First broadcast on April 22, 1939, Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief was commissioned two years earlier by Samuel Chotzinoff, music director at NBC. In February 1941, the Philadelphia Opera Company staged the work, which was broadcast on television in May 1943. Contrary to popular belief, The Old Maid and the Thief was not the first radio opera. Several screen versions of The Old Maid and the Thief exist, and the work is still staged regularly.
Menotti often visited the home of his friend, Samuel Barber, in West Chester, PA. Enchanted by what he perceived to be a typical, sleepy American town, Menotti was fascinated to learn, through family gossip, of the sordid stories that brewed behind the quiet façades along the oak-lined streets. He thought an opera on such a tale would represent "the American scene." Menotti's characters, however, are stock commedia dell'arte figures. Laetitia is bright, energetic, and outspoken. The itinerant Bob is handsome, carefree, and gets what he wants; while the older, lonely women, Miss Todd and Miss Pinkerton, are simply amusing. After Miss Todd takes in a young stranger, Bob, she and her servant Laetitia are attracted to him and convince him to stay for a while. Rumors of an escaped convict in the area make them believe the mysterious man they shelter is a thief. Ironically, the women begin stealing both money and liquor as presents for Bob, hoping these will make him stay with them. When things become too complicated, Miss Todd decides to go to the police and turn in the "thief" staying with her. While she is gone, Laetitia convinces Bob to take Miss Todd's car and leave town with her.
The concept of a radio opera is un-operatic in that it eliminates entirely the visual aspect of the art form. For the original broadcast Menotti included a narrator who explained to the invisible audience the various scene changes, which could, therefore, be as "complicated" and drastic as desired or imagined.
Although he had not been speaking English for very long, Menotti felt he could create his own libretto. He had wanted to set English for quite some time: "I thought that because of its greater sharpness and greater variety of sounds, it offered to the musician much greater rhythmic possibilities than Italian." Conventional and fluid, Menotti's music makes the opera immediately accessible. Laetitia's aria in the sixth scene, "What a curse for a woman is a timid man," is the most popular number from the hour-long opera and is performed often in solo recitals. Menotti's popular piano piece, Ricercare and Toccata on a theme from The Old Maid and the Thief, elaborates a theme from the third scene of the opera.