Seventy years ago, an annual Christmas tradition began, a one-act opera in English, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Less well-known is Menotti’s opera from three Decembers later, a three-act parable suitable also for Easter, The Saint of Bleecker Street. Its plot is simple: Annina, a young woman in New York City’s neighborhood of Little Italy, wants to become a nun, while her brother, Michele, strives to stop her. She enjoys the support of her neighbors and her parish priest, Don Marco, a target of her brother’s rage. In the end, she makes her religious vows, but at a price.
For all his prodigious and prolific musical work, Menotti (1911-2007) sometimes gets dismissed as second-hand and second-rate Puccini, but he deserves appreciation and study in his own right. In a career spanning seven decades and two continents, Menotti made his name early, so that by forty-four he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, had received two Pulitzer prizes, and was celebrated in London, Milan, and Paris. Although he avoided using the term, he composed verismo operas in English, verismo referring to the sort of everyday verisimilitude sought most notably by Giacomo Puccini in operas such as Tosca and Suor Angelica.
Even in the 1950s, Menotti’s Annina was an unusual candidate for religious life. Chronically ill, she experiences a mystical prayer life, each Good Friday seeing visions of the Passion and receiving the stigmata. Still, her longing to enter religious life has consequences sometimes encountered by others discerning that vocation. Ringing true are Michele’s disapproval, volatile and irrational to the point of physical violence, as well as Don Marco’s measured fatherly presence.
As such, Don Marco must comfort her, and he must confront her brother. Michele is an angry young man, living at odds with most of the virtues. He demands the priest tell him if he believes in Annina’s visions, and Don Marco tells Michele, “A priest is not a judge but only a guide.” Of course, reason fails with the unreasonable.
Michele and Annina are adult orphans sharing an apartment, from which he is often absent for work or for his girlfriend. When Annina receives her annual stigmata, neighbors flock to the apartment, causing an explosion of jealousy from Michele. As he furiously drives them from the flat, the scene becomes an inversion of Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple. When at the wedding reception of friends Michele ends up shedding blood, it is a grotesque distortion of the wedding at Cana. As Annina grows closer to God, her life fills with these stumbling blocks, twisted scenes from the life of Christ.
Her brother becomes an obstacle in a more literal sense. Act One of the opera ends with a religious procession, thus providing a parallel with the end of the first act of Puccini’s Tosca, but whereas the main characters in Tosca reverently let the procession pass, Michele tries to stop Annina from participating in it. This already frustrated man finds himself restrained by the faithful, who then go with Annina and join the procession. Some people who have discerned a religious vocation will recognize this pattern, that sometimes support comes more from veritable strangers than from one’s own family.
For Annina, her cross includes her brother’s boorish and self-absorbed behavior. He challenges her search for God and her desire to become a spouse of Christ. Michele rails against a decision he regards as abnormal and reduces her sense of religious vocation to delusions brought on by illness. He pleads that he needs her and must not lose her to her God. Annina tries to show him how she sees the situation. She tells him, “No one can ever be lost who wanders, searching for God.”
In her argument with her brother, she explains why she wants to take the veil, putting it in terms of love, the exclusive love of man and woman in a sacrament’s bond. Michele derides her explanation as that of a simple-minded child, and he asks her why God would choose her out of the whole human race. “Perhaps because I love Him,” she answers. When he counters that she is speaking as though she loved a human being, she replies, “How else can I love Him since I am human?” For Michele, love means using another person’s body for his own pleasure, and so such explanations are gibberish, outside his experience.
Sacraments and sacramentals exist to help Christians learn that in Christ one loves a person, not an idea or institution. Endlessly needy, Michele can see Annina’s desire for union with Christ only as a rejection of himself. For him, through her love for Christ, God has become Michele’s rival, and Michele’s love for Annina bursts forth as hatred for God.
Within the claustrophobic atmosphere of what may as well be a remote Tuscan or Sicilian village, these impassioned disputes between brother and sister, and between her brother and her priest, make this opera fundamentally about relationships. Menotti understood that a religious vocation is about one’s relationship with family and friends, as well as with God.
While not referring to The Saint of Bleecker Street by name, Kiri Te Kanawa could well have been describing it when she said in Opera for Lovers (1996) that opera explores and illustrates, “love, duty, temptation, morality, and strength of character in a closely confined society.” In that restricted environment, a small family in an old-fashioned ethnic neighborhood, Annina falls in love with God and desires to dedicate her life to Him. Menotti’s opera presents both moral struggle and strength of character set amidst questions of duty and love, the necessary basic ingredients for anyone discerning a call to religious life.
At its premiere, critics had high praise for The Saint of Bleecker Street. For Commonweal’s theatre critic, its “poetic truth is large and profound,” bridging “the alien worlds of pure faith and destructive reason.” In the secular press, Time quoted Menotti saying, “Whatever you believe, all men know that the love of God is incorruptible.” Throughout his life, Menotti, baptized Catholic, struggled with basic Christian belief, telling Robert R. Reilly in Crisis (May, 2001), of a lifelong inner conversation with God, to whose questions “I don’t know what to answer.” For many modern people, the pain of that bewilderment becomes their daily share in Christ’s sense of abandonment during his Passion.