Monday, December 24, 2012

A wondrous Christmas Eve tradition

I love every minute of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a charming English-language chamber opera by Gian Carlo Menotti that debuted on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951. (It probably made an opera lover out of me, as it would of just about anybody, I think.) Below is some background from John Zech over at Composer's Datebook. And the entire piece, should you care to sample or partake!

"This was back in the days of live television, and for decades the kinescope recording of that original live transmission was thought to be lost. Menotti himself thought so, and said as much on a number of occasions. But, miraculously, a copy of the original 1951 broadcast resurfaced -- just in time for the opera's 50th anniversary -- and was shown at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills in December of 2001 and later that month in New York City.
On that tape, the dapper Mr. Menotti says by way of introduction that NBC had commissioned the opera in 1950, but its wasn't until the Thanksgiving of 1951 that he actually began working on it, inspired by the painting "The Adoration of the Magi," which he saw at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. [see images above and below]
Apparently Menotti was delivering the music bit by bit to the original cast members -- right up until air time! That original cast included a 12 year-old boy soprano named Chet Allen as Amahl. Allen sang the title part twice for NBC: first on the Christmas Eve premiere, and then a repeat live telecast the following Easter.
By the summer of 1952, Chet Allen's voice had changed, and a 10-year old named Bill McIver took over for the Christmas telecasts from 1952 through 1955.
NBC continued to broadcast "Amahl" occasionally through the 1970's, but by that time it had become an established seasonal tradition for both professional and amateur performers coast to coast.
Bosch. The Adoration of the Magi. Date unknown. Oil and gold on panel. 71.1 x 56.5 cm (27.99 x 22.24 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY

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