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Beacon blog: 'Amahl' continues to enchant young and old

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2009 - In 1951, commercial television networks had not only taste but also souls. That year,  NBC broadcast an opera it had commissioned from the celebrated Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti. It was performed  live on Christmas Eve.

In 2009, when televisions belch forth non-stop cops, “reality” rubbish and celebrity scandal cycles, a viewer is astonished to look back in time and to consider the depth and breadth of television entertainment and its owners’ concern for quality and content of consequence. The idea of showing, much less commissioning, an opera -- an opera! -- by a serious composer on network television today is almost unimaginiable. 

Down memory lane

And so, as a 6-year-old kid, this reporter watched “Amahl” on a gigantic RCA Victor television set, of which the screen was a tiny part. He didn’t know it at the time, but NBC gave him one of the most important Christmas presents he’d ever get, an early appreciation of the majesty of opera, art’s most accretive (and for me, addictive) manifestation.

The show was grainy and the vertical hold was shaky. The quality of the audio was negligible. But since that moment, when I was probably parked in front of the set to anesthetize some symptoms of sugar-plum-vision poisoning, no art of performance has had such affecting power for me, ever. I’m not particularly picky and no expert and find opera snobs particularly annoying. I’ve said more than once I’d watch the Alvin and the Chipmunks perform “The Barber of Seville,” and although that’s mostly a joke, I am a sucker for operas, and feel fortunate to have been exposed to the medium so early, and in such a powerful way. Thank you, NBC. Merry Christmas.

Fast forward to now at the Union Avenue Christian Church. On Thursday (Dec. 10, 2009), I joined an audience of 550 children as they received the aesthetic baptism of “Amahl.”

You never know what to expect from audiences made up almost entirely of kids. One giggle can set off a laughter epidemic; one eye-rolling Alpha girl or boy can generate an orbital frenzy amongst their followers. None of that happened, as far as I could tell. Instead, something you might call youthful rapture spread around the hall.

That’s not such a big surprise, really: The story is a gentle and miraculous one, based on the well-known account of the journey of  magi, or wise men, or kings, who followed a celestial phenomenon, either to Bethlehem or to Nazareth, with the purpose of paying homage to an infant who – despite being of the house and lineage of David – was born in a stable because the inn couldn’t, or wouldn’t accommodate his parents, who, as it happens, actually were not married.

This child’s coming had been foretold by the prophets, and his life, we read, was so admirable and his teachings so persuasive that he became known far and wide as the Son of God. The influence of this child, Jesus, has been powerful and  inspirational now for more than two millennia.

If for a moment you put theological orthodoxy aside, the nativity-related story of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” can be read as a political story, and one as conspicuously applicable to our fragmented time as it was in any time.

Amahl’s mother is a single mother trying to raise a disabled child. She has no income. The flock of sheep has been sold, and the goat has died of old age. There is no food in the house, and there is no fuel for the fireplace. There is no mention of a father who might step in to help to put things right.

The child is a problem. He must walk with the assistance of a crutch, one he made himself from tree branches. His mother despairs of this boy – “What shall I do with this child?” she moans, “What shall I do, what shall I do?” Because in spite of her intense and possessive love for Amahl she worries that his childhood fantasies are transforming into rather unattractive lies. She has come to distrust him. The tendency to fantasy could mean delinquencies ahead, she fears.

So the financial situation is desperate, and the mother sees a time not too far away when she and Amahl will become beggars, an occupation he regards as more of a lark than a disgrace.

But when the Three Kings come knocking on the door, and are asked in to pass the night, the mother gradually sees an opportunity to save herself and her boy. These potentates, after all, are carrying with them a fortune in gold, frankincense and myrrh, along with other treasures, including licorice. So when everyone appears to be asleep, the mother takes the opportunity to swipe a little gold. The kings’ manservant catches her, and a commotion ensues.

But, as it turns out, especially at this time of the year, miracles happen. The kings forgive the mother; Amahl forgives the servant who manhandled her; Amahl is cured of all disability – “Look mother, I can dance, I can jump, I can run!”

He accepts an invitation to take off with the kings to worship the newborn king-of-kings. Sweetly, he takes his crutch with him to give to the child. You never know when the baby might need one, he says. And, in ways actual and metaphorical, Amahl was absolutely right.

There are so many reasons to see this show, not the least of which is an opportunity to introduce a child to a story of peace and hope and to an art form that has, since its birth in the 16th century, enthralled vast numbers of people, young and old.

I watched the faces of some of the 500-plus school children who sat in the pews at Union Avenue, and – perhaps it was my imagination – but I felt as if in their faces I saw my own face in 1951, absorbing the special magic that is the opera, and absorbing too the special form of redemption that comes from a profound and personal relationship with the mystery we have come to call art.

(Full disclosure: five or six years after first seeing “Amahl and the Night Visitors” on television, my school’s singing teacher encouraged me to audition for the part of Amahl in a local opera company production. I got the part, and I was pretty proud of myself. But guess what? In the middle of rehearsals for the production, funny things, bad things began to happen to my voice. The boy soprano became something else vocally, a baby tenor perhaps. In any event, it was a career ender for this aspirant. And in direct contradiction of Menotti’s orders, a mezzo-soprano stepped into my rags and tatters. Nevertheless, I love the show, and hope readers will too.)

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