June 19, 2019

The epic story of "Amahl and the Night Visitors"


Back in 2004, the late television network Trio aired a program called The Christmas Special Christmas Special. I didn't know then the kind of effect this would have on my future writing, only that I'd watched a lot of Christmas specials on TV growing up and thought it would be fun to watch. Bring back a few of the old memories, you know; 'tis the season, after all.

It was a typical Trio type of show, full of hipness and snark—not to be confused with, you know, knowledge. I rode with this for awhile, and then we got to Amahl and the Night Visitors. Now, I'll admit that in 2004 my knowledge of this opera was limited. I did know it was an opera, and I knew that it had been on television in the 1950s and '60s, but although it had been aired several times during my lifetime, I'd never watched it; in fact, the brief clip they showed on The Christmas Special Christmas Special was the first time I'd ever seen it.

It might all have ended there, but for the way in which the clip was presented. It was smug, yes, but it was also ignorant. The narrator referred to Amahl as "the first—and very likely the last—opera written for television." Well, we know this isn't true; our look at Jennifer Barnes's Television Opera shows us that American television networks have, through the years, commissioned 24 operas for performance on the tube.* Granted, the last such one was in 1974, but as we alluded to last week, there are a lot of cultural factors at work there.

*At the time that Barnes' book was written in 2003the year before the Trio special was airedanother 27 had been commissioned by British and Canadian television networks. I guess, when you're looking to score points, factual accuracy isn't that big a deal, nor is international television.

As if that wasn't bad enough, one of the experts went on to pontificate on the supposed "failure" of Amahl to gain a television foothold. "Three little words describing why this never became a Christmas classic: it's—an—opera!"*

*My gratitude to the commentator at IMDb who was able to provide the exact quote; I remembered it being something like this, but when my point is to be accurate with your history, I probably ought to do the same.

I don't know how I knew this wasn't true, but I knew it to be the case. In fact, the research involved was ridiculously easy, thanks to the Internet. As it turned out, Amahl had appeared on NBC every year between 1951 and 1966; the premiere broadcast (live, on Christmas Eve 1951) had pulled in five million viewers, and was reviewed the next day on the front page of The New York Times. When it did go off the air after the 1966 broadcast, it wasn't because of low ratings, but due to a dispute between the composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, and the network.

All this was in the future, though. For the present, I knew three things: 1) the show was factually inaccurate (and if it could get Amahl wrong, what else might it have screwed up?); 2) I didn't like the attitude of the talking heads on the program; and 3) I already knew more than many of these so-called experts. Imagine what I could do if I worked at it?

From then on, I made it something of a personal mission to tell  an accurate history of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a mission that became even more personal after I managed to get a copy of the kinescope of the original, live broadcast. Amahl was charming and stirring, with a lovely and moving narrative; it had everything that a "real" opera had, including an overture, a ballet, duets, arias and recitative; and, as the first "studio opera" I'd seen (that is, one taped in a television studio rather than in a live stage performance), I was struck by how the director could, by choosing the camera angle, provide home viewers a look at the opera that those in the opera hall would never have. In the picture at the top of this essay, just to the left of the camera in the center, you can see another camera pointing toward Amahl and his mother. That camera is used for shots of the Three Kings, the dancers, and other stagings that would have been denied live spectators. It was incredibly intimate, compared with the operas from the Met that I'd seen on TV previously.

But now the real question: how to be heard? For that, there was really only one answer: Billy Ingram’s TV Party! website, one of the very best television websites anywhere. I emailed him and asked if he’d be interested, and he was only too happy to oblige, with plenty of encouragement. When the article “Three Kings in 50 Minutes” appeared, complete with additional pictures that Billy sourced, I was delighted.

Researching and writing my Amahl article was a wonderful experience; I was able to track down a wealth of information in the archives of Time magazine and The New York Times; I found some terrific pictures online, and was fortunate to talk with some very nice people who provided me with additional pictures; and I lucked into finding a copy of Television Opera. Just when I thought I was finished, VAI released a copy of the 1955 broadcast of Amahl, which included a terrific little booklet, and a bonus interview with Rosemary Kuhlmann, who played the mother in every NBC broadcast between 1951 and 1966.

The rest, of course, is history: blogs, podcasts, interviews, a book, even a couple of citations on Wikipedia. I’m now considered a television historian, and, as we all know, if it says that on the Internet it has to be true.

