Premieres on American Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On Christmas Eve, 1951, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned especially for television, was premiered by the National Broadcasting Company and found an appreciative audience, demonstrating the possibilities of television for making the performing arts widely accessible.

Summary of Event

When Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was telecast by the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;opera (NBC) on December 24, 1951, the event marked the premiere of the first opera commissioned specifically for television. Like many of Menotti’s works, though, the one-act Christmas musical drama had a difficult birth. Though the opera was commissioned by NBC in early 1951 for broadcast on Christmas Eve of the same year, Menotti started composing in earnest only on Thanksgiving Day, after calling NBC executive music director Samuel Chotzinoff, who had commissioned the work for the network, to announce that he at last had a title for the project: Amahl and the Night Visitors. Created in a tumult of furious composition, orchestration, and rehearsal, Amahl and the Night Visitors was, in spite of the last-minute nature of its creation, an unqualified success. [kw]Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television (Dec. 24, 1951) [kw]American Television, Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on (Dec. 24, 1951) [kw]Television, Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American (Dec. 24, 1951) Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti) Opera Music;opera Television;opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti) Opera Music;opera Television;opera [g]North America;Dec. 24, 1951: Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television[03670] [g]United States;Dec. 24, 1951: Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television[03670] [c]Radio and television;Dec. 24, 1951: Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television[03670] [c]Theater;Dec. 24, 1951: Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television[03670] [c]Music;Dec. 24, 1951: Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television[03670] Menotti, Gian Carlo Barber, Samuel Chotzinoff, Samuel Scalero, Rosario Schippers, Thomas

Indeed, almost immediately following its debut broadcast, Amahl and the Night Visitors was deemed a classic. The critics loved it. So, too, did the public; in response, NBC made the program a Christmas television tradition for fourteen consecutive years. The work was translated into dozens of languages, and by 1960, Amahl and the Night Visitors had become America’s most beloved and most performed opera.

The inspiration for the work came from several sources—Menotti’s childhood in Italy, where there was no tradition of Santa Claus and where gifts to children were instead brought by the Three Kings; Menotti’s love for children and his devotion to creating works for them; and Menotti’s conceptualization of opera as musical theater in which the basic elements of dramaturgy—plot, character, and action—are of an aesthetic weight equal to that of the music.

These aspects coalesced in galvanizing fashion just a few days before Thanksgiving in 1951, when Menotti, fretting over the impending deadline and his inability to come up with even a shred of an idea for the libretto, walked despondently through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Suddenly he found himself confronting The Adoration of the Kings, Adoration of the Kings, The (Bosch) the masterpiece by noted Flemish Renaissance painter Hieronymous Bosch. At once, Menotti “heard” a “weird” song of the Three Kings that he had remembered from his youth. For the composer, it was clear that a miracle had happened. The Three Kings, as they did in childhood, had brought Menotti a wondrous gift—this time, the basic subject matter for his new opera.

Another childhood incident figured prominently into the limning of Amahl, the opera’s youthful protagonist. As a boy in Italy, Menotti, as the result of an unknown malady, had been disabled for several weeks. When modern medicine failed to provide a remedy, Menotti’s concerned nurse took him to the sanctuary of Sacro Monte near his hometown of Cadegliano to seek the help of a venerated Madonna image that was believed capable of performing miracles. In front of the Madonna, the young Menotti’s leg was blessed. Amazingly, it mended quickly, and thereafter Menotti was able to walk normally. He was also able to transpose that indelible experience, the apparently supernatural healing of his own disability, into Amahl and the Night Visitors’ narrative structure, in which a similar miracle functions to resolve the opera’s dramatic conflicts.

