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Amahl and the Night Visitors is an opera in one act by Gian Carlo Menotti with an original English libretto by the composer. It was commissioned by NBC and first performed on December 24, 1951 in New York Citymarker, at NBC studio 8H in Rockefeller Centermarker, where it was broadcast live on television as the debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America. The opera is now a popular Christmas classic.


Original 1951 Production

Menotti had been commissioned by Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC's new opera programing, to write the first opera for television eighteen months before it was to be broadcast, but was having trouble finding a subject about which to write. One day, while walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Artmarker in New Yorkmarker, he happened to see The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch and knew he had found his inspiration. There was so little time left before the premiere, that the singers had little time to rehearse, receiving the final passages of the score just days before the broadcast. The composer's companion Samuel Barber was brought in to complete the orchestrations.

Menotti wrote Amahl and the Night Visitors with the stage in mind, even though it was intended for broadcast. "On television you're lucky if they ever repeat anything. Writing an opera is a big effort and to give it away for one performance is stupid." The composer himself appeared onscreen in the very first production to introduce the opera and give the background of the events leading up to his composition of it. He also brought out director Kirk Browning and conductor Thomas Schippers on camera to thank them. Amahl was seen on 35 NBC affiliates coast to coast, the largest network hookup for an opera broadcast to that date. An estimated five million people saw the live broadcast, the largest audience ever to see a televised opera.

Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first network television Christmas special to become an annual tradition. There had already been several television productions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol since about 1947, but they had not been shown annually or presented by the same television network, with the same general technical staff. Amahl was always presented on NBC, with many of the same singers and technical staff every year. From 1951 until 1966, Amahl was presented every year on NBC (which commissioned Menotti to write it) on or around Christmas Eve, as an episode of an existing anthology series, such as The Alcoa Hour, NBC Television Opera, or the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

For several years it was assumed that the original telecast, preserved on kinescope, had been lost, but a surviving copy was found, transferred to video, and is now available at The Paley Center for Media (formerly The Museum of Television & Radio) and online at the Museum of Broadcast Communicationsmarker. There are also several audio recordings available. This production, however, has never been re-broadcast, although bootleg recordings have been made.

1953 through 1956 productions

For its first three telecasts, the program had been presented in black-and-white (there were two presentations of it in 1952, one on Easter and one during the Christmas season), but beginning in 1953, it was telecast in color. Because it was an opera, and commercial network television executives had increasingly little confidence in presenting opera on television, it began to be scheduled, with rare exceptions, as an afternoon television program, rather than shown in prime time as had been done in its first few telecasts. A kinescope of the 1955 broadcast starring Bill McIver as Amahl was digitized in 2007 and is available commercially on DVD.

1963 Production

For years, Amahl was presented live, but in 1963 it was videotaped by NBC with an all-new cast featuring Kurt Yaghjian as Amahl, Martha King as his mother, and John McCollum, Willis Patterson, and Richard Cross as the Three Kings. When Menotti found out that NBC had scheduled the taping on a date when he was out of the country, he tried to get the date changed. The network refused and recorded the 1963 performance without the composer's presence or participation. This version was shown again in 1964 and 1965. Menotti never approved of the 1963 production, and in May 1966 when the rights to future broadcasts reverted to him, the composer refused to allow it to be shown again.

1978 Production

In 1978, a new production starring Teresa Stratas as Amahl's mother, Robert Sapolsky as Amahl, and Willard White, Giorgio Tozzi and Nico Castel as the Three Kings was filmed by NBC, partly on location in the Holy Land. As was the norm for filmed opera, the music was pre-recorded and the singers mimed their performances to the playback. It did not, however, become an annual tradition the way the 1951 and 1963 versions had. The 1955 and 1978 productions are the only ones released on video. Cast recordings of both the 1951 and the 1963 productions were recorded by RCA Victor, and the 1951 cast recording was released on compact disc. The 1963 recording of Amahl was the first recording of the opera made in stereo.

