Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, which Central City Opera brings to Colorado Springs, Boulder and Denver Dec. 11–18, has become a beloved Christmas operatic classic over the past 70 years. But it almost didn’t happen.
In 1951, NBC commissioned Menotti to compose the first opera for television, to be shown during the holiday season. But as the Christmas deadline approached, Menotti struggled to find inspiration for his opera. Then one day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was struck by Hieronymus Bosch’s nativity scene painting, “Adoration of the Magi.”
“I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings,” Menotti wrote in the opera’s performance notes. “I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.”
The painting reminded him of his childhood in Italy, where traditionally the Magi, or the three kings, brought presents for children for Christmas, instead of Santa Claus. He had finally found the inspiration for his NBC opera, a creative retelling of the story of the Magi from the perspective of the disabled shepherd boy Amahl.
This holiday season, Central City Opera will take their traveling production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, conducted by John Baril and directed by Iliana Lucero Barron, on the road. The company will perform in Boulder at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 13 and 14, at the First United Methodist Church (ticket information below).
“In the past couple of years with COVID-19, people have missed holiday traditions,” Pamela Pantos, president and CEO of Central City Opera, says. “So, we wanted to bring this production that people of all ages can enjoy to different communities in the greater Denver-Boulder area.”
Amahl and Night Visitors, a one-hour-long opera in English, is intended to be accessible for a wider audience, including first-time opera goers and younger people. Telling the story from the perspective of the boy Amahl specifically helps to connect with children.
“This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood,” Menotti wrote.
The story takes place near Bethlehem, where Amahl and his widowed mother live in poverty. One night, the three Magi, regal foreigners from the East, stop by their humble home on their journey to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. As Amahl and his mother host the noble guests for the night, they face several personal and moral challenges, which eventually lead them to discover the power of forgiveness and healing.
“Amahl’s mother is the most realistic character with the biggest arc,” says Jennifer DeDominici, who plays the mother. “Like her, many of us will have cared deeply about someone, so deeply that it made us question our choices and our priorities. Hopefully that person we love will be able to inspire us to be better and keep going, like Amahl does.”
For Central City’s production, the creative team wanted to stay true to the spirit of the opera, while also updating it to be more inclusive for modern audiences.
“We’re definitely paying attention to what we need to change [in the opera] to make it current and to honor all the changes in regards to social justice for the different communities in our world,” Barron says.
Barron made several changes to the lyrics, including replacing the word “crippled” with “disabled” when referring to Amahl’s physical condition and avoiding the use of the word “gypsy,” which has historically been used as a racial slur for Romani people. In addition, Barron wanted to incorporate American Sign Language (ASL) in a few key moments throughout the performance for King Caspar, who is deaf.
To highlight Menotti’s beautiful music and storytelling, Barron aims to take a minimalistic approach to the props and sets. This offers greater flexibility for the traveling production in different locations, while also encouraging the audience to use their own creativity to fill in the gaps, she says.
“This opera really lends itself to the imagination,” Barron says. “We are trusting the audience to suspend their disbelief and use their imagination to come into the world we have built.”
Though the story has roots in biblical scripture, Barron hopes the audience will still be able to connect to the overarching themes of generosity and hope, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“The opera shows us the importance of hope, community and powering through the hard times,” DeDominici says. “It reminds that connecting with each other and banding together can give us a sense of abundance.”