The Life-Changing Properties of Amahl and the Night Visitors

Jan Cornelius as Mother and Michael Karash as Amahl.
Photo by Pin Lim
Jan Cornelius as Mother and Michael Karash as Amahl.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, opera was produced on television. Not the old and musty, but avant-garde and contemporary.

Impossible to believe, but in the pioneering '50s, NBC actually had a director of “new opera programming.”

Famed conductor Peter Herman Adler, born in what is now the Czech Republic, was its opera programmer and later would be largely responsible for the careers of legendary soprano Leontyne Price, bass George London, and tenor Mario Lanza. Adler commissioned a slew of new works for NBC Television Theater, among them Norman Dello Joio's The Trial at Rouen (a Joan of Arc story), Thomas Pasatieri's The Trial of Mary Lincoln, and Hans Werner Henze's La Cubana (a pre-Castro tale). Holy cow, modern opera on TV! The experiment lasted 14 years, longer than anyone could have imagined.

The first work in this experiment, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) – the only one to survive and become a classic in the opera rep – was commissioned from Gian Carlo Menotti, renowned for The Medium, The Telephone, and The Consul (which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Music). Adler wanted a Christmas opera to inaugurate NBC's foray into the fine arts, and who better to write one than the golden boy of modern opera. Filmed live for broadcast Christmas Eve, 1951, it was created in Toscanini's famed studio 8H, now home to Saturday Night Live.

Amahl was the first opera I ever heard. It changed me forever. It became my Proustian Christmas madeleine.

I remember sitting in front of our clunky RCA watching Amahl. (The opera played every year on TV until 1966.) Amahl sparked my love for music, and obviously my love for opera, even though I didn't understand anything about this weird hybrid where people sing whatever is on their mind. It was music from the moons of Saturn. I was hooked.

Amahl affects me still. When I hear those soft opening string passages, like a pastoral lullaby, I start to weep. I can't help it. I'm immediately transported to hometown Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where there's snow, family, and holiday gatherings around the TV set.

Although complicated in rhythm and vocal prowess, Amahl was written to be kid-friendly. It's one-act, folksy, and tells its story simply.

Crippled young Amahl and his widowed mother live a hard-scrabble life. There's not enough food, not enough fire wood, not enough of anything. In their cold little hovel, what's to become of them? Suddenly the Magi, on their journey to the star, ask to rest in their home. When destitute Mother sees the riches they're bringing to the new-born child (gold, frankincense, myrrh), she steals a bit of their hoard for sickly Amahl, is caught, but ultimately forgiven by the Three Kings. When Amahl pledges his crutch as a gift to the Christ child, he is miraculously healed. He accompanies the Magi and offers his crutch as a fourth offering.

Menotti sets the story with pristine clarity. There are descriptions of nature, like that beguiling opening; a little dance divertissement when the townsfolk bring food to the Magi; a big operatic moment for Mother when she lets loose a pseudo-Verdian plea (“All That Gold”); or Kaspar's comic “This is My Box,” where he reveals licorice in the third drawer. I've never forgotten this little arietta. Menotti's tune has stayed in my head for decades. Such is Amahl's power.

Menotti was a master. He didn't write down to anyone, particularly the television audience. Amahl is jagged, a bit atonal, not at all easy-listening for the Perry Como '50s. Yet he made opera accessible to everyone. He didn't pander and, years later, Amahl moves me still.

I've been waiting years for someone to present Amahl during Christmas. In the 24 years I've lived in Houston, only two productions come to mind: Sandra Organ Dance Company's sign-language version, and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in 2011. That's few and far between for such a classic of the genre. So, kudos to Opera in the Heights for finally presenting the original work. There were lots of little ones in the audience, and maybe they, too, will be affected for the better.

Menotti's intimate little one-act is not easy to sing. Written for boy soprano, Amahl's vocal line lies high and treacherous. Michael Karash, a 7th grader from Katy, is already a seasoned theater pro, last seen in TUTS' Ragtime as the clairvoyant Little Boy. As an actor, he has presence to spare, boundless enthusiasm, and his middle register is steady and solid, but he struggled with the high tessitura, losing oomph. Although miked, whose technical difficulties caused a break in the action for repairs, his top voice got lost inside Menotti's lush orchestration. But listen to the hush in the theater, when Amahl realizes he's no longer lame. That's star power.

Soprano Jan Cornelius, as the Mother, is also a star. What a find. Cornelius teaches voice at Lone Star College of Music and performs regionally in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Atlanta, Birmingham. She has an open invitation to come back to Houston anytime she wants. Her mother was powerful and focused, gleaming and gilt-edged.

The Magi were expertly limned by tenor Jarrett Ward (the deaf and comic Kaspar), baritone Geoff Peterson (Melchior), and bass-baritone Jason Zacher (Belthazar). Bass-baritone Jorge Belonni sang the thankless role of the Page, who finds Mother stealing gold and therefore suffers the wrath of little Amahl (“Don't you dare hurt my mother”).

Under maestro Eiki Isomura the OH orchestra has never sounded so lush and supple. As a prelude to Amahl, they played Respighi's fragrant Botticelli Triptych with its tripping depiction of water, frolic, and procession. The orchestra sounded ravishing.

Take the children to Amahl for an early Christmas gift. It might repay them handsomely. Miracles do happen.

Amahl and the Night Visitors. continues on December 7-15 at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Performed in English with English surtitles. For information, call 713-861-6303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $24.50-$84.50.