It’s not that Amahl needed my help—the fact that the information was all readily there for me to discover shows that it was never really forgotten, but I like to think that some of the favorable mentions of Amahl that I’ve seen over the years, even when there’s no attribution, were in some way influenced by what I wrote. Reading over it again, I think I’d probably write parts of it a little differently today; there’s no question in my mind that I’m a better writer today, thanks to the repetition of regular writing. But I’m still pretty pleased with it; even a little proud, if vanity doesn’t get in the way too much.

I was already a lover of opera when I started writing about Amahl, but the whole concept of studio opera has come to fascinate me; and, in so doing, I think I’ve gained a greater appreciation for all forms of studio broadcasting, from Hallmark Hall of Fame to Studio One and Playhouse 90, to musical comedy and variety shows, to straight drama. There is, within the technical confines of television broadcasting, a real art to staging and directing a studio broadcast (witness the steps Kirk Browning had to take with Amahl, not only integrating a live orchestra in another building, but having to communicate with his cameramen through an intermediary because of union rules).

Had none of this happened, I’d still be a fan of classic TV, of course. I don’t think I’d be as knowledgeable, though, nor do I think I’d have become interested in so many different aspects of it. And I’d probably be more intimidated by “experts” than I am now—after all, if I can be one, just about anyone can. All it takes is curiosity, and the willingness to work a little in order to satisfy it. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the key to doing a good television show as well.

I’ve linked to Amahl on this website a few times, as I will here, following the excerpt below. It stands as proof that television opera, though it perhaps didn’t attract enough of an audience to survive on commercial television, was never a failure, and that, indeed, it created one of the medium’s greatest Christmas traditions. Perhaps some time, somewhere, an American network will go into the studio and give it another try.

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From "Three Kings in 50 Minutes":

The history between NBC and Gian Carlo Menotti went a long way back. The Old Maid and the Thief had been a commission from NBC radio, premiering on April 22, 1939 as the first opera ever written for radio. (Menotti procrastinated with the composition, finishing it less than a month before the broadcast – a foreshadowing of difficulties to come.) The opera was a landmark success, and from there Menotti had gone on to even greater fame. The Medium (1949) was a smash; The Consul (1950) won the Pulitzer Prize. His picture was on the cover of Time. Menotti was the man.

And so it was not surprising that in 1950 he received another commission from NBC, this time to write a Christmas opera for television. The opera would be brief, short enough to fit in a one-hour timeslot, and would be written – as were nearly all of Menotti’s operas – in English. However, much to the consternation of the network, Menotti’s penchant for procrastination once again appeared. (A November 8, 1951 article in The New York Times, headlined “Menotti Writing an Opera for TV,” said that NBC hoped to have the world premiere “around Christmas.” The article neglected to mention that Menotti had already been working on the commission for over a year.)

As the deadline drew nearer, Menotti continued to struggle, at one point even offering to give back to NBC the money it had paid him. He was, he said later, without “one idea in my head.” Finally, in November of 1951, as he walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he saw Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting “The Adoration of the Kings.” “[S]uddenly I heard again…the weird song of the Three Kings.”

It was then, he said, that the idea came to him, as he was flooded with memories of his childhood in Italy where it was the Three Kings, and not Santa Claus, who brought presents to children at Christmastime. There was another detail of his childhood that he did not mention at the time – that as a young boy he had been a cripple, suffering from a lame leg until he was taken to a statue of a Madonna at a nearby church, whereupon his leg was healed.

With this, the story—now titled Amahl and the Night Visitors—began to take shape.

Read the entire story here.

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Here is the famed world premiere of Amahl and the Night Visitors, as originally broadcast by NBC on December 24, 1951:

The 1963 production that caused so much trouble between Menotti and the network:

And a real rarity: Amahl e Gli Ospiti NotturniAmahl on Italian television! This illustrates the worldwide impact the telecast had, since most of its notoriety at the time came from its television broadcasts.

NEXT WEEK: The series concludes with a look at how televised opera has evolved, from the end of NBC Opera Theatre to the Metropolitan Opera in HD. TV  


  1. Thanks for this wonderful insight into one of early television's attempts at a masterpiece, Mitchell. As a young Balthazar at age 11 (my voice changed early and I found the need to ask my father how to shave), a retrospective of one of my earliest memories of television opera was a welcome mid week treat.

  2. Thanks for reviewing this classic again. I've never seen it before in my memory, as I was born not long before it left tv, but I'll have to watch it, certainly by Christmas.
    It's unlikely but possible that my parents saw this. They were married just 5 days before this Christmas Eve, and they were honeymooning in the Pocono mountains at this time. The honeymooners place where they stayed could've had a tv anyway.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!