Esther F. Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts is pairing more than 40 middle-school kids with several local professional musicians to premiere a powerful holiday opera.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was the first opera composed for television in America. It premiered Dec. 24, 1951, on NBC. It was written with a child’s role (Amahl) as the main protagonist with heavy Christmas themes in the framework.
Inspired in part by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Adoration of the Magi,” a traditional name for the Nativity in art, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” tells the story of a crippled young boy and his mother who are visited by three kings in the night. On a sacred journey following a star, the king’s chance meeting with Amahl has a profound impact on the young boy and his mother.
Garrison’s production is helmed by choir directors John Tisbert and Mandy Madson, who both have experience performing in this opera and several years of background in musical theater. Madson and Tisbert co-direct one of the choirs at Garrison as well.
“One of my goals in the past few years is to really be in the community and collaborating with community organizations and musicians,” Tisbert said. “I’ve wanted to do this opera for a long time.
“I was looking for a way for my advanced seventh- and eighth-grade students to be able to work with professional musicians who really get it, who really would set a really good example for them and to collaborate with them.”
Handling the pivotal and complicated role of Mother will be Rebecca Flaherty, a Savannah-based opera singer and instructor. Flaherty has performed locally at the Savannah Music Festival, the Lucas Cabaret Series, with the Savannah Philharmonic and at the Savannah VOICE Festival.
William Lavonis will portray King Kaspar. Russell Watkins is handling King Melchior and Roger Moss will be King Balthazar.
“This opera was written for Rebecca,” Tisbert said. “Menotti wrote this for Rebecca Flaherty. She’s amazing. It’s just unbelievable. She learned it in a month.”
“And it’s not easy,” Madson added. “The music in this opera is not easy. Especially her music. It takes the most both vocally and acting-wise out of every role. You have to cast a dynamic mother for that role. She’s bringing it in rehearsal.”
Traditionally, the role of Amahl is handled by a boy soprano voice. Menotti was explicit on this fact when he wrote the music. However, the role can and has been handled by female vocalists in the past.
When approaching the production, Tisbert and Madson’s mission was to provide a wide array of opportunity.
“Our jobs as teachers is to provide as many opportunities for kids as possible,” Tisbert said. “After we listened to all of the kids sing, we had many, many kids sing beautifully at the audition. I think we just felt like we needed to spread it around and give it to other kids. That was the ultimate decision.
“I played Amahl, so I am very open to a girl playing Amahl, since I did it in college,” Madson added with a laugh. “I am sure Menotti is rolling in his grave.”
Benjamin Varner and Addison Stelzer will handle the role of Amahl. Each will perform the lead role at one of the two performances and then join the chorus for the other performance.
More important, perhaps, is the power and relevance of this opera. Even during rehearsals, Tisbert and Madson have noticed the impact it’s had on the kids involved. They believe it will translate well to a wide audience.
“When we did the ‘All That Gold’ aria in class, the kids were glued to it,” Tisbert said. “It’s powerful music. It’s a cultural literary piece that I think is cool. Menotti was Italian-American and my understanding of the Three Kings is Santa doesn’t bring the presents on Christmas, it’s the Kings. It’s that sort of understanding and learning about other holiday traditions.”
“The great thing about Menotti is he’s written opera for people who don’t know a lot about opera, or who don’t really like opera,” Madson added. “It being in English and related to a story people know so well, almost like a backstory similar to ‘Wicked,’ people can relate to it and it can be something new for them to experience.”
IF YOU GO
What: Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 9-10
Where: Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, 1008 E. Henry St.
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for children