‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ is an opera in one act by Gian Carlo Menotti with an original English libretto by the composer. It was commissioned by NBC and first performed by the NBC Opera Theatre on December 24, 1951, in New York City at NBC studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, where it was broadcast live on television from that venue as the debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America.
Amahl, a disabled boy who can walk only with a crutch, has a problem with telling tall tales. He is sitting outside playing his shepherd’s pipe when his mother calls for him (‘Amahl! Amahl!’). After much persuasion, he enters the house but his mother does not believe him when he tells her there is an amazing star “as big as a window” outside over their roof.
Later that night, Amahl’s mother weeps, praying that Amahl not become a beggar. After bedtime, there is a knock at the door and the mother tells Amahl to go see who it is. He is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings (the Magi), one of whom is black. At first the mother does not believe Amahl, but when she goes to the door to see for herself, she is stunned. The Three Kings tell the mother and Amahl they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous Child and they would like to rest at their house, to which the mother agrees, saying that all she can offer is “a cold fireplace and a bed of straw”. The mother goes to fetch firewood, and Amahl seizes the opportunity to speak with the kings. King Balthazar answers Amahl’s questions about his life as a king and asks what Amahl does. Amahl responds that he was once a shepherd, but his mother had to sell his sheep. Now, he and his mother will have to go begging. Amahl then talks with King Kaspar, who is childlike, eccentric, and a bit deaf. Kaspar shows Amahl his box of magic stones, beads, and licorice, and offers Amahl some of the candy. The mother returns (“Amahl, I Told You Not To Be A Nuisance!”). He defends himself, saying “They kept asking me questions”, when of course it has in fact been Amahl asking the kings questions. Amahl is told to go fetch the neighbors so the kings may be fed and entertained properly. After the neighbors have left and the kings are resting, the mother attempts to steal for her son some of the kings’ gold that was meant for the Christ Child. She is thwarted by the kings’ page (“Thief! Thief!”). When Amahl wakes to find the page grabbing his mother, he attacks him. Seeing Amahl’s weak defense of his mother and understanding the motives for the attempted theft, King Melchior says she may keep the gold as the Holy Child will not need earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom. The mother says she has waited all her life for such a king and asks the kings to take back the gold. She wishes to send a gift but has nothing to send. Amahl, too, has nothing to give the Child except his crutch. When he offers it to the kings, his leg is miraculously healed. (Especially effective and dramatic things are done with the music accompanying this discovery/ announcement.) With permission from his mother, he leaves with the kings to see the Child and give his crutch in thanks for being healed.
‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ was the first network television Christmas special to become an annual tradition. There had already been several television productions of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ since about 1947, but they had not been shown annually or presented by the same television network, with the same general technical staff, as Amahl was. Until 1963, Amahl was nearly always presented with many of the same singers and production staff. From 1951 until 1966 it was presented every year on NBC (which commissioned Menotti to write it) on or around Christmas Eve.
Kate Bush appeared in a school production of this in 1972, her third year at St. Joseph’s Senior School. Allegedly, the school magazine later reported that “colourful relief was introduced at the entrance of the shepherds and shepherdesses, members of the Senior and First and Second year Choirs, who tripped in all rosy-cheeked and healthy-looking, bringing gifts for the kings. Two of these, Catherine Bush and Sarah Brennan, later gave a short dance in honor of the kings, which was both pastorally graceful and imaginative.”