I was ten when I stepped into the spotlight one Christmas night and performed various roles in Gian Carlo Minotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. My older brother John and younger brother Bill also performed. Our audience consisted of four very proud women—my grandmother, two aunts and my mother, who periodically dabbed at their eyes with tissue as they laughed and cried during our performance.
If a reviewer had been there that night watching three eager children dressed in bathrobes and flowing dishtowels, imitating the garments of Christ’s time, the best thing he or she would have written is that we knew the music—every note, every pause, every crescendo. And we sang heartily the amazing, touching beautiful lyrics—yes, every word.
Written in 1951 for television, the opera tells the story of the poor young shepherd boy, Amahl, who in the vernacular of the day is crippled and hobbles around with the aid of a crutch. He meets the three kings who are following the Christmas star to find Christ and deliver gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh to him.
The kings and their servant briefly stay with Amahl and his windowed mother late one night. King Kaspar amuses everyone with his bird and various possessions which he keeps in a jeweled box. Neighboring shepherds bring food to the destitute hovel and dance for the kings. Later, as they dose, the mother sings of two children—the Christ child, a child of wheat, and her own disabled son, a child of thorn. Frightened of the future and how she will care for her boy, she reaches out to take some of the kings’ gold, awakening their loyal servant. He cries out that she is a thief and begins beating her, all the while accusing her of stealing. Amahl limps to his mother’s defense, lashing out at the servant as best he can as he tries to balance on his weak legs. Finally he falls into his mother’s arms, weeping. King Melchoir then sings the most beautiful aria of the opera:
Oh woman, you can keep the gold,
The child we seek, doesn’t need our gold
On love, on love alone, he will build his city
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.
At this point, Amahl slowly rises and offers the kings his crutch, asking them to take it to the new baby as who knows, he might need one. As Amahl extends his only possession to the kings, a miracle occurs and he finds that he is able to walk!
The opera had been a gift to us three children a few years before. A set of four 45 rpm records, it played as loudly as possible, during our performance, from our dining room. We had no one to operate the music part of our production and so had to stop occasionally to change the record! But we sang on, John and I taking turns being the mother and Amahl, depending on the scene and the vocal range. Bill being the youngest and not as well versed in the music, was King Kaspar. He sat proudly beside my mother’s small lingerie chest and opened each drawer during his aria to produce magic stones, beads, and the prized licorice. His companion was our canary, Peter Fritz, who playing the role of Kaspar’s bird did his usual thing—scattering droppings and newspaper shreds through the bars of his cage.
During the shepherds’ song the three of us disappeared into the kitchen to return with a basket of bananas and oranges to set before our bemused audience. We then twirled and danced the shepherds wild and free dance along the living room floor, careful not to knock each other over on our so small stage.
But even though we lacked the accoutrements necessary for a great performance, we did not lack the heart and soul, the love and involvement. The music of Gian Carlo Minotti spoke to us and changed us even at our very young ages. As I write this memory today, I have chills hearing Minotti’s haunting melodies in my mind and remembering his beautiful words. This Christmas and all through the year we should offer ourselves to those in need—because the keys to his city belong to the poor.
MERRY CHRISTMAS and Happy Holidays to everyone!