Wrestling With The Medium


In 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti directed the film version of his opera The Medium in Rome–his first film directing assignment. The crew also included a conductor who had never recorded a note of music and a cast of singers who had never seen a film studio.

“It would be highly inaccurate to say that I enjoyed making my first film,” Menotti said almost thirty years later. “I missed all along the spontaneity of the stage and its immediacy of expression.” He came to think of the camera as “a merciless Medusa that petrifies all freshness before it.”

So he rarely looked at his scrupulously prepared script, and found that the improvised shots not only took less time to set up but also proved more satisfactory. As he looked at the rushes, the unedited film from each day of shooting, he felt like a novice composer surprised by the first hearing of what he has written.

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But there was one stricture he couldn’t avoid. He had to shoot the scenes to conform to a recorded sound track.

And then there was the star–Marie Powers, who felt slighted when the Genoa debut of the opera had someone else in the lead. She did everything she could to drag out the filming so that Menotti wouldn’t be able to attend, but Menotti got her under control by threatening to go to Genoa anyway and bringing in another director to finish the film.

The film version of The Medium opened to mixed reviews, and Menotti was equally ambivalent about his experience as director. He compared himself to a surgeon, saying, “The patient is still alive, and even looks a little better than before.”

His preference would have been to write an opera expressly for film, an opportunity that never arose, but within a year after his debut as a film director, he became the first composer to write an opera for American television–the Christmas favorite Amahl and the Night Visitors.

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