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
“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
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.