Amahl in America

Gian Carlo Menotti, the Italian composer, whose operas gained wider popularity than any others of their time, died on this day – February the 1st – in 2007 in Monaco at the ripe-old age of 95. His realistic operas on his own librettos represent a successful combination of 20th-century dramatic situations with the traditional form of Italian opera. Menotti used largely traditional harmonies, resorting at times to dissonance and polytonality to heighten dramatic effect.

Mebotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors is an opera in one act with an original English libretto by the composer. It was commissioned by NBC and first performed by the NBC Opera Theater on December 24, 1951, in New York City at NBC studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, where it was broadcast live on television from that venue as the debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America. Here’s a YouTube scene “Do You Know A Child” from it.

Amahl and the Night Visitors

Menotti wrote Amahl with the stage in mind, even though it was intended for broadcast. He said: “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 appeared on-screen in the premiere to introduce the opera and give the background of the events leading up to its composition. He also brought out director Kirk Browning and conductor Thomas Schippers to thank them on-screen.

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.

Menotti wrote his first opera, The Death of Pierrot, by the age of 11. He studied at the Milan Conservatory and in the late 1920s emigrated to the United States, where he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia (1928–33), at the suggestion of Arturo Toscanini.

There he met Samuel Barber, who became his lifelong companion and frequent collaborator.

Although Menotti worked extensively in the United States, he retained his Italian citizenship.

References: Encyclopedia Britannica; Wikipedia; On this Day Website

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