Christmas Opera for Children – Amahl and the Night Visitors

Adoration of the Magi Bosch
Adoration of the Magi, by Heironymous Bosch (c1470-1475).

I have loved Gian Carlo Menotti’s one act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” ever since I was introduced to it as a child.  One year, our elementary school learned the charming Shepherd’s chorus selections “Emily, Emily” and “Olives and Quinces” for our Christmas program.  Can you even imagine that happening today? 

This wonderful work was commissioned by NBC-TV and broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1951.  For years, the network included the program in their Christmas Eve line up, but eventually let it go for frothier holiday fare.

I rediscovered this work as an adult, and for years have reserved a holiday evening to sit by the fireplace with eggnog and listen to the CD.   Last year, when going through all of my Christmas CD’s it occurred to me that the Daughter would love it, and she did!

It is a relatively short work, 48 minutes, with lush and exotic orchestration.  The cast consists of Amahl, a brightly imaginative but sorely misunderstood crippled shepherd boy, his poverty-stricken, harried Mother, the shepherd community, and three Kings following a star, seeking a King, and His Kingdom built on love.

Menotti’s libretto perfectly captures the curiosity, and exuberance of childhood, which he then juxtaposes uncomfortably against the painful realities of parenthood.  An excerpt from the first few minutes of the Opera:

Amahl:  “Oh Mother! You should go out and see! There’s never been such a sky. Damp clouds have shined it, and soft winds have swept it, as if to make it ready for a king’s ball. All its lanterns are lit, all its torches are burning, and its dark floor is shining like crystal. Hanging over our roof, there is a star as large as a window; and the star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire.”

Mother: “Oh Amahl! When will you stop telling lies? All day long you wander about in a dream. Here we are with nothing to eat – not a stick of wood on the fire, not a drop of oil in the jug, and all you do is to worry your mother with fairy tales. Oh Amahl… have you forgotten your promise never never to lie to your mother again?”

In the midst of this scene of family strife, three Kings, Amahl’s Night Visitors, stop by seeking shelter, causing a hospitality emergency for this mother and son.  After gathering wood, Mother sends Amahl to ask for assistance from the villagers.  While they wait, a heart-piercing exchange between the Kings and Mother begins when the Kings sing of the attributes of the Child King they hope to find by following the enormous amazing star.  Amahl’s mother however, sees only her son in their description, and only sorrow in his future:

Yes, I know a child the color of wheat…. the color of dawn.
His eyes are mild; his hands are those of a king as king he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or gold… though sick and poor and hungry and cold.
He is my child my son, my darling my own.

The shepherding community joyfully assists in assuaging the hunger and entertaining the royal guests.  We hear them call to each other inquiring after children, and sheep and exclaiming at the night wind in Emily, Emily and are treated to a mouth-watering recitation of their offerings of nuts, fruits, cheese, spices and honey in Olives and Quinces. (Does this remind anyone else of Charcuterie?) After this humble but hearty repast, the Kings stretch out in the tiny hut to rest, while Mother cleans up and struggles with the overwhelming sight of jewels, gold, silver, incense all within reach and wonders…

“All that gold! All that gold!
I wonder if rich people know what to do with their gold?
Do they know how a child could be fed?
Do rich people know?

Do they know that a house can be kept warm all day with burning logs?
Do rich people know?

Do they know how to roast sweet corn on the fire?
Do they know?
Do they know how to fill a courtyard with doves?
Do they know… do they know?

Do they know how to milk a clover fed goat?
Do they know?

Do they know how to spice hot wine on cold winter nights?
Do they know… do they know?

All that gold… all that gold!
Oh what I could do for my child with that gold!

Why should it all go to a child they don’t even know?”

The mother’s struggle ends poorly, but remember, Christ brings redemption, healing  and joy!  The Opera closes with a achingly tender leave-taking between Mother and Amahl.

Perhaps because it is an Opera, perhaps because of the 20th Century tonality, Menotti’s sublime Christmas Opera seems to be overlooked these days, even in the homeschool community.  As you begin to make plans for Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, I urge you to consider including Amahl and the Night Visitors in your holiday traditions.  While it was commissioned for a Christmas Eve program, Amahl and the Night Visitors is actually an Epiphany story.  So if you have other Advent traditions, you could save this to enrich the week after Christmas, when the stress has subsided, the decorations are cleaned up, and the gifts are put away.  Last year we included it in our Christmas Term.

Here are a few resources for you:

Click here for a Narrative written of the Script of Amahl and the Night Visitor – Sometimes it is difficult for children to discern long sections of sung text.  Mr. Van Dyke has provided the text of the songs, and has written up a narrative form of the action.  It is extremely well done and very helpful!

Here is a quick clip of the “Emily, Emily” Shepherd’s Chorus: 

See the Opera:

A You Tube video of the original performance (in black and white) with an introductory address by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti.  A genuine treasure!  Should you want to view on a bigger screen, Amazon has a DVD available of this original performance – although 21st century audiences will likely find it dark.  We have always listened to a CD copy, but I have recently fallen in love with Spotify and was delighted to see that there are two recordings available for the budget-minded.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas memories and inspiration:

I found it interesting to read that the composer of Amahl and the NIght Visitors, Gian Carlo Menotti,  struggled with his deadline when composing this work. In the liner notes for the original recording he mentions that growing up in Italy, children received their Christmas gifts from the Three Kings.  Menotti and his brother tried to stay up to see them, but were never successful.  “…we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel’s hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.”

After agreeing to write a Christmas Opera for NBC-TV, Menotti found himself without the first idea until an encounter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the beautiful masterpiece Adoration of the Magi, by Heironymous Bosch (c1470-1475).  “One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of the Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.”

If you would like to learn more about Gian Carlo Menotti, here is a biography from the Music Sales Classical Website, which includes a discussion of his other 20th century operas.

Originally posted Nov 13, 2013.

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