A holiday opera whose tradition is rooted in broadcast is being mounted by Nashville Opera this December.
It was Christmas Eve in 1951 when composer Gian Carlo Menotti stood on-camera in NBC’s Studio 8-h in Rockefeller Center and suggested that parents shouldn’t send their children to bed quite yet.
He was on television to introduce an opera he had written for broadcast – Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was an early project for NBC’s Television Opera Theatre, one of television’s early efforts to create prestige programming and attract upscale viewers to their advertisers.
These productions are seen as a cultural high point for television, and Amahl and the Night Visitors, which also served as the first airing of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, was NBC Opera’s greatest hit, outlasting the opera television broadcast format itself.
Local pianist Jennie Lou Smith remembers watching it when it first aired, being struck by the fact that she was near the same age as the lead.
She said, “I was enthralled by seeing a child playing a lead role in a play. And that he was the character who sang. And it drew me in. I’ve never forgotten that moment.”
Composer Menotti had fond memories of his own childhood tradition in Italy, with gifts on Christmas night brought by the three kings rather than Santa Claus.
As a child Menotti had suffered from an orthopedic issue with his leg, that led him to walk with a crutch. And this ailment was healed miraculously after a visit to a statue of the Madonna in Northern Italy.
All grown up, with a commission from NBC, and facing writer’s block, Menotti actually tried to return his commission fee to the network and give up. It was seeing the 16th century Hieronymous Bosch painting Adoration of the Magi at the Met Museum in New York that triggered all of his childhood memories:
He said, “Suddenly I heard again the weird song of those three kings.”
Young Gian Carlo, with his crutch, sitting with his brother, waiting for the kings on Christmas night. Although he admits, “We always fell asleep before they arrived.”
In the opera itself Amahl and his mother are quite poor, and like young Menotti, Amahl can only walk with a crutch. When in the middle of the night Amahl and his mother receive a visit from the three wise men on their way to meet Jesus, their lives are changed forever.
Alan Harrisohn Foeder, who is playing the role of Amahl in Nashville Opera’s production this December said he thinks Amahl is pretty cool because he’s able to be generous while he doesn’t have much. This is Foeder’s first opera, which is surely true of many boys who have played the role at a young age. Menotti insisted that opera companies not rely on women to voice the part – that it always be a boy as Amahl.
Of Amahl, Foeder said, “He’s really creative and he loves coming up with stories. And his mother thinks he’s lying.”
The first broadcast was fraught with issues. Menotti had not completely overcome his writers block and a few days before Christmas NBC executives literally locked him in a room until he could hand them a complete score. Then, during the broadcast, because of union rules the director couldn’t communicate with the camera crew.
But, somehow it all worked out.
The broadcast was watched by an estimated 5 million households. To put this in perspective, that’s about half the televisions that were in the United States at the time. Because of limited seating in concert halls, this is likely the largest audience that has and will ever watch a performance of an opera all together.
Menotti didn’t see much future in televised opera. Thinking the piece would never be rebroadcast, he wrote it planning to transfer it to the stage, which it was the following December. And it was restaged on television annually through 1964, the same year GE produced the second special to become a holiday tradition, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. But even then, no live piece of television has ever been staged and restaged quite in the same way.
As the composer said to millions one minute before the premiere, the piece was truly the gift of the three kings.
In a special Live in Studio C, 91Classical will broadcast Amahl and the Night Visitors in partnership with Nashville Opera on Tuesday December 10 at noon.