On a chilled winter night, Molly Johnson guided travelers toward a barricaded side door of a darkened church in north Oklahoma City. Inside, opera singers oohed, yummed and ha-ha’ed their way through vocal exercises, took costume measurements and then launched into a fittingly humble rehearsal for the classic American opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.
This is the first time Painted Sky Opera has produced Amahl and the Night Visitors, which Johnson, the stage director, said is part of the company’s efforts to foster growing interest in opera within Oklahoma. By presenting approachable and relevant productions, Painted Sky can disrupt the somewhat intimidating aura that can surround the genre.
“We want people to realize that it’s not all about slipping into your nicest gown, putting on all your jewels then taking a limousine to the opera house,” Johnson said. “There are so many Americans that came to love opera because they went to Amahl and the Night Visitors. It’s a beautiful introductory piece because it’s in English, but also because it’s short. Some of the grand operas can be two to three hours, longer if it’s Wagner.”
Composed by Gian-Carlo Menotti, the opera premiered on NBC in 1951 and was aimed at younger, mainstream American audiences. Johnson said that it was the first opera written specifically for television as an experiment to see if a short, simple, unique take on a familiar story could win new fans.
“Because he was so intentional about writing it for children, all the musical numbers are short,” Johnson said.
Panned away from the humble manger of Christmas lore, the opera focuses on a poor widow and her crippled son burning the last of their lamp oil.
“In that day and age, the widow was marginalized; there was not a good fall-back system, so they are one day away from being beggars,” Johnson said. “Amahl has a physical handicap that makes him need to walk with a crutch, so he can’t work as a shepherd. They had to sell their sheep.”
Along come the Three Kings equipped with gifts and the tale of a divine birth.
“They have stopped on their way to see the Christ child in the manger,” Johnson said. “Though she has nothing, she invites them in. The village residents bring food from their stores to provide hospitality. The Three Kings are carrying the gifts for the child, including gold. The mother is tempted, in her desperation.”
The television performance became a mainstay of the holidays through 1966 in the same way that Snoopy; The Grinch; and a Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot range model air rifle continue to be icons of modern holiday entertainment. Though the intended audience veers young, Johnson said the material is not simple.
“It’s got some interesting harmonies,” Johnson said. “It’s beautiful on the ear, but it’s tricky for some of the singers to work with those tonalities, some of the intervals. The chorus has a big a capella section, so we’re really working on a multipart. I once sang the role of the mother, and it took some time to learn it, but it was worth it.”
"There are so many Americans that came to love opera because they went to Amahl and the Night Visitors."—Molly Johnsontweet this
Johnson’s interest in opera came at an early age, and she remembers seeing a television production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, though she narrowly missed out on an opportunity to see it live.
“Legend has it that my church did a production when I was 3,” Johnson said. “My father told me that I could come back from the nursery to see the opera, so he snuck me in the back door and, with my already very loud voice, I called out, ‘I’m here, Amahl! Sing!’ and he took me right back to the nursery.”
Johnson has been performing opera since she was 12. Her first production was within the chorus of La Bohème during the Oklahoma City stop of a touring company. Since that time, she has seen multiple companies try to build an opera following but stall.
“When I was growing up, there were lots of attempts, but nothing lasted more than a year,” Johnson said. “Painted Sky is now on its third year, and interest is growing. We want opera to become a regular fixture in Oklahoma City. As Amahl was designed to be approachable and to appeal, Painted Sky has done a great job of staging works that will draw audiences in, both the great standards and other works that are a bit more unusual.”
Oklahoma is not short on Christmas productions this holiday season, but Johnson believes that Amahl and the Night Visitors stands out on the calendar because metro audiences are hungrier for opera now thanks to an ambitious programming calendar and nontraditional performances such as Opera on Tap, which stages informal opera in bars. The last two shows for the Painted Sky season include Trouble in Tahiti, a dark comedy in a 1950s nuclear family, and a pared-down interpretation of the opera classic La Tragédie de Carmen.
Johnson’s hope is that by ensuring that every performance feels relevant to OKC audiences, Painted Sky can continue expanding its audience and expose the next generation to her beloved art form. The story of Amahl, Johnson said, is a perfect fit for the state’s holiday temperament.
“In the hustle and bustle of a busy holiday season, this gets down to the core of the story of giving and what it means to have a generous spirit,” Johnson said. “Even out of nothing, there is something to give, and it can create miracles great and small.”