Last night, I continued an old family tradition by listening to a CD of the 1951 NBC telecast recording of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti. It seems this is the world’s first Christmas without Mr. Menotti, who had a career that spanned many decades and several continents. “Amahl,” in addition to being the first opera composed specifically for television, is also one of the most popular operas in America, performed regularly every holiday season.
I probably listened to the LP recording of the opera in the womb (my parents’ copy of the record was battered and worn by the time I remember handling it in the 1970s), and have skipped listening to the opera no more than one or two years in my entire life. I have one sister who shares this strange affinity for “Amahl,” and one who likes it, but who has never quite had the same level of adoration that the other two of us have.
With so many listenings to this opera over so many years, I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this piece of art’s meaning has changed for me over time. I’ve grown from identifying with Amahl and his playfulness and curiosity to also understanding his mother’s concern for his ill health and her despair over their impoverished state, to connecting with the wise men’s focus on finding a miraculous new leader, who is predicted to be like no other on earth.
As I grow older, I also notice that I’m becoming more and more attuned to the music itself, how the themes play out and are interwoven, and how Menotti was able to use very traditional compositional style on a very traditional theme and not come off as treacly or cloying.
When searching for a “worthy project,” choosing work that deals with seasonal or holiday-focused themes is an ever-present possibility. The area seems to me to be a double-edged sword–there is great danger in being afraid to say something new or provocative (or unconsciously falling into cognitive ruts laid down by our holiday favorites), yet few themes have such collective staying power for the masses. As with all such dangerous opportunities (and art is full of them), it’s a challenge that requires courage, mindfulness, and faith in one’s ability to say something new and meaningful.
What holiday art have you made? What have you enjoyed about the process? What were your biggest challenges?