I hope you will join Opera Roanoke Friday, January 6 at 6 pm for a FREE concert production of Menotti's beloved holiday opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. This is a joint production with our host, St John's Episcopal Church as part of their series of free concerts in downtown Roanoke, "Music on the Corner." Below is a short note I wrote for the program.
A note from the Artistic Director on Amahl and the Night Visitors
Gian Carlo Menotti had already composed five operas when Amahl and the Night Visitors aired on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951, the first opera written for TV. His first opera premiered in 1937 at the Curtis Institute (where he and his companion, Samuel Barber had both studied). Amelia Goes to the Ball went on to the Metropolitan Opera the following season. His next opera was The Old Maid and the Thief (1939), the first written for radio. Two early dramas, The Medium (1946) and The Consul (1950) are among his most acclaimed works and enjoyed successes on Broadway. Indeed, the latter earned Menotti his first New York Drama Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize.
With Amahl, Menotti revealed one of the most enduring – and endearing – qualities of his voice. It was the first of 6 children’s operas he wrote. From the opera’s opening scene our sympathies lie with Amahl because this spirited boy with the gift of imagination so inspired his composer. And the immediacy with which Amahl touches its listeners is indeed inspired. Like the music, the story Menotti devised (he wrote his own librettos) is deceptively simple, its surface familiar enough to belie how intricately shaped and masterfully crafted it is. The summary of the plot provided by his publisher consists of one sentence.
The story concerns the crippled shepherd boy Amahl, who offers his crutch as a present to the Christ child, is healed, and joins the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem.
The summary is specific in ways Menotti’s libretto is not. While the opera fits ideally in a church setting, the work does not explicitly name “the Child” as Christ. Neither is Bethlehem mentioned by name. Among Menotti’s finest passages of music is the hymn sung by the three kings and Amahl’s mother in the middle of the work. Melchior rhetorically inquires, “Have you seen a Child the color of wheat, the color of dawn?” The Mother, “as though to herself” names her own child in response. It is one of the most poignant expressions of maternal love in the theater, and is central to the opera’s dramatic fulcrum two scenes later when the destitute mother acts in desperation to steal some of the king’s gold. After Amahl’s touching defense of his mother (“Don’t you dare, ugly man, hurt my mother!”) the opera’s lyrical opening theme returns heralding the work’s denouement. Across the taut span of this three-quarter of an hour opera, Menotti balances melodic grace that lingers in the memory with rhythmic vitality that propels the drama forward. He is a master of compositional craftsmanship with the keen dramatic instincts of a gifted storyteller.
Our presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors places the music front and center in the beautiful, historic nave of St John’s Episcopal Church. Rather than set this production in the Christmas “pageant” genre (with gilded Magi, sheep-skinned shepherds and the like), we have chosen an “Our Town” setting to bring this wonderful story to life, here and now.