It has long been on the agenda of Lyric Opera’s General Director and CEO Deborah Sandler to develop an opera following amongst children and families in the Kansas City metropolitan area. And when you think about it, why not? There is no equivalent, in operatic terms, of The Nutcracker, which draws in so many young viewers ritually year after year to theaters across America, giving them a first, heady taste of the magic of dance on stage. Gian Carlo Menotti’s charming Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera composed for a US television audience in 1951, and debuted from Kansas City’s own Hallmark Hall of Fame, could hardly compete with the immense theatrical showcase that is The Nutcracker, but in its humble, unassuming and quirky way, it is as lovely an introduction to the operatic form during the festive season as any. So I sat down to watch it with my 6 and 4 year olds, who were duly entranced.

<i>Amahl and the Night Visitors</i> © Don Ipock
Amahl and the Night Visitors
© Don Ipock

Seizing the opportunity to return to stage in a smaller, more unassuming way after the challenging months of lockdown, the plan had been to perform the show live, with suitable social distancing protocols in place, over the period of several nights at the Lyric’s Production Building. New rulings in November, however, to deal with rising Covid numbers in the area forced a rethink to the digital medium. But the charm of the production was still much in evidence, particularly through the deft artistry of Paul Mesner's puppets and the gentle, expressive accompanying singing. The whole set brought to mind one of those capacious, dynamic Italian-style presepi, that is to say Nativity scenes, with their endless array of villagers and poignant and preposterous characters, all in some sort of relationship or other to the events and the person of Christmas night. The hovel where Amahl and his mother, sweetly and compellingly sung by Holly Ladage and Kelly Morel, teetered on the brink of vagrancy, was as if abstracted from a much larger set of human activity that we were invited to imagine.

<i>Amahl and the Night Visitors</i> © Don Ipock
Amahl and the Night Visitors
© Don Ipock

The pathos of their situation – the loving but ever-stressed widow with her dreaming, wildly imaginative, crippled only son – was captured effectively through the puppets’ poignant expressions and movements and through their intertwining voices in duet, loving each other even if not understanding. It is true that Menotti very much wanted the part of Amahl to be played by a boy soprano, which would have had its unmistakable own purity of line, but Ladage, at least, sounded young and kept her voice vibrato free. The wonderfully preposterous kings, with their potions and lotions and (the kings functioning like Santa in Italy) licorice, were voiced by Michael Wu, Daniel Belcher and Scott Conner who lent heft and authority to the pure voice of Ladage's Amahl and, by their appearance and their mission, substance to his dreaming.

Kelly Morel © Don Ipock
Kelly Morel
© Don Ipock

The theological – and musical – center of the work, the identification of The Child (rich, poor, healthy, suffering), with the child (Amahl, or indeed any child) was lyrically sung and powerfully touching. Under conductor Piotr Wisniewski, the small ensemble played the sweet and sour mixture that makes up the score of this delightfully idiosyncratic little opera with freshness and verve. A charming production: one might even hope it would become a yearly Christmas tradition, and provide a humble gateway for children into the world of opera, on the principle that in the new dispensation, even camels can pass through the eyes of needles. 


This performance was reviewed from the Lyric Opera's video stream

****1