Amahl for All Seasons
Noel Holston - 12/2/2013
Only a handful of Christmas specials have been honored with Peabody Awards over the decades, among them A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and A Christmas Memory (1966), a lovely rendering of Truman Capote’s childhood memoir. None of them embodies the Peabody mission of rewarding and encouraging ambition and excellence quite like the first, Amahl and the Night Visitors, an original opera that made its first holiday appearance on NBC in 1951.
That’s right, an original opera.
These days, it’s hard to imagine a commercial network scheduling a program more classical than a Lady Gaga special, let alone commissioning one. But this was an era when the broadcast networks still had in-house orchestras (a carryover from radio) and old-school bandleaders like Fred Waring and Paul Whiteman had their own prime-time hours.
NBC actually employed a director of new opera programming, Peter Herman Adler. In 1950, he approached Gian Carlo Menotti, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Italian-American composer, about creating an original work for his network and the infant medium.
Inspired by a Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Adoration of the Magi, which he had admired at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Menotti created what he thought of as “an opera for children,” a simple, one-act work that imagines the encounter a lame shepherd boy and his mother have with the Magi, the Biblical three kings, who are following the prophesied bright star that would eventually lead them to a manger in Bethlehem. Like the famous O’Henry story The Gift of the Magi, it has a twist ending in which an act of selflessness has unexpected rewards.
You can watch the entire program for free on YouTube:
The initial, live production of Amahl on Christmas Eve, 1951, was watched by an estimated five million people, a staggering number considering NBC’s affiliated stations coast to coast numbered fewer than 40 at the time. NBC’s switchboard was jammed with congratulatory calls. The rave reviews started with Arturo Toscanini, conductor of the NBC Symphony, telling Menotti it was the best work he’d ever done. The New York Times published its day-after rave on its front page.
The following spring, a Peabody Awards board that included Times TV critic John Crosby, Georgia journalism giant Ralph McGill and Bennett Cerf, the Random House co-founder and What’s My Line? panelist, voted the Christmas opera a Peabody.
The board’s citation read:
“To Gian Carlo Menotti, for his tender and moving one-act opera, ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors,’ presented for the first time anywhere last Christmas Eve over NBC-TV. ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ was instantly received with the acclaim due a genuine work of art. It was a remarkable experience for all who had the privilege of seeing and hearing it. Its significance to television was perhaps even more imposing, since ‘Amahl’ was the first operatic work ever commissioned specifically for this challenging new medium of communication. Mr. Menotti’s triumph—he not only wrote the words and music, but directed the opera as well—is living proof that television can accommodate itself to greatness, if it so wishes.”
TV historian Diane Werts, whose books include Christmas on Television (Praeger, 2005), noted that Amahl was the first presentation of the now-legendary Hallmark Hall of Fame series.
It not only established the opera . . . as a perennial favorite, it also helped establish the medium of television itself, at a time it was still being derided by some as a passing fad,” she said. “Suddenly, even doubters could understand both TV’s artistic potential, with millions of Americans seeing a single performance in one night — perhaps their first opera ever! — and the medium’s intimate emotional impact.”
About the author: Noel Holston, the Peabody Awards’ public relations coordinator, spent three decades writing about television, music and other aspects of popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and New York’s Newsday. His critiques, profiles and feature articles have appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines.