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The Old Maid and the Thief

The Old Maid and the Thief is a one act opera by Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, written and premiered in 1939. It was one of the earliest operas composed specifically for performance on the radio. The opera was premiered on NBC on April 22, 1939, and was first staged in Philadelphia on February 11, 1941.

Background

Menotti wrote the libretto himself; it was his first in English. The commission was from NBC. Rather than using the more contemporary through-composed style, he chose to return to the 18th century opera buffa method of composing set numbers, a format which worked well on the radio. There are 14 short scenes, each preceded by a narrated "announcement", in keeping with the medium of radio (to be excluded if fully staged). The harmonic language is tonal and conservative. The radio announcements are included in the score, but it is also marked for stage direction. The opera was moderately successful and helped establish his career in the United States. It is often performed in student workshops and at colleges.

The Old Maid and the Thief is a twisted tale of morals and evil womanly power. Menotti writes in the libretto "The devil couldn't do what a woman can- Make a thief out of an honest man." Menotti was inspired to write the story when he visited the family of Samuel Barber (his partner). He found that what seemed to be a quaint, cute town actually covered up a plethora of secrets about people and places.

Popular Arias

The opera is most known for two arias. First, "What curse for a woman, is a timid man (Steal me, sweet thief)," is a full scene, where Laetitia sings of her affection for Bob, the bum. The other popular aria is "Bob's Bedroom Aria," where Bob contemplates hitting the road. An old recording appears on LP and it was recorded for CD in Dallas, Texas in February 2007. The arias are excerpted and available in the Soprano volume of G. Schirmer's American Arias and the Baritone Volume of G. Schirmer's American Arias.

Synopsis

This one act opera, divided into 14 scenes, is about an old maid, Miss Todd, who is a busybody in her small town. Though she is of high standing in her community, her love life has been bare for over forty years. Her housemaid Laetitia is a young catty, eavesdropper who is wary of becoming an Old Maid like her employer. Bob, a wanderer, comes to Miss Todd's door one afternoon while the town gossip, Miss Pinkerton is visiting. Enamored of his beauty, Laetitia easily convinces Miss Todd to let him stay. Getting acquainted with each other Laetitia then convinces Bob to stay by promising him more food and accommodations without any cost.

The next day Miss Todd learns from Miss Pinkerton of an escaped convict matching Bob's description is in the area. Distressed she tells Laetitia that Bob is undoubtedly the thief and they must get rid of him. Once again, Laetitia, insinuating that Bob is in love with her, convinces Miss Todd to let him stay. Undeterred, she leaves money out for Bob to "steal". Eventually unable to continue financing Bob, she resorts to stealing from her neighbors. Meanwhile, Laetitia is falling in love with the wanderer and sings "Steal Me Sweet Thief" an aria of her love for him, asking him to steal her away before time ravages and withers her looks. Miss Pinkerton encounters Miss Todd and warns her to "Keep all the doors locked, keep all the windows closed" because the thief is in town and has stolen from the neighbors (when it is really Miss Todd who has been stealing from her neighbors.) Intending to leave the next morning Bob sings "When the Air Sings of Summer" (Bob's Bedroom Aria). To prevent him from leaving Laetitia asks him what he wants. He replies he would like to "have something to drink." Miss Todd, who, being a good prohibitionist, doesn't have any in the house and would scandalize the town if she was seen buying liquor, forms a plan with Laetitia to break into a liquor store.

The next day Miss Pinkerton visits Miss Todd at home and informs her that the liquor store has been violated and the owner attacked. A drunken Bob interrupts their conversation, singing loudly upstairs. She also says that the police are going to search every house to find the thief. Forcing Miss Pinkerton out the door, Miss Todd and Laetitia confront Bob about his true identity. Explaining the police were on their way, Miss Todd plans to run away with Bob. Bob refuses to runaway because he has done nothing wrong. Miss Todd "Is your love for me so small that you would see me in prison." Bob "Small? I don't love you at all" Miss Todd rages and leaves saying she would call the police and blame all the theft on him. Glumly, Bob and Laetitia duet on whether to stay and face the charges or leave, Laetitia winning the argument. They steal all Miss Todd's valuables including car and ride off together. Miss Todd returns to find everything stolen and collapses in grief.

Roles

Role Voice type Premiere Cast
April 22, 1939
(Conductor: - )
Miss Todd, Old Maid (unmarried) Mezzo-Soprano or Contralto
Bob, Wanderer (or Thief) Baritone
Laetitia, Miss Todd's Maid Soprano
Miss Pinkerton, Miss Todd's Spinster Neighbor Soprano

Other

This opera is popular in the United States for colleges and workshop productions due to its English libretto, untaxing roles (since it is only a 1 Act), and high musical value. The story and humor appeal to the modern American audience.

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