu)
The “medium” of opera is one of the many ways in which composers and singers can “speak” to us. Some people, however, find that this medium is an interference that gets in the way of the narrative properly reaching and affecting the audience. They find film and television a more direct form of communication. This assertion is ironic since film and television place more mechanistic elements between the speaker and listener than live opera does. In many ways, opera may be the best medium to connect the speaker (singer, librettist, composer) with the listener (the audience) due to the synthesis of so many modes of expression: aural (hearing the singing and orchestra), visual (sets, costumes, action) and sensual. This synthesis is presented to all the listener’s senses, live and unfiltered, providing the optimal medium to absorb the message of the work.
University students are not always the most engaged of audiences. Before the opera, during intermission, and after the show, the glow of cellphones could be seen lighting up the faces of many patrons in the lobby and auditorium. Given the themes addressed in these operas, and their powerful and mesmerizing presentation, it’s ironic that so many turned immediately to their cellphones rather than to their friends and seatmates when the applause subsided and the house lights went up. Reflecting Lucy’s exact behavior, many audience members turned immediately to their phones rather than engage in face-to-face communication with those around them. The use of technology in society can be viewed as a positive thing; however, technology can act as an obstacle to being able to partake in real life socialization. But what, in the twenty-first century condition of mediation, constitutes reality? The Telephone easily paints a cautionary portrait of the—conservatively phrased—detriment that technology has on human social interactions: Lucy can hardly pay attention to Ben because of her laptop and phone. During the opening scene in the University of Toronto Opera production, café patrons—the “extras” on stage who were not singing—reached out to members of the audience through Snapchat and Twitter, forcing recipients in the audience to question if technology is a barrier to socialization or a bridging mechanism. In The Medium allegory and technological manipulation portray technology as effectively impeding socialization. Technology can be employed overtly or surreptitiously, productively or maliciously, but generally it offers few comforts.
“Hey Siri, where can I get sushi?” asks the National Post’s Tech Reporter April Fong in recent a Facebook video.42 The video, which promoted the latest features of the 2015 Apple iPhone 6S, acquired 2550 views in an hour. Fong’s video encapsulates the culture Michael Albano is responding to in his directorial envisioning of The Telephone. We live in an age where banal videos celebrating commonplace cellphone features populate our Facebook “News Feeds” and garner thousands of views within hours. As demonstrated by the query April Fong directs towards her telephone, ours is a time in which people seek word of mouth recommendations from their cellphones rather than their friends. Our concerns about waning human interaction as a result of technology are not unlike Menotti’s. Lucy’s interest in the telephone is reminiscent of Fong’s interest in the iPhone. Albano’s version of The Telephone uses contemporary technology, such as the smart phone and MacBook laptop, to modernize Menotti’s 1940s concerns about the wired telephone.
Ultimately, Ben succumbs to the technology he despises so much. On the surface, this may appear as a troubling message about technological assimilation. But viewed differently, Ben’s actions might be interpreted as arriving at a new understanding of technology—not as an antagonistic force, but as a tool that he can control and bend to his will. By using the phone, instead of trying to destroy or avoid it, Ben is able to get what he wants: a personal, intimate conversation with Lucy, albeit one mediated by technology. The ending is significant since it does not deny the ubiquity of machines in our society; rather, it encourages our control over our inventions, and demands that we recognize how technology influences our behavior and relationships with others. In contrast to Lucy, Ben uses the phone in a much more significant way: to make one of the most important decisions in his life, as opposed to engaging in trivial conversations with friends and acquaintances.
