Night visitors return to Union Avenue
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2011 - Next weekend Union Avenue Opera will present an American opera that for many grandparents and parents was a Christmas Eve television tradition.
In 1951 NBC commissioned composer Gian-Carlo Menotti to write "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Samuel Barber wrote its orchestration. Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere telecast Dec. 24, 1951. That opera was also the debut of the Hallmark Hall of Fame television presentations.
The opera was telecast live annually from Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day through 1966. NBC revived it in 1978, and the BBC also did two new productions.
The opera's story, set in 1st century Palestine, centers on Amahl, a shepherd boy whose leg presents mobility challenges and his widowed mother. She worries his disabilities will limit his opportunities and he will become a beggar. At first, she does not believe her imaginative son's tale of seeing a great star. But then, the mother and son encounter the visiting Maji. It's an uplifting tale of the generosity of both the poor and the powerful, of healing and of faith.
Union Avenue Opera will present this American opera in English at 8 p.m. Dec. 9, 5 p.m. Dec. 10 and 3 p.m. Dec. 11 at the opera, 733 N. Union Boulevard in the city's West End. The one-act production runs about 50 minutes.
The company has assembled a St. Louis cast that includes mezzo-soprano Debra Hillabrand as Amahl's mother. Union Avenue Opera audiences will recall her portrayal of Mrs. Joseph de Rocher last August in the company's riveting production of another American opera "Dead Man Walking."
Ricky Johnson, 13, of St. Charles, who has sung in both Union Avenue and Opera Theatre of St. Louis children's choruses returns for his second year in the role young shepherd Amahl. St. Louisans Clark Sturdevant, Robert Reed and Todd Payne will sing the roles of wise men Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Allyson Ditchey directs the production. Union Avenue founder and artistic director Scott Schoonover is the production music director and will conduct the orchestra.
Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who covers opera for the Beacon.