Scenes From Amahl

Christmas lives in tradition. There is something so comforting about dragging down those dusty old boxes, brushing off the cobwebs and pulling out that crude little Christmas tree ornament you made in first grade, the one your mother insisted on displaying so prominently year after year, against your vociferous protests. The heft and texture of it in your hand bring back a thousand memories of Christmases past. It can make a little Christmas spirit creep in, despite all your 21st-century humbug.

The Phoenix Symphony and members of OPERA-tunity are creating a little Christmas tradition of their own with their second annual production of the much-loved holiday classic, Gian-Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. This one-act, audience-friendly piece about a crippled boy's encounter with the Magi, his own gift to the Christ child and the resulting Christmas miracle is one of the most popular American operas. Amahl will be fully staged and performed by OPERA-tunity, a local group that specializes in opera for the uninitiated, and the Phoenix Symphony. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 21, at the Orpheum Theatre, located at Second Avenue and Adams.

"I don't want to scare people away with the word 'opera,'" associate conductor Robert Moody of the Phoenix Symphony told me. "Amahl has a 'Little Drummer Boy' feel to it. It's more like an evening of Christmas music."

Menotti's Christmas classic, the first opera written specifically for television, premièred on NBC in 1951. The network replayed the hourlong drama every year thereafter until, strangely, the original recording was lost. "Lots of parents and young grandparents remember seeing [Amahl] on TV when they were growing up and want to bring their children and grandchildren to see it now," says Moody. "Menotti was a genius at presenting opera in a way that is accessible to non-fans and kids."

The maverick composer based Amahl and the Night Visitors on one of the more obscure Hieronymous Bosch works, Adoration of the Magi. It makes sense, really -- both artists had a reputation for being out of the ordinary, presenting traditional themes in nontraditional ways. Menotti also gave probably the first and maybe the only science-fiction opera, titled Help, Help, the Goloblinks.

So if you long to relive the Christmases of your youth, or if you're feeling a little undernourished in the tradition department, why not let Phoenix Symphony help? This could become a much-loved Phoenix holiday tradition for all ages, so don't get a baby-sitter.

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James Ward