Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian Carlo Menotti’s stirring opera about a crippled shepherd boy and three kings, was TV’s first Christmas tradition, creating a sensation with its debut on Christmas Eve 1951. Broadcast yearly into the mid 60s, Amahl - as is the case with so many programs from the early years of television - has disappeared into the fogs of the past, unseen on network television since the late 1970s.
Mitchell Hadley, who chronicled Amahl’s origins for TV Party (here's the link to the story: http://www.tvparty.com/xmas-amahl.html), now brings us up to date with a review of the only commercially-available DVD from the opera’s classic early years.
|1955 DVD release|
The Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors occupies a rich spot in television history: its live broadcast on December 24, 1951 was the first broadcast of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, the first opera ever written specifically for television, the first program to be broadcast in color (in 1953). It became an instant sensation after that initial showing, and due to public demand was again done live the following Easter. It was the first Christmas tradition for the young medium of television, broadcast every year from 1951 to 1966, (often on or near Christmas day itself), and only ended its run when Gian Carlo Menotti , the prickly composer, withdrew his permission due to a dispute with NBC.
The brief opera, which runs less than an hour, tells the simple but charming story of a crippled shepherd boy and his widowed mother, living in poverty, who are visited one night by three kings following a star. It’s become a mainstay of amateur and regional opera companies, and is generally considered the most frequently performed opera in history. And yet despite all this, Amahl had, through the years, fallen into something of a memory hole. It was, in short, a terrific subject for an article, and so I set out to write one, which became the TVParty story “Three Kings in 50 Minutes.” But, as I started my research, I ran into a bit of a challenge.
|Bill McIver as the crippled boy Amahl--from the 1955 production|
You see, I’d been too little to appreciate it when it was originally on television (I was only six when it ended its long initial run), which meant that I was dependent on the archival video material available. Which wasn’t much. Sure, there had been a 1978 revival broadcast with a top notch cast that included famed singer Teresa Stratas that had come out on VHS, but even though the production had been done with the approval of Menotti, it bore virtually no resemblance to the original broadcasts. It had the look and feel of a filmed movie (which it was, with many scenes shot on location in the Holy Land), and unlike the original live versions the singers lip-synched to recorded music. As a movie it might have been fine, but it lacked the immediacy and drama of the studio versions that had been the hallmark* of the 50s and 60s broadcasts. Which, surprisingly, had never been released commercially. *No pun intended.
The initial 1951 broadcast did exist; it was a fairly constant presence on the bootleg market, and it could be viewed on streaming sites such as that of the Museum of Broadcasting in Chicago, or in person at the Paley Center in New York, so it wasn’t too hard for me to get a copy to watch (for research purposes only, of course). It had never had a legitimate release, however, and while I had come up with plenty of written information to put out a good story, it felt like there was still something missing.
|Mother and Amahl (Rosemary Kuhlmann and Bill McIver)|
Imagine my surprise, then, when just two weeks before the deadline for the article, VAI came out with a DVD release of the live 1955 NBC broadcast of Amahl. As soon as I read about it I dropped whatever I had been doing at the time and bought it, and today I cannot imagine having finished that article without it. True, it’s not the cherished world premiere, and while the original broadcast was in color, only the black-and-white kinescope of the 1955 survives. Nonetheless, in every significant way this 1955 version can be considered the definitive televised version of Amahl available today.
For one thing, the production itself – the blocking, sets, costumes and choreography – are the same as those used in 1951. So is the cast, with the sole exception being the title role of Amahl, where Chet Allen, the boy soprano who originated the role, had given way to Bill McIver, making his fourth and final appearance. McIver, along with Rosemary Kuhlmann as Amahl’s Mother, Andrew McKinley, David Aiken and Leon Lishner as the Three Kings, and Francis Monachino as their Page, are by now fully in command of the story, and their familiarity with both the roles and each other show in their polished performance.
Also returning are the other principals from the premiere broadcast – Thomas Schippers, in the process of becoming the most celebrated American opera conductor of the time, remains at the podium, the NBC Opera Theatre Orchestra (now called the NBC Symphony of the Air) provides the music, and Kirk Browning directs the broadcast, which retains the costumes and set designs of Eugene Berman and John Butler’s choreography. *
*In fact, up until the controversial 1963 version, the production and cast (with the exception of the boy soprano playing Amahl) remained consistent for every broadcast.
In addition, [on the DVD release] there’s a wonderful interview with graceful Rosemary Kuhlmann in which she shares anecdotes about her experiences on Amahl (for example, scenes she’d originally had to perform on her knees when McIver first started playing Amahl were by 1955 no longer a program since McIver was now as tall as she was), and the disc comes with a terrific little booklet that gave me all kinds of small details on the behind-the-scenes drama of the broadcast. Because of the opera’s short length – less than 50 minutes – and the fact that it was presented without commercial interruption, the remainder of the hour time slot was traditionally filled by the Columbus Boychoir* performing Christmas carols, and this part of the broadcast is included as well. Optional subtitles are also available, and I’d recommend using them – when it comes to opera, English can be a notoriously difficult language to understand, and though Menotti’s music never overwhelms the singers, subtitles do provide viewers with the clarity to appreciate the beauty of Menotti’s libretto.
*The Boychoir, now known as the American Boychoir, was one of the most famous of its kind; Chet Allen and Bill McIver were both members.
So the 1955 broadcast is a terrific version of Amahl, one that should be part of anyone’s Christmas collection. Don’t let the fact that it’s an opera scare you off – you don’t have to be an aficionado of opera, or even a particularly pious person, to appreciate it. Menotti wrote it for children, after all. All you have to be is a fan of good television, and a sucker for a good Christmas story. I still think it would be a good idea for Hallmark to release the original 1951 version*, if they’re able to maneuver through the legal mindfield of copyright and publication issues that have prevented any recent broadcasts of Amahl (including at early 2000s version by the BBC that was shelved for that very reason and remains unaired to this day) – it would certainly beat the dreck they put out today.
*The 1951 broadcast includes an introduction by Gian Carlo Menotti himself, who discusses briefly the origins of the story and introduces Schippers, Browning and Berman on camera, and features a charming performance by Chet Allen, who fully justifies Menotti’s decision to cast a boy soprano in the lead role rather than a more experienced adult female, as is done in many operas with young boys as characters – Hansel and Gretel, for example.
It may be hard to appreciate today, when both religious and cultural programs have more or less disappeared from mainstream broadcasting, but in an era when opera was an accepted as part of middlebrow American culture, the unabashedly religious Amahl, moving without becoming awash in Hallmark-style sentimentality, became a cherished Christmas tradition for many viewers. The loss of programs like this is to the detriment not only of television, but all of us. Thanks to companies like VAI, however, we can still keep the memories alive, and pass the traditions – and the understanding of Christmas – along to future generations.
Mitchell Hadley, who makes it a point to watch Amahl every Christmas Eve and thinks you should too, blogs about classic television at ItsAboutTV.com.