At a small campground somewhere in Appalachia lives a young boy and his mother. They’re poor, with barely enough to eat, a tent as a home and the boy, Amahl, has the use of only one leg.
One night, as he plays music on his pipe outside, Amahl sees a giant star shining above their campsite. But, as we learn from his mother, he’s known for his tall tales and crazy stories.
“Why should I believe you? You come up with a new one every day,” she laments in song. “First it was a leopard with a woman’s head. Then it was a tree branch that shrieked and bled … and now it is a star as large as a window!”
But this time, Amahl is telling the truth. And soon after, three foreign visitors arrive at their door.
This is the opening of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti. It was the first made-for-TV opera when it premiered on NBC in 1951. This weekend, Pittsburgh Resonance Works is performing the show. It’s based on the traditional biblical Christmas story, but instead of focusing on Jesus’ birth, the narrative focuses on Amahl, his mother, and the three wise men.
Director Craig Joseph said Resonance Works’ adaptation modernizes the work by having the three kings arrive like a traveling circus. He said the wonder of the circus fits themes of the traditional biblical story.
“The place where, for a child, impossibilities become realities,” Joseph said. “So our kings are ringmasters, we’re putting it in more of a 1930s Dust Bowl Appalachia poverty than a kingdom of Judea-type poverty.”
Ivy Walz, who plays Amahl’s mother, said her role represents a lot of the realities of the world. She’s a single parent, trying to do what’s best for her son, but often feels anxious and uncertain.
“I think it’s really a story that people can relate to today,” Walz said. “Just when they think about trying to make ends meet.”
But at the same time, Walz said it’s clear that the mother relies on Amahl’s illustrious imagination to escape.
“I think they try to provide beauty for each other, where there isn’t really any where they live,” she said.
Thirteen-year-old Liam McCarthy, who plays Amahl, said his character’s attitude throughout the show sends an important message.
“He uses his imagination to make his mother feel like life is going pretty well for them,” McCarthy said. “It helps them stay happy and they live a pretty decent life.”
Resonance Works founder and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner said she was excited to bring Amahl and the Night Visitors to Pittsburgh. The annual performance is in its fourth year. Sellner said she hears from families throughout the region who have made the show a part of their holiday tradition, and many who were happy to see the opera’s return.
“We get letters, emails, we had people come to the show that told us about their history,” Sellner said. “People who played Amahl as a child in their church.”
She echoed McCarthy’s assessment, saying hope and resiliency can be seen throughout the show.
“There’s a childlike wonder that we can often lose sight of,” Sellner said. “Amahl, he has difficulties, and amidst all of that, he maintains that there are beautiful, wonderful magical things in the world.”
The magic she mentions manifests in the tricks of the three kings as circus ringmasters. And Joseph said at the opera’s conclusion, there’s a surprise for Amahl.
“Without giving too much out, then, of course, the story has a happy ending.”
Resonance Works’ Amahl and the Night Visitors runs Friday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland. They're also collecting donations for the Women's Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Resonance Works is an underwriter of 90.5 WESA.