By most standards, a banner event in the history of American opera was scheduled to take place this past November. Everything seemed in place: a major work on the subject of one of the greatest painters of the Western tradition, written (libretto as well as music) by a composer rich in years and in innumerable popularly successful performances of his previous operas, presenting in the title role one of the most celebrated tenors of the last half century, conducted by a major European conductor and produced (under the composer’s direction)-by the distinguished opera company resident in our nation’s capital, with the whole package to be broadcast (on a delayed basis) by PBS on network television.

Curiously, the result was called a disaster. Gian Carlo Menotti’s Goya was premiered, in the year of the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday, on November 15 (and broadcast on PBS on November 28) at the Kennedy...

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