A funny thing happened on the way to Bethlehem. The three wise men encounter mischief, music and a miracle when they stop at the home of a young shepherd and his mother. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," Gian Carlo Menotti's one-act opera-in-miniature tells the story of the young shepherd, Amahl, and his encounter with the Magi one night as they follow their star to the famous stable.
Juneau Lyric Opera presents six performances of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" during the coming two weeks. The 50-minute musical production opens Friday, Dec. 6, at McPhetres Hall. The story is told entirely through music and song, and the opera, in English, has no spoken lines.
"It's very melodic and it's very accessible," said Lena Simmons, an opera fan, mezzo-soprano and member of the lyric opera board. "It's got gorgeous three-part harmony when the kings sing. It's what I would call the best of contemporary opera. Everyone has beautiful melodies."
Menotti wrote the story and music as a Christmas program for NBC TV in 1951. Menotti was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States as a teenager. He lived in New York for many years, and it was there that he was commissioned to write the first made-for-TV opera.
Terry Cramer, the director of the Juneau production, said Menotti hit writer's block after he agreed to write the opera. One day he paid a visit to an art museum where he saw 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Adoration of the Magi."
"He saw the Bosch painting of the three kings, and said, 'That's it,' " Cramer said.
"Amahl and the Night Visitors"
Juneau Lyric Opera
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 6, 7, 13 and 14, and 4 p.m. Dec. 8, 14.
Where: McPhetres Hall, Fourth and Gold streets.
Tickets: $10 at Hearthside Books and Rainy Day Books.
As he wrote, he drew on the gospel stories of the wise men and his own creative storytelling. Cramer said there's also a story that he borrowed a bit from his brother's imagination to add color to one of the three kings.
"When they were kids, for some reason, Menotti's' brother always believed Kaspar was deaf, so when he wrote the play he made him deaf," she said.
Kaspar, one of the three kings, is played by tenor Brett Crawford and Phil Schempf, singing bass, is another king, Balthazar. Both are longtime Juneau Lyric Opera singers and have appeared in a number of local musical productions. Baritone Philippe Damerval, a newcomer to Juneau, makes his local debut as Melchior, the third king.
"The kings have incredible music and their entrance is just gorgeous," Simmons said.
"Amahl" draws on talents from throughout the Juneau community. Katie Jensen and Aaron Elmore of Theatre in the Rough are doing the costumes. Carpenter Phil Fitzgerald designed the lights and set and also built the set at McPhetres Hall. Musicians from the Juneau Symphony, singers from the lyric opera and a director with experience from Perseverance Theatre all are pitching in.
Cramer directed "Proof" and "Wit" and co-directed "On the Razzle" with Roblin Davis at Perseverance. She said "Amahl" is her first musical adventure, and she called in her "Razzle" cohort Davis to play the part of the kings' page.
Rachel Crites plays Amahl's mother. In addition to the six principals, the show features a chorus of 12 singers who also appear as shepherds.
Simmons, who sings in the chorus, said "Amahl" is a child-friendly show and a good production to introduce kids to opera.
"It's a good length to bring kids to," Simmons said. "There's not a lot of characters to be confused about, the plot is really simple, the kings have gorgeous costumes and the lead is played by a kid."
Cate Ross, 12, plays Amahl. She performed in "Antigone" in October and played Marc Anthony in "Julius Caesar" with Perseverance Theatre's Young Shakespeare Training Company last summer. She sang in "The Tempest," but said "Amahl" is her first opera.
"I like to sing and I've been singing for a long time," she said. Her mom plays guitar and she grew up singing with her. Her family has spent summers in Elfin Cove, and Ross said she started singing at jam sessions and music parties there.
Todd Hunt is directing a chamber orchestra of about 10 musicians. Sue Kazama has been the rehearsal pianist and will play for the performances as well.
The show also includes a dance, choreographed by Becky Engstrom and performed by Chelsea Miller with Jason Alexander and John Clough.
"Chelsea is our ringer," Cramer said. "She's a gifted dancer."
"Amahl and the Night Visitors" plays two weekends, with matinees , and a final performance at 8 p.m. Dec. 14.
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.