January 05, 2009

Amahl and the Night Visitors

by Debra Dean Murphy
O Woman, you may keep the gold; the child we seek doesn't need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.

"Amahl and the Night Visitors"
Gian-Carlo Menotti, 1950

In 1950 the National Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti to write an opera for live broadcast on the fledgling, new medium of television. On Christmas Eve of the following year, Amahl and the Night Visitors premiered on NBC.

Menotti grew up with the European tradition of the Three Kings bringing gifts to children on Epiphany. Various stories and legends, many of them humorous, came to be associated with the Kings who, by the eighth century, had been identified as Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar. (Tradition has it that Balthazar was Ethiopian and thus paintings of the Three Kings through the centuries have depicted him as black).

"My favorite King," Menotti once wrote, "was King Melchior because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother's favorite was King Caspar, whom he insisted was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don't know why he was so sure about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Caspar never brought him all the gifts he requested."

"To these Three Kings," Menotti continues, "I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead I went to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town."

Years later when Menotti accepted NBC's commission to write a one-hour-long opera in English, he found himself uninspired and struggling for ideas. One afternoon while walking gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he happened upon a classic painting of the magi (Hieronymous Bosch's "Adoration of the Kings,” pictured above) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Amahl and the Night Visitors tells the story of a poor, crippled shepherd boy prone to telling tall tales. One winter evening he sits outside the house he shares with his weary, widowed mother, admiring a star "as large as a window." When Amahl tries to describe the beautiful sight to his mother, she is not amused; for her, this is yet another in a long line of fanciful tales made up by the inventive, untrustworthy Amahl. After some threats (by the mother) and promises (by Amahl), the two settle down for the night on their beds of straw.

Soon they are awakened by three knocks on the door. Amahl hobbles to the door, opens it, and finds a King standing there. He is awestruck, but what to tell his mother? He tries the truth, which does not satisfy—she sends him back to the door again insisting that he return with the facts. This time there are two Kings! Oh, dear. The third time he opens the door Amahl discovers what he must report to his increasingly angry and impatient mother: "The Kings are three and one of them is black!"

(Later in the opera there's a brief exchange between Amahl and Balthazar that deals subtly with race—Menotti's own plea for understanding and equality to his pre-civil rights era audience).

When Amahl's mother realizes that there are indeed three Kings at her front door she welcomes them into their humble home. While they settle in with their things, she leaves to gather wood for the fire. In her absence, Amahl peppers the Kings with questions, discovering, among other things, that Caspar carries a box with three drawers containing, in ascending order of importance, magic stones, beads, and black sweet licorice.

When the mother returns she sends Amahl to the homes of their neighbors to beg for food and drink for the Kings. She then asks the Kings about the gifts they are carrying—the gold, especially. She's curious about the child they seek and the Kings themselves are not sure whom it is the star is leading them to. The mother, tired and resentful of her circumstances, wonders if her own son might be the child they seek.

After a show of hospitality by the neighboring shepherds (staged as a festive dance), everyone goes to sleep for the night. Amahl’s mother, though, cannot get the gold out of her mind. What she could do for her crippled, hungry child with all that gold! “Do rich people know what to do with their gold?” she asks bitterly.

Just one piece . . . they would never miss it . . . for my child . . . for my child. As she reaches quietly for the gold, she is caught by the Kings’ servant and pandemonium ensues. “Thief!” they all shout, “Thief! Give it back! Give it back!”

Amahl, ever protective of his mother, tries to comfort her, and the two collapse into a heap of humiliation, exhaustion, and sobs. One of the Kings, wise to what he has just witnessed, tells the woman that she may keep the gold—the child they seek doesn’t need it (see words from libretto above). When the mother realizes what sort of child is coming into the world, she returns the gold and wishes she had a gift of her own to offer. Amahl impulsively suggests that he give his crutch to the child—“who knows he may need one?” And when he hands over the crutch he finds that he can walk; he has been healed by the child the three kings seek.

For many years it has been a tradition in my family to see a production of Amahl during the Christmas season. My boys, now 17 and 22, practically know the opera by heart (it's only an hour long—and it’s in English!) and we used to enjoy singing great chunks of it on long car trips. We have seen many productions over the years: some done by professional opera companies, others by college music departments, still others by ambitious, accomplished church choirs.

Every time I see this opera or listen to a recording of it, I am moved again by the humor and the pathos, the silliness and the seriousness—all tangled up together in a story and a musical score of surprising simplicity and unexpected depth. And I am reminded that in the Epiphany tradition of the Three Kings we can claim again the gift of the Child who has built his kingdom on love, on love alone.

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