Amahl and the Night Visitors

It takes a village to raise an opera — in this case the village of St. Philip’s In The Hills Episcopal Church. On January 9, 2016, parishioners with professional credentials in voice, instrumental playing, conducting, stage management, and executive production enable the wider Tucson community to experience Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act work Amahl and the Night Visitors.

To cast the title role of Amahl, Woosug Kang, director of music at St. Philip’s, approached Julian Ackerley, the director of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, who had the perfect boy for Amahl among his choristers: Liam Boyd. Pierre Isaac, also a Boys Chorus member, is the understudy.

Amahl with Background 1

In this event, Kang will make his operatic conducting debut. Juan Aguirre is the stage director. Dianne Iauco, whose credits include Principal Artist at New York City Opera, will portray the Mother — and role she has sung on numerous occasions.

Resources and talent for the production, including costuming and equipment preparation, comes from the St. Nicholas Choir and their parents. The set design stems in part from the 2014 production, in which director/stage designer David Johnston transformed the St. Philip’s Church environment into an operatic stage and set with suggestive period realism. The Church space will be transformed into the barren cottage where most of the story action takes place.

The remaining principal roles will be performed by professional singers who are also members of the church. The Three Kings have a splendidly matched blend, with each singer’s actual personality well suited to his operatic part. Tenor Matthew Holter is known for his sense of comedy. In his hands the hard-of-hearing King Kaspar delivers the comedic flair the role deserves. Baritone Larry Alexander’s artistic sensitivity highlights the compassionate side of King Melchior, and bass Arizeder Urreiztieta’s stentorian delivery underscores the dignified and mysterious King Balthazar. Daniel Rosenberg, a talented student who has rapidly grown through the ranks of St. Philip’s youth choir, sings the role of the Page. Chorus roles will be filled by members of St. Philip’s adult choirs and St. Nicholas Choir members, directed by Anne Boyer Cotten. Choreographers and dancers will be announced at a later date.

Kings 1

Performances are January 9, 2016, at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Premium seating is $50, general admission $25 and students $10. Sponsorships are available for higher levels of support (click here or call 520-222-7277). Proceeds will support the St. Philip’s child and teen choristers’ residency at England’s Worcester Cathedral in July 2016 as well as instrumental and choral training during the school year.

St. Philip’s is located at 4440 N. Campbell Avenue at River Road. Ample parking is available in the north parking lot or under the solar parking structure on the east side. The Friends of Music phone number is (520) 222-7277.

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The Amahl Story and Background

The opera (in English) was originally commissioned by NBC and first performed by the NBC Opera Theater on December 24, 1951, in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The composer had trouble settling on a subject for the opera, but took his inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America, yet Menotti wrote Amahl with the stage in mind. Amahl was seen on 35 NBC affiliates coast-to-coast, the largest network hookup for an opera broadcast to that date. An estimated 5 million viewers saw the live broadcast — the largest audience ever to see a televised opera.

The thread of Amahl has wound through St. Philip’s since a first production by then-Music Director Stephen Anderson in 1979. Later music directors and professional musicians in the parish wished to perform it again, but not until Kang’s tenure did the complete mix of time, talent, treasure, advocacy and generosity appear to bring Amahl back to St. Philip’s in 2014. Kang’s arrival at St. Philips two years earlier marked a renewed focus in children’s choir programs and a new effort to elevate the quality of the adult choral programs.

Early in 2013 Dianne Iauco, a longtime parishioner and operatic professional, envisioned collaboration between the adult and children’s choirs that could make Amahl possible at St. Philip’s again. After hearing Iauco’s formal proposal, St. Philip’s Friends of Music committed to a full-blown, professional production of Amahl that would not only provide a festive, high-quality musical event but also offer a gift to the larger Tucson community —especially those who may never have experienced the excitement of a live, vocal drama. The production would draw upon the abundance of professional musicians at St. Philip’s In The Hills and other professionals to perform, direct, and stage-manage.

Amahl is a 50-minute work that for many years has been the most frequently performed opera in the U.S. While usually presented before Christmas, it is actually about the gifts of Epiphany and the revealing of the Holy Child to the world.

The opera is set in the Holy Land at the time of the birth of Christ. Amahl is a 10-year-old shepherd who is crippled and must walk with the aid of a crutch which he made. His widowed mother was forced to sell their sheep and they now live in abject poverty. One star-filled winter evening, three Magi appear at their door, seeking shelter for the night before they continue their journey.

The kings enter bearing gold, frankincense, and presumably myrrh. The slightly loony king Kaspar has his box of precious stones, beads, and a special treat for Amahl: black, sweet licorice. While Amahl is fetching the neighbors and some firewood, Melchior asks Amahl’s mother if she has seen “a child whose eyes are sad and whose hands are those of the poor, as poor he was born.” Melchior is, of course, speaking of the Holy Child, but the Mother, who responds that she does indeed know such a child, is instead speaking of her own son.

Neighbors arrive to share what little food they have, offer a dance for entertainment, then leave. While Amahl, the kings, and their page sleep, the mother reflects on the kings’ gold and all that she could do for her son with just one gold coin. “If I take some they will never miss it,” she sings, before stealing a coin. The Page awakens, confiscates the coin, and seizes the Mother. The Kings, transformed by Amahl’s pleas for mercy for his mother, inspire Melchior’s message, which is at the heart of this drama:

Oh, woman, you may keep the gold.
The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love alone he will build His kingdom,
His pierced hand will hold no scepter,
His haloed head will bear 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.

The widow responds:

Oh, no — wait — take back your gold!
For such a King I have waited all my life
And if I weren’t so poor I would send a gift of my own to such a child.

With childlike innocence and generosity Amahl responds to the King’s pardon and his mother’s impulse by offering his crutch as a gift to the Child. Without thinking, he lifts the crutch, and at this moment — after these transformative acts of forgiveness, faith and sacrifice — Amahl is spontaneously healed of his lameness. At the Kings’ insistence Amahl obtains his mother’s permission to travel with them to find the Christ Child to express his gratitude. Melchior instructs the Page to give the Mother the coin for her to keep; his realization that the Christ Child didn’t need his gold has also made him realize that the Mother does.

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