BBC versions

The BBC made two productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors in the 1950s. The first was broadcast 20 December 1955. Produced by Christian Simpson, it starred Malcolm Day as Amahl, with Gladys Whitred as Amahl's mother. Music was provided by the Sinfonia of London. It appears that this play was broadcast live. It was either not recorded or the recording was discarded. It does not reside in the BBC Archives at Windmill Road.

The second production was broadcast on 24 December 1959. This version exists as a 35 mm telerecording in the BBC Archives. This version was again produced by Christian Simpson and starred Christopher Nicholls as Amahl and Elsie Morrison as Amahl's mother. This time music was provided by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

A third BBC production, starring Pablo Strong as Amahl, was produced in 2002 and was supposed to have been broadcast in December 2002, but was pulled after the producers realised they did not have, and could not secure, the rights.


  • Principal roles (original cast)
    • Amahl (a crippled boy of about age 12) - boy soprano - Chet Allen
      • From the Production Notes contained in the Piano-Vocal score: "It is the express wish of the composer that the role of Amahl should always be performed by a boy. Neither the musical nor the dramatic concept of the opera permits the substitution of a woman costumed as a child."
    • His Mother - mezzo-soprano or soprano - Rosemary Kuhlmann
    • King Kaspar (slightly deaf) - tenor - Andrew McKinley
    • King Melchior - baritone - David Aiken
    • King Balthazar - bass - Leon Lishner

The orchestra was composed of members of the NBC "Symphony of the Air" (another name for the NBC Symphony Orchestra), conducted by Thomas Schippers. Unusually for a television production, then or now, the entire cast (except for the chorus) was credited onscreen during the opening title sequence (after Menotti had made his opening speech at the beginning of the broadcast).


Time: The first century, just after the birth of Christ

Setting: Near Bethlehemmarker.

The curtain rises on Amahl, a crippled boy who, although he has a kind and pleasant heart, has a problem with telling tall tales and, occasionally, lies. He is sitting outside playing his shepherd's pipe when his mother calls for him (Amahl! Amahl!). After much persuasion, he enters the house but his mother does not believe him when he tells her that there is an amazing star "as big as a window" outside, over their roof (O Mother You Should Go Outside; Stop Bothering Me!).

Later that night, Amahl's Mother weeps for her son, praying he not become a beggar (Don't Cry Mother Dear). After bedtime, (From Far Away We Come) there is a knock at the door and his mother tells him to go see who it is (Amahl...Yes Mother!). He is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings (the Magi). They tell the mother and Amahl that they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous child, and that they would like to rest at Amahl's house, to which the mother agrees (Good Evening!; Come In!; Have You Seen a Child?). Amahl's Mother goes to fetch firewood and Amahl seizes the opportunity to speak with the Magi (Are You A Real King?; This is My Box) The Mother returns (Amahl, I Told You Not To Be A Nuisance!) Amahl is told to go fetch all the surrounding neighbors (All These Beautiful Things) so that the kings may be fed and entertained properly (Shepherds! Shepherds!; Emily! Emily; Olives and Quinces; Dance of the Shepherds).
Willis Patterson, John McCollum, Richard Cross with Kurt Yaghjian as Amahl and Martha King his mother in the 1963 production

After the neighbors have left, and the Kings are resting, the mother, being poor and also sickened at the thought of her child being a beggar, attempts to steal some gold that was meant for the Christ child (All That Gold), but is thwarted by the Kings' page. When Amahl wakes to find utter confusion being set upon his house, he attacks the page, in an attempt to save his Mother. Upon seeing Amahl's weak defense for his mother, and realizing the mother's motives for the attempted theft, King Melchior says she may keep the gold, as the Holy Child will not need earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom.

The mother says that knowing of the Child's greatness, she wishes to send a gift but has nothing to send. Amahl, too, has nothing to give the Christ Child except his crutch, but he offers it. Immediately upon saying this, his leg is miraculously healed, and he joyfully leaves his mother at the cottage and goes off with the Magi to see the child and give his crutch in thanks for being healed.


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