With the opera’s central characters and plot line finally set, Menotti, in a frenzy of activity, managed to write, score, and rehearse Amahl and the Night Visitors in a matter of weeks. He also wrote the work’s compelling libretto. Messengers made daily trips from New York City to Capricorn, Menotti’s country home in Mount Kisco, New York, for a page or two of manuscript so that it could be copied and delivered to the performers, who had started rehearsals in early December. As the deadline loomed, Samuel Barber—Menotti’s friend since the late 1920’s, when they had studied together at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music under Rosario Scalero—assisted by helping with the orchestration. Rehearsals intensified, and Menotti took a direct hand as stage director working alongside NBC television director Kirk Browning Browning, Kirk . Somehow, in spite of the self-inflicted pressures of the seemingly impossible schedule, Menotti—ably abetted by his many colleagues—achieved an artistic miracle.

Menotti’s commission for the opera resulted from his relationship with Chotzinoff, the NBC executive in charge of the ambitiously visionary NBC Television Opera Theater. In 1939, Chotzinoff had commissioned Menotti to write an opera in English for radio. The result was The Old Maid and the Thief, Old Maid and the Thief, The (Menotti) Radio;opera which premiered on NBC’s Blue Network Blue Network in April, 1939; the work was the first opera commissioned specifically for radio. It was also Menotti’s first commission of any kind, as well as the composer’s first libretto in English. Most significant, it was a success, and after its first stage performance in 1941, The Old Maid and the Thief, like Amahl and the Night Visitors a decade later, became one of the most frequently performed operas in the standard repertory. Its popularity stemmed from its libretto in English, its use of a small orchestra, its accessible musicality, and—no small matter—its gripping story, highlighted by lifelike characters and Menotti’s overall sense of compelling dramatic construction. When NBC sought to commission and produce the first original opera written specifically for the then-young television medium, it was not surprising that the network would turn to Menotti.

Significance

Menotti’s libretto for Amahl and the Night Visitors is deceptively simple. Set near Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, the tale concerns a disabled boy, Amahl, and his mother, who live in abject poverty. The Three Kings, on their way to Bethlehem, stop to rest in the little family’s wretched hovel. As they tell of the generous gifts they are taking to the newborn Christ, Amahl’s mother becomes desperate and asks herself why her own child should go without food. After the kings fall asleep, the mother, risking all to save her son, steals from the kings. She is caught, but she is quickly forgiven. As the kings tell of the wondrous child they seek, Amahl offers his most precious possession, his own rough-hewn crutch, as his gift to the infant Christ. Miraculously, Amahl finds that he can now walk without it. Amahl begs his mother to allow him to accompany the kings and take the crutch to the infant Christ himself. The mother accedes, and as the hopeful band departs for Bethlehem, the screen fades to black.

Menotti’s music is also deceptively simple. In keeping with Menotti’s declaration that the work is “an opera for children,” the vocal requirements for the principals are essentially nonvirtuosic. They are, nonetheless, artful and a testament to Menotti’s gift as a Pucciniesque melodist. The vocal parts for the one-act opera can perhaps best be regarded as freely interpreted and sparsely accompanied recitatives, a strategy that enables Menotti’s Verismo lyrics to “speak” clearly. For example, when the mother, exasperated by her son’s propensity for embellishing the truth, declaims, “Oh! Amahl, when will you stop telling lies? Here we have nothing to eat and all you do is worry your mother with fairy tales,” viewers share her frustration—while at the same time empathizing with Amahl’s rich imaginative powers.

Menotti’s melodic writing is essentially diatonic, with folklike flavorings. In all, the score is a work of great tonal charm. In contrast to the darkness and dissonance of so much so-called modern music, moreover, Menotti centers his opera in C major, a key associated with connotations of optimism and happiness. The small-scale orchestral palette—flute, two oboes, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion, and strings—further enhances the ethereal transparency of Menotti’s fairy tale-like music and story.

Amahl and the Night Visitors’ initial success owed much to its original cast. It also owed much to Thomas Schippers’s spirited and sensitive conducting, the expert orchestral players of NBC’s musical staff, the settings and costumes of Eugene Berman, and the spartan yet highly effective “live” television direction of NBC’s Browning.

