On Site Opera’s “Amahl” finds Christmas resonance at Holy Apostles Church

Sun Dec 11, 2022 at 1:41 pm
By Rick Perdian
Devin Zamir Coleman as Amahl and Chrystal E. Williams as the Mother in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors presented by On Site Opera at Holy Apostles Church.

Manhattan was overflowing with raucous Christmas cheer on Saturday, as thousands of revelers celebrated Santacon, a bar crawl with a charitable bent. In the midst of the mayhem, however, there was a far different holiday experience to be had inside the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen at On Site Opera’s poignant production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. 

Commissioned by NBC, Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera specifically composed for television in the United States, premiering on a live broadcast on Christmas Eve 1951. Menotti, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, mined his memories of childhood Christmases in Italy, where gifts were brought by the Three Kings on Epiphany, rather than Santa Claus.

Menotti’s opera is a mystery play in which a hospitality that is offered when there is none to spare, let alone give, is repaid in miracles. Hospitality is at the heart of Eric Einhorn’s concept for On Site Opera’s Amahl. It is also the work of Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, which since 1982 has provided over 10,000,000 meals to those who face food insecurity. The meals are eaten in the church sanctuary, where the opera was presented. 

Three round tables where the hungry are fed and a cot for the weary to rest are the only stage elements in Einhorn’s concept for the opera. The audience enters to find an exhausted woman resting on one of the tables. An action figure toy on the floor is the only prop. It’s easy to think a child dropped it on the way to their seat.

The woman is Amahl’s Mother, portrayed by Chrystal E. Williams. In an intimate space with an exceptionally live acoustic, it was a visceral experience to hear Williams’ voice rocket through the church as she called out for Amahl. Her voice not only had power, but was also capable of expressing love and wonder in gentler, glowing tones. More than her magnificent voice, however, it was the realism that Willams brought to the role that made her Mother such a fine creation.

Devin Zamir Coleman was an equally compelling Amahl. Coleman’s treble is strong and true, with especially clear high notes. His fine sense of comedic timing, such the exclamations of surprise when he answered the knocks on the door, prompted outbursts of laughter. But Coleman’s Amahl could also tug at the heartstrings, as when he sensed that he had been healed and made his first haltering steps unassisted.

Into the harsh, stark reality of Amahl and his mother’s existence, Einhorn interjected whimsy and humor. His Magi are homeless men whose earthly belongings are in their carts—people that one encounters regularly in Manhattan. The men, however, are actually modern-day holy fools, whose authority and humanity are not diminished by their outrageous attire and personality quirks.

Jessica Jahn’s costumes for the Three Kings are a riot of the imagination. but grounded in reality. Julius Ahn’s bewhiskered Kaspar had an oversized fur hat adorned with flowers atop his head. Wearing a Burger King paper crown and a ruffed collar around his neck, Joshua Jeremiah’s distant Melchior was lost in his reveries. A battered turban, along with the masses of colorful beads that hung around his neck, adorned Musa Ngqungwana’s distant, almost menacing Balthazar. These Three Kings were majestic in both appearance and voice.

The shepherds who come bearing food and drink for the kings are given some of the most delightful music in the score. People who have experienced housing problems are in the chorus. Their voices may not be beautiful in the conventional sense, but they add an authenticity which no trained voice can provide.

Winston A. Benons Jr. choreography was as exuberant, as it was elegant. The five dancers—Herne Jean Baptiste, Omari Contast’e, Karina Ikezoe, Negesti and Dana Thomas—captured the joy in Menotti’s music with athleticism and grace.

Undoubtedly the venue provides acoustical challenges, but conductor Michael A. Ciavaglia surmounted them. He led a lively, colorful reading of Menotti’s score in which balance was never an issue. The string playing throughout was especially fine, as was the sprightly playing of oboist Keve Wilson.

In a city where social ills have increased in the aftermath of the pandemic and subsequent economic upheaval, housing vulnerability is an urgent need that must be addressed. Opera may appear to be an unlikely tool in meeting this challenge, but the collective efforts of On Site Opera, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and Breaking Ground, New York City’s largest provider of permanent supportive housing for the housing unstable, are proving otherwise.

2 Responses to “On Site Opera’s “Amahl” finds Christmas resonance at Holy Apostles Church”

  1. Posted Dec 12, 2022 at 9:41 am by Ms Janet Banks

    Awesome wish I could have been there !
    Beautiful. Awesome Spectacular!!!

  2. Posted Dec 12, 2022 at 8:22 pm by Leslie Carone

    I was at the Friday night performance, and totally agree with this review. I also saw their production in 2019, which was also outstanding. The setting enables the audience to feel as if they are cast members, which is truly exhilarating and moving. I always end up in tears!

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