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.
Given the skyrocketing number of unsheltered people in New York and in cities across the country, Einhorn’s staging seems an apt update. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, as of last November, some 67,000 people (including more than 21,000 children) were residing in New York City’s municipal shelter system—a number not seen since the Great Depression. For the choristers of On Site’s production of Amahl, the real story of homelessness rests not in grim statistics, but in lived experience. As formerly unhoused singer Annette Phuvan told me, Amahl helps foster a sense of community among people who have lived on the streets. Phuvan, who also performed in the 2018 premiere, described returning to sing after the pandemic as “going from a period of darkness into light.” Rehearsals began in late August, and they had clearly paid off: at the performance I’m attending, the chorus sings passionately with clear and expressive voices.
For people struggling to attain housing and other basic needs, engaging with the arts can be extremely therapeutic. “When you give people the opportunity, they can create something beautiful,” chorister Kristin Flood told me. “Our voices are an instrument, and it’s very empowering. If you’re homeless and you come from nothing, you’re not seen.” But singing with On Site Opera made her realize that even in the most dismal circumstances, “there are things that people can’t take away from me.” Phuvan echoed this sentiment, explaining that learning to deal with the stress of performing has helped her to manage stress more effectively in other areas of her life.
For chorister Iorgo Papoutsas, it’s about believing in yourself: “We all hear at some point in our lives that we’re not good enough. And that’s why it’s so important to us that we are treated at a professional level during rehearsals. We really appreciate that.” He emphasized that an important element of the story of Amahl is forgiveness. In one scene, the Mother, performed with power and poignancy by mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, looks at the boxes of gold brought by the wise men and sings: “All that gold! All that gold! … Do they know how a child could be fed?” She steals some of it to feed her ailing son, portrayed by the gifted 14-year-old treble Devin Zamir Coleman. The wise men forgive her, and when Amahl offers his crutch to the baby in Bethlehem, he is miraculously healed.
The people who sleep at New York’s Friends Shelter likewise say that being treated with respect boosts morale. Founded by Quakers in 1983, the shelter—located in the gym of a private school, where annual tuition exceeds $57,000—can accommodate up to 14 people per night. Friends accepts only single adults, and its volunteers refer to them as “guests.” Each one receives clean sheets and blankets for the cots that line the walls of the gym. Guests eat leftovers from the organic lunches that the school serves its students. Those, on one recent evening, included vegetable rigatoni, garlic beans, a beef dish, and rice, followed by homemade baked goods and ice cream. There are few rules aside from not smoking in the building and being quiet after lights are turned off around 10 p.m. In the morning, guests are served hot coffee and tea, and by 6:30 a.m., they are off to a day shelter or, in more instances than you’d think, to their jobs. I have volunteered at the Friends Shelter for some 15 years, and only after witnessing guests ironing their uniforms did I realize how many unhoused people work full time in low-paid jobs.
In an increasingly short-tempered and impolite society, I have frequently been moved by how kind and gracious people in difficult circumstances can be. For everyone’s safety, guests at Friends Shelter are screened for drugs, alcohol, and signs of visible mental illness before their arrival. Juan Gonzalez, a retired maintenance worker from the Bronx, describes the shelter as much quieter and less stressful than other such facilities, where “lots of people have issues. Some of them are violent. Police officers come over to escort people out of the building. It’s hard to sleep, especially in a chair. You have to sleep with one eye and one ear open. Here, we have comfortable beds and can stretch out our legs.”
In addition to the amenities, which include toiletries collected from upscale hotels, guests appreciate staying in what they call “a judgment-free zone.” Glenwood Lawrence, a pastor and musician dressed in suit jacket and jeans, told me that the volunteers “are dedicated to giving their time and feeding people they don’t even know. They don’t leave after a certain time: they are right here in the morning when you wake up. It’s a beautiful experience.”
Both On Site’s amateur chorus members and guests at the Friends Shelter say that simply being treated with respect helps them maintain a positive outlook, even as it becomes ever more difficult to secure affordable housing. High turnover has led to skeletal staffs at some organizations, meaning that fewer caseworkers are available to assist individuals in need.
Despite the challenges she faces, Sharee Jones, an ordained minister, told me, “You stay hopeful. And when you come to places like this, it gives you a little more hope.” Comparing the miracle of Amahl’s healing to how singing has affected her, Phuvan said: “Being able to create sound through vocal cords that are like butterflies validates the ideas of miracles. We are instruments of miracles. Every time I do this, I think, ‘Wow, anything is possible. You need to visualize and believe for it to happen.’ ”
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