Menotti pokes fun at our dependence on machines, yet, at the same time, the ending of The Telephone shows how useful and important technology can be. Outright rejection of new technologies is not only fruitless, it is an inappropriate method for understanding it. As McLuhan would have it, we should understand these technologies as a new “media environment” for communication. Necessarily, this calls into question what constitutes communication within this new environment. The Menotti productions performed by the University of Toronto Opera effectively demonstrate the librettist-composer’s concerns for technology while also implying that with changing technologies come different modes and norms of communication. That this message should come from the operatic stage ought not be surprising. Indeed, The Telephone and The Medium are only two examples that illustrate opera’s relevance for modern society—including tech-savvy millennials—providing a rich and satisfying complete aesthetic experience while raising relevant and challenging contemporary questions. Even though the characters in The Telephone primarily serve a comic purpose, they also provoke audiences to question the use of cell phones and other technologies in everyday life. Are we as obsessed as Lucy, who is oblivious to her surroundings? Or are we in a constant battle with technology, as Ben is? Slade proposes that technology will make us lonelier, while Sherry Turkle suggests that our technological “quests for romance are tied up in behavior that discourages empathy and intimacy.”43 But in The Telephone and The Medium, technology on and offstage brings people closer together and subtly promotes new modalities of communication, corresponding to McLuhan’s understanding of new modalities of communication as generating renewed notions of intimacy and relationships.
Archibald, Bruce and Jennifer Barnes. “Menotti, Gian Carlo.” Grove Music Online. Accessed February 17, 2016, Oxford Music Online.
Ardoin, John. The Stages of Menotti. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
Fong, April. “Apple Inc. IPhone 6S Features.” National Post, November 10, 2015.
Gruen, John. Menotti: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
Kirk, Elise K. American Opera. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Joe, Jeongwon and Sander L. Gilman, eds. Wagner & Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Menotti, Gian Carlo and Meredith Lillich. “Menotti’s Music Dramas.” Educational Theatre Journal, 11(1959): 271-279.
Menotti, Gian Carlo. The Telephone or L’Amour a Trois. Orchestral Score. New York: Schirmer, 1947.
_______. The Medium. Orchestral Score. New York: Schirmer, 1967.
Slade, Giles. The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness. New York: Prometheus Books, 2012.
Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music: Volume 5, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2012.
_______. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin, 2015.
This article is based on research conducted by Professor Caryl Clark, doctoral student and Teaching Assistant Steven Hicks, and the contributions of seven undergraduate students in the course The World of Opera (Fall 2015), whose thought-provoking analyses of live performances of The Telephone and The Medium presented by the University of Toronto Opera at the MacMillan Theatre, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, 5-8 November 2015, provided the initial inspiration for this article. We’d like to thank Linda Hutcheon and Cecilia Livingston for their comments and suggestions. And our sincere thanks to Michael Albano, Resident Stage Director, and Sandra Horst, Director of Musical Studies (and conductor of the Menotti operas) at the University of Toronto Opera, and to administrator Catherine Tait, photographer Richard Lu, and videographer Ryan Harper for their assistance in the preparation of this article. All images and audio-visual examples are reproduced with permission. http://www.uoftopera.com
1 Archibald and Barnes, “Menotti, Gian Carlo,” Grove Music Online, Accessed February 17, 2016, Oxford Music Online.
2 Ardoin, The Stages of Menotti, 39, 52.
3 Taruskin, OHWM, 224. Taruskin notes that The Medium was one of Menotti’s last major operatic successes, despite the composer’s subsequent career lasting another four decades. Scholarship on Menotti, and more specifically The Medium, reflects this decades-long obscurity. Current literature consists of only a handful of generalist biographies and a couple of out-dated analytical Ph.D. dissertations.
4 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 289. McLuhan’s scholarly writings had wide popular appeal; they were picked up in a range of popular media, including magazines, newspapers, television shows, and even the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall (1977).
5 Ardoin, Menotti, 52.
6 Pre-concert talk [name, place, date]
7 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 82.
8 Ibid., 172.
9 McLuhan understood the television as a wholly sensual experience, fully immersive in its visual and aural components, unlike the isolation of the visual when one interacts with a book.
