Coming up this month is a musical event that is perfect for the holiday season, one that will entertain and enrich families. “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a one-act opera, will show in the Dance Palace Church Space at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 30.
With libretto and music by the popular composer Gian Carlo Menotti, the opera takes place at the time of the birth of Jesus. It is the retelling of the Three Kings of the Orient from the point of view of a young, crippled boy and his mother, who invite the kings to rest in their humble home.
This musical gem is unique in many ways, including that it features a young boy as its lead. It was the very first opera composed for television, premiering on Dec. 24, 1951, and was commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company for a performance by the NBC orchestra conducted by Thomas Shippers.
NBC wanted to add to its corporate image, and the network chose Menotti because his previous works on Broadway had won him both popular and critical acclaim. But Menotti had a difficult time with the commission; as his deadline was getting close, inspiration came just in time. Menotti visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and came upon a famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Adoration of the Magi.” When he saw the painting, the composer said he began to hear music in his head. He finished the work quickly and gave it to the production team.
The reception was overwhelmingly positive. According to several reports, five million people were tuned in—an amazing number of viewers, considering that television was in its childhood.
After the live telecast, the NBC switchboard was swamped with enthusiastic calls. The day after the performance, The New York Times put its review on the front page, an unprecedented placement. Olin Downes, the top music critic for the newspaper, wrote that this was a “historic event in the rapidly evolving art of television—Mr. Menotti, with a rare art, has produced a work that few indeed could have seen and heard last night save through blurred eyes and with emotions that were not easy to conceal. With this, television has become of age.” Variety, the entertainment journal, accurately predicted that the work “could well become a fixture of Christmas tradition.”
The story is straightforward. Amahl, a crippled boy who needs a crutch to walk, lives with his mother in impoverished circumstances. He tells her there is a big, shining star in the heavens, but she doesn’t believe him.
Later that night there is loud knocking and Amal gets out of bed and opens the door. To his shock, he sees three luxuriously dressed kings bearing gifts. They ask if they can rest for the night. Amahl’s mother welcomes them. One of the kings shows them a box of gold and, later that night, the mother decides to take just a little to help her and her son survive.
When she is discovered by one of the king’s pages, tension mounts. But the kings allow her to keep a few gold coins.She has nothing to give in return. Amahl offers the only thing he has for the Christ child: his crutch. As soon as he gives up the crutch, Amahl is miraculously cured and, with his mother’s permission, joins the kings on their way to Bethlehem.
This opera, as successful as it is, was not the only great achievement in Menotti’s artistic life, from 1911 to 2007. He began writing songs at the age of 7. He studied in Milan and, when his mother moved to the United States, he enrolled at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music. “The Consul,” Menotti’s first full-length opera, won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle prize as the best musical play of 1954.
Menotti wrote many successful operas and the music for several ballets, as well as the libretti for operas by American composer Samuel Barber. He also conceived his own festival, the Festival of Two Worlds, in Spoleto, Italy, which grew to be one of the most popular music events in all of Europe. The festival literally became “of two worlds” in 1977 with the founding of Spoleto USA in Charleston, S.C. In 1984, Menotti was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. The magazine, Musical America, chose him as the 1991 “Musician of the Year.”
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” shows at 7 p.m. on Dec. 29 and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 30 in the Dance Palace Church Space. Directed by Susie Stitt and produced by West Marin Players and the Dance Palace. Tickets—$30 for adults and $25 for children—can be purchased at dancepalace.org or by calling (415) 663.1075.
Ed Schwartz is an Inverness resident who writes on art, music and humor.