Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Epiphany's Night Visitors

As a supplement to one of my themes for 2014 (music) it seems appropriate on this Feast of the Epiphany to look at an opera which features this event which Christians celebrate each year. That is the arrival of the Three Kings to the Nativity.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” is one of those seasonal favourites that is broadcast every year somewhere around the world. From its origins as a written-for-television opera it has joined the ranks of “A Christmas Carol”, “White Christmas” and “The Messiah” as a seasonal essential.

Its origin and subject matter was highly influenced by the childhood of its gay composer, Italian-born Gian Carlo Menotti.

The plot of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is perfect in its simplicity. The Three Kings arrive at the home of a disabled boy called Amahl and his mother on their way to the Nativity. Amahl’s mother tries to steal some of their gold. The kings forgive her and she gives back to gold. Amahl and his mother wish they could send a gift to the Christ child. When Amahl offers one of his crutches his lameness miraculously vanished. He then accompanies the kings on their journey to the Nativity.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” was the first opera written specifically for television. The NBC network in America wanted to put more opera on the small screen so commissioned Menotti to write and opera for their Christmas schedule of 1951.

This wasn’t NBC’s first approach to Menotti. In 1939 they commissioned him to write an opera for radio. The result was “The Old Maid and the Thief”.

It took Menotti a while to come up with an idea. He had the notion of it being an opera for children and it was his won childhood which provided the inspiration.

Growing up in Italy Menotti’s childhood Christmases were devoid of that one thing that the British/American public take for granted – Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Not every country has Santa as a gift-bringer, if it even has Santa at all. In Italy, and several other Mediterranean countries, the Christmas gift-bringers are the Three Kings, and they bring them on this night, not Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, globalisation is depriving the world of its rich variety, as Italy is one of those countries where Santa is gradually taking over the gift-bringing duties.

Menotti was wandering through the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with less than 2 months to come up with a complete opera. Pausing in front of a painting by Heironymus Bosch called “The Adoration of the Magi” all those happy memories of the Italian tradition of the Three Kings flooded back and he realised he had found the subject for his opera.

From the way he described it himself it sounds like one of those moments you see in cartoons when a light bulbs flash above characters heads when they get an idea. For several years Menotti had lived in the US and had become so used to Santa Claus that his memories of the Three Kings were in danger of being consigned to the furthest corner of his memory. So thank God for Heironymus Bosch!

Once he had got his subject Menotti set to work. From the very start he wanted to write the part of Amahl for a boy. Quite often in opera a boys’ character is portrayed by a female singer, but Menotti was adamant that Amahl should always be sung by a boy. Perhaps that is one of the elements that has made the opera so special.

With the NBC’s deadline rapidly approaching Menotti completes his opera with only a few days before it was due to be broadcast on Christmas Eve 1951. Menotti’s life partner, the fellow composer Samuel Barber, was roped in to do the final orchestrations.

The premiere of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was broadcast across the US in the biggest multi-network hook-up for an opera on television. It proved an instant success, with an estimated 5 million people seeing it, again the biggest for an opera on television up until then. Its popularity ensured a repeat performance the following year. In these modern days when we re used to programmes being repeated ad nauseum in the same week, this must have made “Amahl and the Night Visitors” feel very special.

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