Amahl And The Night Visitors
By Barbara Hildt
When I was eight my parents took me and my two sisters to see a live performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, performed at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. I was deeply moved by the music that told the story of Amahl, a poor crippled shepherd boy, and his mother who are visited by the three kings on their way to find the Christ child, following the direction of a star.
Realizing how much I loved this opera, Daddy traveled the twenty miles back to Hartford the next week to purchase a recording of the original performance done in 1951 for NBC television which had commissioned the hour long opera.
The record came with a booklet with photos of the production and the libretto. I insisted on listening to the recording many times until I had memorized all the words and could sing every note. I was so captivated and enthralled by Amahl and the Night Visitors that I convinced my teacher to let our 3rd grade class walk a short distance to our house in the cold to listen to our recording of the opera.
As a little girl, I could identify with Amahl, the boy who didn’t want to stop playing his flute and come inside at bedtime. His mother gets angry when he doesn´t obey, telling her son if he were not crippled she would spank him. She later accuses him of lying when he tells her that there are three kings at their door.
Before the kings arrival Amahl´s mother sings to her young son, “unless we go begging, how shall we live through tomorrow.” Amahl responds to cheer his mother with optimism by singing, “Don’t cry, Mother dear, don’t worry for me. If we must go begging, a good beggar I’ll be.”
After they go to sleep, hungry, on beds of straw in a cold house, there is a knock at the door. Three times Amahl goes to the door and reports to his mother, who thinks he is imagining there are three kings at the door. She goes to the door and is amazed to find Amahl was telling the truth. She invites them in and then sends Amahl to go and invite the other shepherds and ask them to bring whatever they have in their houses for she has nothing to offer the kings.
When she sees what the three kings have brought, Amahl´s mother sings: “Oh, these beautiful things, and all that gold!” One king responds: “These are the gifts to the child.” She responds, “The child! Which child? Perhaps I know him. What does he look like?” The king replies, “Have you seen a child the color of wheat, the color of dawn? His eyes are mild, His hands are those of a King, as King He was born.”
Imagining it could be her child they seek, she sings, “Yes I know a child the color of wheat, the color of dawn. His eyes are mild, his hands are those of a King, as King he was born. But no one will bring him incense or gold, though sick and poor and hungry and cold. He’s my child, my son my darling my own.”
When everyone has fallen asleep, Amahl´s mother contemplates stealing some of the gold. She sings, “All that gold! All that gold! I wonder if rich people know what to do with their gold! Do they know how a child could be fed? Do rich people know? Do they know that a house can be kept warm all day with burning logs? Oh, what I could do for my child with that gold! Why should it all go to a child they don’t even know?”
Hearing these words as a child, long before I was even aware of how much extreme poverty there is in this world and how economic injustices so unfairly jeopardize the lives of so many children, I was profoundly moved by Amahl´s mother asking if rich people have any idea how the poor struggle to survive. I must have wondered why rich people don´t care and share more. Those questions are still with me today.
For me, the important meaning and relevancy of Jesus Christ´s birth is conveyed when one of the kings sings, “Oh, woman, you may keep the gold. The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love alone he will build His Kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. He will bring us new life and the keys to His city belong to the poor.”
When suddenly Amahl finds he is no longer crippled and can walk, the kings declare the miracle is a sign from God. With assurances that they will take good care of Amahl and bring him safely home, his mother allows him to go with the kings to give thanks to the child and to take him his crutch as a gift.
I shall always be grateful to my parents for giving me the experience of seeing and hearing Amahl and the Night Visitors. I listen to a recording of Amahl at least once every Christmas season. The story and the words sung by Amahl and his mother always move me to tears. This amazing work of art has had and will continue to have more meaning for me than any other I have experienced. I hope my grand children will someday get to know and appreciate Amahl.