Amahl and the Night Visitors
by Michael S. Rose
Catholic Match column, January 2010
When Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was asked to write a Christmas opera for television, he had trouble coming up with a theme for the opera. One day while he was touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, he paused before a painting of Hieronymus Bosch. It was called The Adoration of the Magi, and it inspired him to write the first opera for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
The opera’s plot, about a young boy’s encounter with the three wise men was influenced by a childhood experience of his. When Menotti was very young he became lame and the doctors could not cure him. His mother took him to be blessed at the Sanctuary of Sacro Monte where he was quickly cured of his disability. He incorporated this experience in the opera in the character of Amahl.
Amahl is a crippled young shepherd who has a penchant for exaggerating the truth. After he answers a knock at the door late one night, he returns to tell his mother that three kings are asking lodging for the night. Of course, his mother does not believe him, but when she investigates further she finds that Amahl is indeed telling the truth and, although she and her lame son are destitute, offers her house to the kings.
The three kings show Amahl and his mother the gifts they are carrying for the Infant Jesus whom they seek. To honor the Magi, Amahl’s mother sends him out to rouse the other shepherds so they can bring firewood and food for the royal trio. After the shepherds leave the house they all go to sleep for the night. Amahl’s mother, however, is tempted by the gift of gold for the Christ Child and decides to take the gold to help her lame son. But as she reaches for the gift, she is interrupted by the kings’ page who sees was she plans to do. The servant tells the kings and Amahl defends his mother by beating the page with his crutch.
The three kings understand why she wanted the gold and forgive her as they prepare to continue their journey. Amahl is so moved by the story the Magi have told that he wants to give Jesus a gift of his own, but he has nothing to give. After some thought, he decides to give Jesus the only thing that he has – his crutch. Miraculously, as he parts with is crutch, he is cured of his lameness. Seeing this, the three kings invite Amahl to accompany them on their journey.
Amahl and the Night Visitors is only about an hour in length, very short for an opera but perfect for a television presentation. It was specifically written for young imaginations, but its message appeals to all ages. It is considered to be one of the most frequently performed operas of modern times.
The opera is written in the style of Italian opera. It is romantic and full of melody. The setting suggests the style of Italian peasants, but there’s an oriental presence in Amahl’s piping and the answering piping from distant shepherds.
Menotti’s vocal style is very verbal in that the rhythm of the spoken words influences the rhythm and the inflection of the sung melodies, making the words easy to understand. The dance sequence takes the form of the famous Italian tarantella.
Amahl and the Night Visitors encompasses a number of themes. The three wise men have seen a star in the distance and have heard of the birth of the King of Kings. They follow this star with the faith that it will lead them to the king they have been awaiting for so long. The journey is not an easy one, but they have the faith that it will end as they wish. They are so certain that they have brought gifts for this precious Infant King. Their faith prevails.
The charity of Amahl and his mother, who have very little of value to share with the kings, is also a predominant theme in the opera. They share their home and they call the other shepherds to share their food and firewood with their guests.
There is also the message of triumph over physical infirmity. Jesus, even as an infant, displayed His tender love for one who had the faith to believe that he would be all right without the necessary crutch and a great enough love of the Christ Child, whom he had never seen, to offer it to Him.
Along with being an entertaining opera, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors presents us with a theme to carry with us not only in the season of Christmas, but also throughout the year.