10 Menotti described the roots of The Medium as originating in a visit he made to the Austrian hamlet of St. Wolfgang, where he was entertained by a baroness who, every evening after dinner, visited an alleged chapel where she held a séance with her deceased daughter, Doodly. On one occasion, Menotti visited the chapel and recalls, “it was a tremendously moving experience for me, so much so that I found myself with tears streaming down my cheeks. There was no doubt the baroness was actually seeing her daughter. I, on the other hand, saw nothing at all….The creative power of her faith and conviction made me examine my own cynicism and led me to wonder at the multiple texture of reality. It also made me wonder whether belief was a creative power and whether skepticism could destroy creative powers….[T]his episode was the beginning of The Medium, which despite its eerie setting and gruesome conclusion, is actually a play of ideas.” Ardoin, Menotti, 39-40.
12 MIT professor and social commentator, Sherry Turkle, who specializes in the psychology of human relationships with technology, offers an alternative opinion that forges a middle ground between the seemingly opposing stances of Slade and McLuhan. Where Slade’s notion of “disconnect” is based upon the perceived solitude of technologically mediated interaction, Turkle suggests that existence in virtual space constitutes a metacommunity, a sentiment that McLuhan would have shared. See Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015), 61. Contra Slade, Turkle further emphasizes that solitude is in fact a prerequisite in the construction of meaningful relationships. It is from solitude that we “reach out to others and see them as separate and independent…. This makes the capacity for solitude essential to the development of empathy” (61). Turkle views the impossibility of solitude in the Internet age – a McLuhan-esque notion – as the locus of our lack of empathy, and thus as the cause of the disconnect described by Slade. For more on this view, see her earlier book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012). This earlier monograph, while exploring altering modalities of communication in the twenty-first century through qualitative research methods, betrays an ambivalence to the onset of new communication technologies; however, this ambivalence is largely absent in her more recent work, which strives instead—like this investigation—to understand “technological disconnect” as an altered modality of communication, and not “disconnect” per se.
13 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 5.
14 Filmmaker Norman Jewison was an early proponent of film as a vehicle for social satire and critique. Films such as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) exemplify precisely the sort of social conscience that McLuhan augured.
15 Giles Slade, The Big Disconnect, 9.and 10.
16 Ardoin, Menotti, 52.
17 Instead of embracing the human potentiality leveraged by new media, Slade refers to “human-mechanical neo-friendships” as causing “pangs of human loneliness.” The Big Disconnect, 13.
18 Slade, The Big Disconnect, 9; Turkle, Alone Together, 53-66. Turkle dedicates considerable attention to this phenomenon, providing qualitative accounts of the contemporary processes and practices by which technology is anthropomorphized, and in doing so grants clarity to the more sweeping, general commentary provided by Slade.
19 Ibid., 10.
20 Ibid., 11.
21 Ibid., 22.
23 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 292.
24 Slade, The Big Disconnect, 237.
25 Ibid., 13.
26 Director Michael Albano introduces new technologies like Skype to this updated production. Regarding virtual conversations, see Slade, The Big Disconnect, 237.
27 Ibid., 11.
28 Ardoin, Menotti, 42.
29 John Gruen, Menotti: A Biography, 70.
30 Ibid, 83.
31 Ibid., 69.
32 Ardoin, Menotti, 43.
33 Ibid., 46.
34 Monica’s expressions of immateriality are not limited to her relationship with Toby. For instance, when Monica pretends to be Doodly during the séance, there is an immediate musical contrast to when she instructs to “burn my old gloves. Burn all my schoolbooks, give away my dresses, give away my necklace. Burn, burn, give away…” A sudden change of tempo and pizzicato strings interrupt her typical legato lyricism.
35 Joe and Gilman, eds., Wagner & Cinema, 2010.
36 Gruen, Menotti, 69.
37 Ibid., 77.
40 Gian Carlo Menotti, The Medium, Libretto with score, 20.
42 April Fong, “Apple Inc. iPhone 6S Features.” National Post. November 10, 2015.
43 Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, 180.
Last modified on Friday, 08/03/2019
Caryl Clark and Steven Hicks with Kyra Assaad, Anna-Julia David, Adam Kasztenny, Patrick Kelly, Duncan Martin, Elliott McMurchy, and Kevin Matthew Wong
Professor of Musicology, University of Toronto. Research interests include Haydn Studies, Music and the Enlightenment, Interdisciplinary Opera Studies, Gender and Politics of Music Reception.