Sometime in the early 1960s, when I was age 9 or 10, my father arrived home with an LP recording from a specialist gramophone store in Soho, London. The most memorable tracks on this anonymously recorded disc were Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride and the Christmas song Mary’s Boy Child, each performed in slightly syrupy arrangements the style of which we came to associate with America. This was something quite alien to the so-called “sophisticated” world of Kings College Choir, Cambridge, heard then, as now, every Christmas Eve on BBC radio.
Bramwell Tovey. Photo by Epix Studios
That’s probably when I became conscious of a parallel musical universe in the United States that had its roots in the same church music with which I’d grown up, but which seriously diverged from the churchy English style that was so popular in England in the post-war years.
American music just seemed altogether different. First Aaron Copland, then Leonard Bernstein in all his guises, then Samuel Barber and, of course, Gian Carlo Menotti (though he was really an Italian at heart).
In the mid-1980s, a few years into my conducting career, I led a performance at the Ryedale Festival of Menotti’s The Telephone. As he always did, Menotti had written his own libretto. This delightfully comic opera for two singers tells the story of Ben Upthegrove and Lucy England (delightfully Gilbertian names to set the scene). Ben is trying to propose to Lucy before he leaves on a business trip but she is constantly interrupted by the telephone, with which she’s become obsessed. In desperation, Ben leaves and phones Lucy offering a proposal of marriage, which is immediately accepted. Shades of modern obsessions with cell phones perhaps?
Originally written as a prelude piece to The Medium being performed on Broadway, The Telephone became very popular in its own right.
Shortly afterwards in 1951, Menotti wrote Amahl and the Night Visitors about a young boy who is often accused of telling tall tales by his mother and who can only walk with the aid of a crutch. Amahl is visited by the Magi on the night before the birth of Christ.
Hieronymus Bosch's Adoration of the Magi was Menotti's inspiration for Amahl and the Night Visitors.
The composer wrote:
“This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.”
There is an undoubted kinship with Tiny Tim in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but Amahl and his mother’s dealings with the three kings are fraught with ethical complications when the mother tries to steal some of the Magi gold.
As an act of atonement, Amahl offer’s his only possession to the Christ child—his crutch. In an instant, Amahl’s physical challenges are suddenly and miraculously healed.
Menotti has written a timeless work of art with a fragile simplicity that clearly owes its roots to Italy and the world of Puccini. Toscanini, the most famous Italian conductor of the 20th century, who was a colleague of Puccini, was also a friend of the Menotti family and ensured that the gifted young Gian Carlo studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The net result of that education and the America that Menotti knew and loved is Amahl, written for television, which in its delightful simplicity has become a sophisticated classic appreciated by all ages around the world—even by the notoriously difficult to please Toscanini.
One issue remains. Is Amahl an American or Italian opera?
Who really cares? Its message is universal.
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