In Menotti’s words
This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
I actually never met the Three Kings—it didn’t matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel’s hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.
My favorite king was King Melchior, because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother’s favorite was King Kaspar. He insisted that this king was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don’t know why he was so positive about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Kaspar never brought him all the gifts he requested. He was also rather puzzled by the fact that King Kaspar carried the myrrh, which appeared to him as a rather eccentric gift, for he never quite understood what the word meant.
To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas time one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town. Then there is the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, the elaborate toy windows on Fifth Avenue, the one-hundred-voice choir in Grand Central Station, the innumerable Christmas carols on radio and television—and all these things made me forget the three dear old Kings of my old childhood.
But in 1951 I found myself in serious difficulty. I had been commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera for television, with Christmas as deadline, and I simply didn’t have one idea in my head. One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of the Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, 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.
I am often asked how I went about writing an opera for television, and what are the specific problems that I had to face in planning a work for such a medium. I must confess that in writing “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I hardly thought of television at all. As a matter of fact, all my operas are originally conceived for an ideal stage which has no equivalent in reality, and I believe that such is the case with most dramatic authors.
Place: Near Bethlehem.
Time: The first century, just after the birth of Christ
Amahl, a disabled boy who can walk only with a crutch, has a problem with telling tall tales. 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 there is an amazing star “as big as a window” outside over their roof (“O Mother You Should Go Out and See”; “Stop Bothering Me!”).
Later that night, Amahl’s mother weeps, praying that Amahl not become a beggar (“Don’t Cry Mother Dear”). After bedtime (“From Far Away We Come”), there is a knock at the door and the mother tells Amahl to go see who it is (“Amahl … Yes Mother!”). He is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings (the Magi). At first the mother does not believe Amahl, but when she goes to the door to see for herself, she is stunned. The Three Kings tell the mother and Amahl they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous Child and they would like to rest at their house, to which the mother agrees (“Good Evening!”; “Come In!”), saying that all she can offer is “a cold fireplace and a bed of straw”. The mother goes to fetch firewood, and Amahl seizes the opportunity to speak with the kings. King Balthazar answers Amahl’s questions about his life as a king and asks what Amahl does. Amahl responds that he was once a shepherd, but his mother had to sell his sheep. Now, he and his mother will have to go begging. Amahl then talks with King Kaspar, who is childlike, eccentric, and a bit deaf. Kaspar shows Amahl his box of magic stones, beads, and licorice, and offers Amahl some of the candy (“Are You A Real King?”; “This is My Box”). The mother returns (“Amahl, I Told You Not To Be A Nuisance!”). He defends himself, saying “They kept asking me questions,” when of course it has in fact been Amahl asking the kings questions. Amahl is told to go fetch the neighbors (“All These Beautiful Things”; “Have You Seen a Child?”) so the kings may be fed and entertained properly (“Shepherds! Shepherds!”; “Emily! Emily”; “Olives and Quinces”; “Dance of the Shepherds”).
After the neighbors have left and the kings are resting, the mother attempts to steal for her son some of the kings’ gold that was meant for the Christ Child (“All That Gold”). She is thwarted by the kings’ page (“Thief! Thief!”). When Amahl wakes to find the page grabbing his mother, he attacks him (“Don’t You Dare!”). Seeing Amahl’s defense of his mother and understanding the 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 (“Oh, Woman, You Can Keep That Gold”). The mother says she has waited all her life for such a king and asks the kings to take back the gold. She wishes to send a gift but has nothing to send. Amahl, too, has nothing to give the Child except his crutch (“Oh, No, Wait”). When he offers it to the kings, his leg is miraculously healed (“I Walk, Mother”). With permission from his mother, he leaves with the kings to see the Child and give his crutch in thanks for being healed.