Amahl and the Night Visitors, words and music by Gian Carlo Menotti, is the children’s opera that went viral, and not only with children.
You remember Amahl, the shepherd boy who wakes up one night to find the Three Kings at his widowed mother’s cottage door, on their way to Bethlehem. Commissioned by NBC, Menotti’s miracle premiered in prime time on December 24, 1951, inaugurating that never-ending series, “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” The next morning, The New York Times weighed in with a front-page rave, praising Menotti’s “archaic simplicity and naiveté of effect,” as well as “the true emotion which is conveyed by the most unpretentious means.” Those properties have yet to lose their bloom.
In America, live telecasts (no reruns!) remained a Yuletide fixture well into the 1960s. Over the same period, the BBC and its Australian counterpart, the ABC, mounted versions of their own. Yet Menotti declared from the outset that the work had always been intended for the stage. “On television, you’re lucky if they ever repeat anything,” he reasoned. “Writing an opera is a big effort and to give it away for one performance is stupid.” The theatrical premiere took place within two months of the original broadcast. Even Menotti’s publisher G. Schirmer would be hard pressed to tally all the professional and community revivals over the intervening decades.
Surf YouTube for a few minutes, and you’ll begin to sense the scope of the phenomenon. There’s polyglot video—often full-length, sometimes clips—from opera houses, schools, and church basements in the Ozarks, French Canada, Argentina, Cyprus, India, China, and New Zealand, to single out just a handful of the countless pins on the map. There’s an animated version, and one that casts king-size puppets as the Magi (pun intended).
You remember Amahl, the shepherd boy who wakes up one night to find the Three Kings at his widowed mother’s cottage door, on their way to Bethlehem.
A pandemic special features socially distanced singers in masks. From heaven knows where, a budding Chloé Zhao introduces her “unauthorized” home movie, mimed by her assembled teddy bears, with voiceover by off-camera family members gathered around the piano. “No bears,” the tiny auteur earnestly assures us, “were harmed in this production.” And let’s not forget the floor show for the flock lunching at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan.
Many canonical TV broadcasts may be found as well—even the Holy Grail I never expected to find anywhere: a “kinescope” (filmed directly from a TV monitor) of the world premiere. In 1999, Menotti himself told me as established fact that the only extant copy had vanished years before without a trace. Yet here it is, in historic black and white and dated sound, glistening under its patina like a fresh-struck medal. As Amahl’s mother, Rosemary Kuhlmann never externalizes, letting love and hurt and care well up from deep within. As Amahl, bereft of his flock, with nothing left to his name but his crutch and the pipe he plays on, the boy soprano Chet Allen sets the bar for all time with his good cheer, curiosity, and unspoiled sense of wonder.
And as emcee, there’s the inimitable Menotti himself. “I do hope you haven’t sent your children to bed,” he begins, “because actually, this is an opera for children, and I don’t want you to be like those awful parents who insist on playing with their children’s toys.”
The premiere telecast of Amahl and the Night Visitors is available to stream on YouTube
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii