At Christmas, practically everything is subject to the comfortable tyranny of “tradition,” and the performing arts are no exception. Symphonic and choral organizations mount Handel’s Messiah annually, often in direct competition with each other. Theatre companies offer adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Ballet companies make no secret that The Nutcracker is their cash cow, without which they would fold in short order.
Opera companies likewise cherish their ubiquitous holiday masterpiece, Gian Carlo Menotti’s charming Amahl and the Night Visitors, which the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre and Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras will present Friday and Saturday at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
Unlike Messiah and Nutcracker, it is a simple work of slender proportions. But just like them, Amahl dominates all other titles in its respective genre by popular demand. In fact, in the two-thirds of a century since its premiere, Amahl and the Night Visitors has become the most frequently produced opera in the entire repertoire, due to its expert craftsmanship and populist appeal, both musically and dramatically.
As in all his operas, Menotti both composed the music and wrote the libretto based on a story of his own devising. It concerns a crippled shepherd boy who encounters the Magi, is healed, and ventures forth with them to seek the Christ Child. The music, dramaturgy, and characterizations offer a variety of colorful details at every turn, exuding spiritual warmth and whimsical humor in equal measure.
Menotti (1911-2007) was raised in Italy but educated at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and made the United States the home base for his career. As a young man, he was an opera-composing prodigy, imagining highly theatrical plots, then writing vivid, poetic text and descriptive, melodious music to bring his creations to life. Both the Metropolitan in New York and La Scala in Milan staged his early works while he was still a teenager. However, he sought larger audiences than the relatively small opera-going public, prompting two of his most important innovations in the art form: he composed some operas specifically for broadcast media, and he premiered most of his others on Broadway rather than in opera houses.
Let’s consider the last contribution first. When his dramatic, full-length Cold War opera The Consul premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1950, it ran for 269 performances. In Broadway terms that is only a modest success, but compared to the mere handful of performances a new work would receive at any opera house, that constituted huge public exposure and phenomenal success, leading to a slew of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Menotti’s understanding that opera is essentially a theatrical animal has ensured the enduring popularity of most of his works.
Of course, broadcasting operas increased the listening audience exponentially. Menotti had already written an opera for radio, The Old Maid and the Thief (which UK Opera Theatre will present as an undergraduate vehicle in Spring 2016) when he was approached by NBC about creating a one-act Christmas piece for television. The result was Amahl and the Night Visitors, premiered live on Christmas Eve 1951. It was a resounding hit, which resulted in NBC’s annual broadcast of the opera through 1964, by which time it was already being mounted by thousands of professional and amateur groups alike. In just a few short years, this whimsical little opera had worked its way deep into the heart of the general public, far beyond the reach of even the most beloved masterpieces of Verdi and Puccini. To many, including me, it is the warmest, dearest holiday treat of all.
Why do we love Amahl so much? Is it the sweet, lilting music? The gentle humor? The precise characterizations of Amahl, his mother, and the three kings? It is all of these, plus the key ingredient: it expresses and illuminates the deepest spiritual truths of a holiday all too subject to the banality of materialism. It is an opera about giving whatever you can, from your heart.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musicologist, pianist and voice coach at the University of Kentucky. He has just released a new album, ‘The Virtuosic Piano Arrangements of Tedrin Blair Lindsay.’
If You Go
‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’
What: Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera, presented by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre and the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra.
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12.
Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.