Christmas to me is something in between a secular holiday and a religious holiday. My own celebrations of the season have generally tended towards the former - Christmas movies, Christmas trees, and gift-giving being the main constants. And yet I have always fallen mysteriously prey to the emotional pull of religious Christmas music. Don’t get me started on the popular stuff; I can’t stand it. I can take about one Bruce Springsteen rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” a year and I’m done, and don’t come near me with that Mariah Carey racket. There was one year (ninth grade?) when I was briefly taken with Mariah Carey’s Christmas album, and it is one of the few things in my life I look back on with sincere regret. Not to yuck your yum; let’s just not go there. No, give me the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” every single time. And for that matter “Joy To The World.” Does the Savior reign? I don’t know, but who cares? You bet I’ll well up with tears when we get to “repeat the sounding joy”! I mostly identify as a not-religious person (I guess the word “agnostic” works), but at Christmas, something inside me instinctively responds to the sounds of Christian adoration.
That brings us to Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. It’s about an hour long, an opera in one act that tells a story of the Three Kings, Melchior, Balthazar and Kaspar. I didn’t know until just recently, in fact, that the reason Menotti’s version of Kaspar is so nutty in Amahl is because when Menotti was growing up in Italy, his brother held a strong belief of unknown origin that this was Kaspar’s personality: “a little crazy and quite deaf.” This is a very specific version of the Three Kings, and the only one I know that depicts them as people who, among other things, sit around and have conversations about the limited uses of “regal blood” and, of course, about “licorice!”
You can certainly watch the 1951 broadcast of the opera, but I have almost exclusively listened to the 1952 audio recording. It lasts just under an hour, and I am loath to begin listening unless I know I will have time to finish. I can play it in my head at will, too, including every note of every instrumental interlude, every spoken word, every song. I’ve heard it several times a year between Thanksgiving and Christmas since I was old enough to remember; I have a specific memory of sitting at the table, eating applesauce and cottage cheese (I remember this being a favorite snack when I was little) out of this little pewter dish that was frequently employed as the cottage-cheese-and-applesauce dish, listening with my mother and father and occasionally singing along. As I got older, I read along with the libretto and actually took in the plot and the complexity of the story, but my engagement with the music itself as pure form definitely came first. The story is important, though, so let’s get into it. Amahl is a young boy who lives with his mother. He walks with difficulty, supporting himself with a crutch; this, it seems, is how it has always been. Living in a shepherding community, he and his mother used to have a flock of sheep, which they sold off some time ago, presumably because they just needed to eat. They are poor, hungry and cold. Amahl lives in eternal, childlike optimism, singing cheerfully to his mother that they can always go begging (“I’ll play my pipe, you’ll sing and you’ll shout!”), but his mother knows all too well how close they are to the edge.
One night, a bright star appears in the night sky and three kings come knocking at their door. Amahl’s mother refuses to believe him when he reports all of this to her (“STOP bothering me!”, the most oft-quoted line in my family) - he seems to have a reputation for telling tall tales of various kinds: “first there was the leopard with a woman’s head, then there was the tree branch that shrieked and bled, then there was the fish as big as a boat, with whiskers like a cat and wings like a bat and horns like a goat! And now there’s a star as light as a window? Or was it a carriage?” Ouch. And yet, this time, he is telling the truth. The kings at their door are real, and they have come in search of a place to rest for just a short while, lest they lose sight of the star they have been following (at which revelation Amahl can’t help issuing his mother a “What did I tell you?” which is probably the second most-quoted line in the family).
So here we are. Two people living in desperate poverty visited by kings who carry rich, unimaginable gifts for a child they’ve never met. And yet it is the kings who ask for the charity of their poor hosts. Immediately, Amahl’s mother sends him off to call the other shepherds to bring whatever little they might have in the way of food and gifts, so that they can show whatever possible hospitality to the gold-bearing kings. This is where the Shepherds’ Dance comes in.
My eyes predictably fill with tears at this very moment every time. The Shepherds’ Dance is possibly the longest interlude in the whole piece without a single word sung or spoken. It’s led by an oboe, and the rest of the orchestral accompaniment gradually swells to meet it. Like many of the things I love an embarrassing amount, I would sit through the entire opera just to feel the feelings that this little three-minute movement brings on. Here we really sit with the notion of how warmly and generously the little community of shepherds has greeted these three kings who, again, are merely passing through with gifts for a child whom none of them, including the kings themselves, have never met. With no reward or recompense in sight, everyone gives. There is simply a shared understanding that whatever this mission is, there is something deeply important about it. A sense of faith in some purpose greater than one’s own material well-being.
The opera ends with Amahl deciding that he, too, wants to send a gift to this child being born, and he offers the one single thing that he has to give: his crutch, upon which he literally depends in order to walk. “Who knows,” he says, “he may need one.” And then as he holds up the crutch to bring it to the kings over the breathless objections of his mother…”I walk, mother…I walk, mother.”
Amahl walks, for the first time in we don’t know how long. His mother is beside herself. The kings are beside themselves. This must be a sign from God. And just as he lets go of the only thing he possesses in the world, in the name of his faith in the coming Savior, his mother lets go of the only thing she has to hold onto: her son. Amahl wants to go with the kings to bring his gift. “Are you sure sure sure?” she asks. And when he affirms that he is, indeed, sure, then she agrees that he should go and being thanks to this child himself. To which he replies, “are you…sure sure sure?”
The opera concludes with the shepherds singing a beautiful farewell chorus, to which Amahl responds by playing the opening theme on his pipe. The last words in the whole piece are spoken by the kings: “Are you ready?” Amahl replies, “yes, I’m ready.” “Let’s go then.” I remember that one year my dad remarked that Amahl sounds older when he tells the kings that he’s ready. He is a different person now, both matured and even transformed physically by his huge, inestimable act of faith: the giving up of his crutch, which he offers willingly even though in that moment he still needs it to walk.
It’s not, of course, just the story of Amahl or even the monumentally beautiful music that tells it: it’s that this music has been in me for thirty years and I never want to let it go. As a little kid, I remember being initially clueless about what it had to do with Christmas - after all, there is no explicit mention of anything we associate with Christmas, not even the name of Jesus Christ nor any of the “savior” verbiage that we’re so used to. No one in the story, not even the kings following the star, know quite what is happening, or at least not as we know it. We are truly experiencing what will become known as the greatest miracle of all time through the eyes of those who don’t yet know quite how meaningful it will be. Every act in this story - the kings following the star, Amahl and his mother letting them in, the shepherds bringing everything they have to offer, and ultimately Amahl sacrificing his crutch - is an act of faith in something whose importance they cannot know or see. People celebrate Christmas now knowing the deep significance of the birth of Jesus Christ in the Christian liturgy. The songs I love despite my non-subscription to the religion behind them were written to commemorate this huge, pivotal event. Amahl, his mother, the shepherds, and the kings are acting out of faith and love alone.
I have written of my adherence to the tenets of the snarky holiday Festivus, and no one will ever take the joy of Festivus away from me - remember, by the way, that I am accepting grievances via comment and e-mail all week! And yes, my heart simultaneously beats for stories of faith and love at this time of year.