It’s a chilly December night, and I am attending a performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s nativity opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan. Over the course of a single act, Amahl tells the story of an impoverished mother and her disabled shepherd son who offer shelter to visitors traveling to Bethlehem. Commissioned by NBC, it was the first opera written for television and made its premiere during a live Christmas Eve broadcast in 1951. Yet tonight, I am seeing a striking innovation in the production of this innovative opera. As I look on, the mother sits at a table, gazing at an empty plate. Nearby lies a sleeping bag unrolled on a cot. The opera’s three wise men make their appearance pushing shopping carts and wearing disheveled, eccentric garments, including a giant fur hat and a paper crown. The effect is anything but accidental, for although the vocal soloists and orchestral musicians of the American Modern Ensemble are professionals, the chorus of shepherds features amateur singers, all of whom have at one point or another been homeless.
The production premiered in 2018 as a collaboration between On Site Opera, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and Breaking Ground, a nonprofit that recruited the amateur performers by posting flyers in some of its transitional and permanent housing facilities. Over the past few years, On Site has staged site-specific performances of chamber works in unusual venues across the New York City area, including the world premiere of Gregg Kallor’s Sketches from Frankenstein in the catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in a historic house and gardens in the Bronx. In planning for Amahl, Eric Einhorn, On Site’s general and artistic director, envisioned the struggling mother and son as a modern-day family receiving meals at a soup kitchen, a conceit that explores Menotti’s story of charity, forgiveness, and miracles through the lens of urban homelessness.
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