The NBC broadcast of the opera received rave reviews in the major newspapers and weekly newsmagazines. Olin Downes, in an unprecedented front-page review in The New York Times on Christmas morning, wrote that

Mr. Menotti with rare art has produced a work that few indeed could have seen and heard last night save through blurred eyes and with emotions that were not easy to conceal. It may be said at once that television, operatically speaking, has come of age.

Interestingly, that Amahl and the Night Visitors had made television history seemed to be of little consequence to Menotti. Indeed, the composer recalled that as he was composing the work, the thought of television never really entered his mind. “To me,” Menotti has said, “cinema, television and radio seem rather pale substitutes for the magic of the stage. This is why I intentionally disregarded the mobility of the screen and limited myself to the symbolic simplicity of the stage.”

Amahl and the Night Visitors’ lasting appeal is the consequence of several factors, including the work’s association with the Christmas season, its modest casting and accompanying requirements, its artfully conceived and nonvirtuosic nature, which makes the work capable of production by even amateur and school groups, and its fifty-minute length.

The character of Amahl is also central to the opera’s durability. Indeed, in almost Dickensian fashion, Menotti specified that Amahl must be “a naughty little boy—a little devil. The character should be impish. He tells lies, he is disobedient.” He also is caring and generous, and is literally and figuratively transformed by the prospect of taking his crutch to the Christ child. In the score, Menotti expressed further concern about the casting of Amahl: “It is the wish of the composer that the role of Amahl should always be performed by a boy. Neither the musical nor the dramatic concept of the opera permits the substitution of a woman, costumed as a child.” This point was essential to Menotti, who viewed the action, and even the characteristics of the adult figures, as being dictated by Amahl’s point of view. In Menotti’s words: “All these must be interpreted simply and directly in terms of a child’s imagination.”

It might be concluded that the opera’s ultimate appeal is that it is family entertainment par excellence. Although the work was intended by Menotti as “an opera for children,” the opera’s dramatic as well as musical focus, along with the composer’s masterful mix of naïveté and sophistication, has made Amahl and the Night Visitors a work attractive and accessible to all ages and virtually all tastes. Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti) Opera Music;opera Television;opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Archibald, Bruce. “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol. 1, edited by Stanley Sadie. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1992. An overview of the plot of Amahl and the Night Visitors and an appreciation of the opera’s enduring appeal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Gian Carlo Menotti.” In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Vol. 3, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1986. A concise yet critical review of Menotti’s career, with a useful listing of his compositions. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ardoin, John. The Stages of Menotti. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Ardoin’s indispensable and comprehensive treatment focuses on the composer’s work in chapters such as “The Television Stage.” Lavishly illustrated with an excellent collection of photos edited by Gerald Fitzgerald. Includes a complete chronology of Menotti’s varied works, a discography, and a highly useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graf, Herbert. Producing Opera for America. New York: Atlantis Books, 1961. Opera producer Graf, in describing possibilities for producing opera in America, cites Amahl and the Night Visitors in several visionary discussions of “Opera on Television” and “Opera on Film.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, John. Menotti: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1978. Gruen’s compelling biography is a mine of revealing insights connecting the often convoluted links between Menotti’s personal and artistic lives. Extensive discussion of Amahl and the Night Visitors is included in the chapter entitled “The Gorgon.” Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hixon, Donald L. Gian Carlo Menotti: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A scholarly resource that provides a brief biographical sketch and a chronologically arranged bibliography of writings by and about Menotti. Includes a detailed list of works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menotti, Gian Carlo. Amahl and the Night Visitors: Opera in One Act. New York: G. Schirmer, 1997. The complete score for Amahl and the Night Visitors is arranged here for piano rather than orchestra.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wlaschin, Ken. Gian Carlo Menotti on Screen: Opera, Dance, and Choral Works on Film, Television, and Video. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. A full treatment of Menotti’s works in the spheres of the arts and popular culture. Recommended reading.

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