‘Amahl’ to feature top-notch talent and artistry

| Kathryn Elliott | November 22, 2011 | 0 Comments

“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a one-act Christmas season opera sung in English, centers on the story of Amahl, a poor, crippled shepherd boy living with his widowed mother. One night, the boy and his mother find the Three Kings knocking at their door. It is a story of how faith, charity, unselfish love and good deeds can work miracles.

Peg Janisch (Amahl’s mother) and Alyssa Trautman (Amahl) are pictured in a scene from “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Photo courtesy of Linda’s Photography

Bringing their finest

Set-maker Tony Schaust, the director’s husband, has constructed sets for the opera “Amahl” on five separate occasions.

Inside their timber-frame barn in Delano, Tony keeps salvaged hardwoods that he’s used to craft the rustic hearth bench that is Amahl’s bed and a three-dimensional fireplace. Such artistry comes naturally to the Schausts.

In the works for the set are 11-foot-tall panels that will be a house for Amahl and his mother. The backdrops are modular paddles painted as faux stone, applied with a mud finish. Linda, who designed most of the sets and costumes, said she used monotones to imply poverty.

Contrasting the appearance of the dilapidated house, the Three Kings in the opera will be adorned with gold, Linda said. For months, Linda shopped clearance racks to look for rich and exotic accessories. Then, the couple set to work.

Tony welded a frame for King Kasper’s crown, to which they added feather plumes. King Balthazar, who is supposed to be Nubian, was given robes made of tapestry silk and satin. The Schausts crafted a rawhide crown, with laced-in fur and deer horn buttons.

A shuttered window Tony built takes the eye from what’s happening inside to the outside. In the opening scene, Linda said, the mother uses it to call for Amahl.

Since childhood, Linda has loved to create and work with her hands, she said. She enjoys carving sculptures, sewing, silver- and gold-smithing and working with clay. Directing people can be harder than molding physical materials, Linda said, but the vision for “Amahl” is coming together.

Catholic tradition, complex history

Composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for NBC-TV in 1951. In addition to the shepherd chorus, the production has a cast of six characters: Amahl, his mother, the Three Kings and a page.

As a child, Menotti became lame but was cured after receiving a blessing at the Holy Sanctuary of Sacro Monte in Italy.

The opera took on special significance for Lucie Shores, director of music, after she met Menotti while she was teaching at the American International School in Vienna, Austria.

Shores asked Menotti: “Do you believe in miracles? Is that why you wrote this opera?” The composer answered: “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in them or not. They still happen to you.”

“Amahl” is Shores’ first stint with the West River Theater Group, which produced the opera three times previously in 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Each of those years, St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Delano hosted the opera. More than 1,500 people attended the performance there two years ago, raising $10,000 for a local charity.

Performance dates and times

This fall’s performances will collect a good will offering in lieu of ticket sales. All of the proceeds from the Buffalo performance will go to the local food shelf.  The offering from the Watertown performance will be given to the charity Love, Inc., and the collection from the Basilica performance will support the needs of the Basilica.

The West River Theater Group will perform the show six times in early and mid-December.

  • Dates: Dec. 2, 3 and 4
    Discovery Theater in Buffalo
    7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
  • Date: Dec. 9 and 10
    Watertown Performance Art Theater in Watertown
    1 p.m.
  • Date: Dec. 17
    Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis
    1 p.m.

For tickets for front-pew seating and other information about the Basilica performance, visit http://www.mary.org or call (612) 317-3428.

Thinking outside the box: the talent

Even though the cast of “Amahl” is made up of volunteers, their devotion and talent is enormous, said the show’s music director, Lucie Shores.

A five-person mini-orchestra includes the Minnesota Opera Orchestra’s harpist and a violinist who is the music director at Mount Calvary Academy of Music.

Title character Amahl is played by a sixth-grade actress who attends Delano Middle School. When she auditioned, she not only had the right appearance — the brown eyes and hair — but she had fun and learned quickly, said director Linda Schaust. Plus, she had played Amahl in a 2009 production at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Delano.

The shepherd chorus for “Amahl” will consist of 20-25 students from Perpich Center Arts High School in Golden Valley. Since the beginning of the school year, students have been rehearsing the Gian Carlo Menotti score.

The chorus’s director, Janice Hunton, said Menotti’s quirky chords and tonality have challenged her students. “Amahl” is in the repertoire of professional and college courses, so this music is “the real deal,” she said.

The students will also have to get used to performing in different venues. Both their sound and staging will morph with the acoustics and set-up of the space, be it Buffalo Community Theater or the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

In the Basilica, where sound has a ring time of seven seconds, the shepherd chorus will have to move in a clump instead of converging on the stage from around the church. Their words will have to become more percussive and staccato.

Despite the challenges, Hunton said she “jumped at the chance” for her students to perform the high quality music in “Amahl.”

Transforming the Basilica

Throughout its many years of concerts, the Basilica of St. Mary has never hosted a sacred opera, said liturgy director Johan van Parys. “Amahl” will be the “most staged” performance it has hosted to date.

“The Basilica is and remains a sacred space, even when we do a concert,” van Parys said.

On both sides, the arrangement will be a good fit, though. The Basilica welcomes the child-friendly message of “Amahl,” and the theater group gets to use a space fit for a king — several, in this case.

“The message of giving that which is most precious to us to God is really the deepest message of the whole play,” van Parys said. “When we do that, in turn God will be with us in whichever way we need God to be with us.”

As it does for Christmas in order to bring in evergreen trees, the Basilica will extend the sanctuary floor several feet forward to the Communion rail in order to make space for the opera’s set.

Since it’s not practical to suspend lights from the Basilica’s high ceilings, darkness and candles will evoke the starry night.

Director Linda Schaust said the theater group views their last performance under the expansive backdrop of the Basilica as its “grand finale.”


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Category: Arts and Culture