The story goes that composer Gian Carlo Menotti, blocked on his commission for a Christmas opera for television and running out of time, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, hoping to clear his head and think of something else.
There, he stood in front of Hieronymus Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi, and it reminded him of family Christmases in his native Italy. That gave him the spark he needed to write his opera, and on Christmas Eve 1951, it had its premiere on an NBC broadcast.
Today, that opera, Amahl and The Night Visitors, remains one of the most popular choices for amateur and community forces at holiday time (though it also had three professional productions this year in Montana, Indiana and Pennsylvania, according to Operabase). It has many virtues that help make it so: Abundant, attractive melody, a dramatic, easy-to-follow story that touches on big themes, and interesting things for various parts of the troupe to do, including a child lead and choral and dance parts.
This Saturday, Orchestra Miami presents the first of three performances of Amahl, which takes place on the road to Bethlehem, where a single mother and her crippled son give shelter for the night to three kings (and their page) who are on their way to present gifts to the Christ Child. The mother, desperate for money to help her son, attempts to steal gold from one of the kings while they sleep, but is caught by the page.
A commotion ensues, but the kings tell her to keep the gold because the child they seek will rule with love. Amahl offers his crutches to the kings to take to the child, and suddenly realizes he can walk unaided. All are astonished by the miracle, and the one-hour opera ends with Amahl accompanying the kings to the manger.
“To understand the nature of grand opera, one need not look much further than this small, bright jewel,” scholar Elise K. Kirk wrote in her study American Opera (2005). “It contains fantasy, humor, desperation, self-sacrifice, compassion, joy and love – a love far more universal than merely the romantic melodramatic kind.”
It’s also worth pointing out that Amahl is a good beginner’s opera for people new to the art form. Its brevity and melodic memorability, along with its familiar story, make it easy to understand and admire, and its status as a Christmas special give it that much more to cherish.
Orchestra Miami hopes to make seasonal productions of Amahl a tradition, and will perform the work twice in its original English and once in Spanish, as Amahl y Los Reyes Magos (with English surtitles). Saturday’s performance is set for 8 p.m. at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church, and the other two are planned for 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6, at Teatro Trail in Coral Gables, with the 4 p.m. performance in Spanish.
In the cast are 13-year-old Alexander Segarra as Amahl; he is a voice and piano student at the Miami Conservatory and a seventh-grader at the Ada Merritt K-8 Center. The mother will be sung by Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste (Saturday and one performance Jan. 6) and Marinel Cruz (4 p.m. Jan. 6); Melchior by Graham Fandrei (Saturday and Jan. 6) and Nelson Martinez (4 p.m. Jan. 6); Kaspar by Justin John Moniz (Saturday), Kunya Rowley (2 p.m. Jan. 6) and Miguel Llerena (4 p.m. Jan. 6); and Balthazar by Kevin Short (Saturday) and Gibson Dorcé (Jan. 6).
Orchestra Miami founder Elaine Rinaldi conducts, and the production is directed by Michael Yawney, who teaches directing and playwriting at Florida International University and last spring helped mount an Iranian Theater Festival in New York.
Tickets for Saturday’s performance are $20-$30 (call 800-838-3006 or visit brownpapertickets.com); the Jan. 6 shows are $25-$40 (call 305-443-1009 or visit teatrotrail.com). Orchestra Miami can be reached at 305-274-2103 or at its website.