The Davis Chorale presents Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-hour opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at 4 p.m. Sunday at in the Brunelle Performance Hall at Davis High School — coinciding with the time when (according to tradition) the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus in a stable.
According to most versions of the story, the Three Wise Men arrived bearing gifts about two weeks after Christmas.
“When I was a child in Italy, we had no Santa Claus,” wrote Menotti in 1951. “Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.”
Menotti (1911-2007) came to the United States in the late 1920s, and launched a career as a composer. In 1951, NBC commissioned Menotti to compose an original one-act opera for national broadcast. For months, Menotti was unable to settle on a concept. Then he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and saw a painting attributed to Hieronymous Bosch (from the late 1400s) showing the Three Wise Men visiting the baby.
“As I was looking at the painting, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift,” Menotti wrote.
Menotti’s story involves Amahl and his mother, bystanders in the stable. Up against a tight deadline, Menotti brought in his close companion, American composer Samuel Barber, to help with the orchestrations. The first performance — a triumph — was a live broadcast on Dec. 24, 1951. Later, a video was recorded; and later still, new video versions were made.
“Amahl” also became hugely popular with community chorale groups — Rachel Kessler, who is conducting this production, recalls being in a local production in 1988.
“It’s so gratifying, the message of peace … this piece is really dear to me,” she said.
Soprano Janie Howard Knudsen, who assumed leadership of the Davis Children’s Chorale last year when Kessler retired, will sing the role of Amahl’s mother.
“I have studied this part for 30 years, going back to my days as a student at the Boston Conservatory, and I thought, ‘Someday…’ But then I had triplets!”
She added: “Amahl’s mother is a widow, a tough life, and the community hasn’t surrounded her with support. She’s terrified her son is going to die young. But by the end, her defenses come down, and she is healed.”
Ben Cross, an eighth-grader at Harper Junior High, plays Amahl — a role that involves much memorization.
“I got the songs on iTunes and listened to them while looking at the score,” Cross said.
Brook Ostrom, John Burow and Donald Deem play the Three Kings — “reflecting years of experience, in my case expressed through a deep resonant bass sound,” Deem said, with a twinkle in his eye. Burow’s son Daniel, a 10-year-old, also appears in the shepherd’s chorus.
Playing the Page is Nick Cooper, a 2007 Davis High graduate, now a technical theater major at Colorado State.
“Among other things, my part includes carrying a carpet for the Kings, and trinkets like a bird cage,” Cooper said.
Tickets for “Amahl and the Night Visitors” are $20 general and $10 students/children, or $50 for a “family ticket” (four people). Tickets may be purchased in advance at Watermelon Music in Davis or at the door on the day of the performance.