Marble City Opera and Cathedral Arts bring Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors to St. John’s Cathedral in Downtown Knoxville for two performances—Friday, December 8 (7:30 PM), and Sunday, December 10 (3:00 PM). The cast includes soprano Kathryn Shepas, who took on the role of Amahl during the last week of rehearsals after the originally cast singer had to step down. Lindsey Fuson will sing the role of Amahl’s Mother. Breyon Ewing, Brandon Gibson, and Daniel Webb are the Three Kings and Brad Summers is the Page.
The creative staff includes stage director James Marvel assisted by Ryan Colbert, musical director Brandon Coffer, choral master Alex Engle, and conductor Ace Edewards leads the instrumental ensemble.
The story of how Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors came into being begins not on a theatrical stage, but on a television stage in the early days of TV broadcasting. In the post-war period of the late 40s and early 50s, broadcasters struggled not only with the technological aspects of the fledgling industry, but also with the issue of expanding the television audience itself by encouraging the sales of TV sets to those who could afford them. Obviously, this was of paramount importance to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), whose parent company was RCA, one of the main manufacturers of TVs.
In 1949, Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver (father of actress Sigourney Weaver) was named head of programming for NBC. Weaver pushed the idea of special broadcasting events, strongly promoted, which would attract the attention of the public, appeal to the cultural interests of current affluent TV owners, and possibly induce a television set purchase from non-owners.
Under founder David Sarnoff, NBC had been a longtime believer in, and promoter of, classical music. In the 30s, Sarnoff had hired conductor Arturo Toscanini to create and lead the radio network’s symphony orchestra. Eventually, Sarnoff was convinced by NBC’s head of music programming Samuel Chotzinoff and director Peter Adler that opera on television was truly possible. As the story goes, Chotzinoff and Adler, along with a small group of singers, cornered Sarnoff in a hallway and presented a three minute excerpt from La Bohème. Thus began the NBC Television Opera Theater with a series of telecasts, one of which was of Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief, which had originated in a commission from NBC radio in 1939.
During the late 1940s, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti had practically become a musical household name in the United States. His successes with The Medium in 1947 and The Consul in 1950 had grown his reputation, augmented even further by winning the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music for The Consul. No surprise—NBC commissioned Menotti for a short opera with a Christmas theme for television broadcast on Christmas Eve of 1951. In an October 1951 issue of Opera News, an article claimed the nation was in the throes of “Menotti Mania,” with performances of various Menotti operas in every corner of the United States.
It has been reported that Menotti struggled to find an idea for the piece and that as late as November 1951, he was still without a word or note on paper. Again, as the story goes, as he was meandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, he came upon Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Adoration of the Magi. This spurred the composer’s memory of his childhood in Italy where gifts are brought to children by the Three Kings, rather than by Santa Claus.
“I actually never met the Three Kings,” wrote Menotti in the booklet that accompanied the original cast recording. “It didn’t matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel’s hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.”
With the work’s premise in place, Menotti’s music and libretto began to take shape, casting was completed, and Thomas Schippers, who had conducted The Consul on Broadway, was brought in as conductor. With just a few days to spare before Christmas Eve, Menotti finished the score with his partner, the fellow composer Samuel Barber, helping complete the orchestration. The director was Kirk Browning, who went on to a long career directing Hallmark Hall of Fame productions, and notably PBS’s Live From the Met and Great Performances.
Plot of Amahl and the Night Visitors
A crippled boy, Amahl, lives with his mother in poverty in a Middle Eastern village. Three visitors, the Three Kings on their way to see the baby Jesus, stop by for shelter for the night. During the night, the impoverished mother succumbs to want and takes some of the gold carried by one of the Kings as a gift. She is discovered, but explains that the money is for her crippled son. She is told to keep it, as the baby Jesus will grow and build his kingdom on love. Amahl offers his crutch as a gift to Christ and discovers that he can walk unaided. His mother allows him to accompany the Three Kings on their journey.
The Christmas Eve broadcast was introduced by Menotti himself, who related the story of his childhood experience with the legend of the Three Kings and his adult experience with the Bosch painting.
It was estimated that there were five million viewers for this first broadcast, jamming the NBC switchboard with congratulations. In his review, New York Times music critic Olin Downes wrote:
“Gian-Carlo Menotti and the National Broadcasting Company have given us a Christmas present of no small significance. The gift was bestowed when Mr. Menotti’s fifty-minute opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera composed specifically for television, was projected from Studio 8-H on Christmas Eve.”
His review concluded “Mr. Menotti seems to have an intuition for choosing the right collaborators. He imbues them with his spirit. Together, they produce living art.”
An original cast recording was quickly done and Schippers led a theatrical production at New York City Opera in April 1952. NBC continued to offer it as Christmas programming until 1966, when a disagreement between NBC and Menotti led to the composer’s refusal to allow further broadcasts. Although subsequent broadcast productions have met with sketchy results, theatrical productions of the work have kept Amahl and the Night Visitors alive as a favorite holiday vehicle for organizations of all types and abilities. G. Schirmer, the work’s publishers, claims that it receives approximately 500 performances each season.