Posted by: Titus Presler | December 14, 2009

“Amahl,” mission and God’s preferential option for the poor

Amahl and the Night Visitors, the one-act opera that Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) composed for NBC TV in 1951, has proved to be a perennial Christmas favorite for close to 60 years.  The human interactions are touching and the music is beautiful, but it is the opera’s authentic exploration of God’s missional concern for the world’s poor that has given Amahl its staying power and preserved it from sentimentality among generations of children and adults alike.

The story centers on a destitute boy, Amahl, and his mother as they are visited by the Magi, the “Three Kings,” on their way to greet the Child whose birth has been suggested by a star in the east.  The human suffering endemic in poverty is achingly vivid alongside the wealth of the kings bearing their precious gifts.  By the end of the encounter, the unity of the human family and God’s mercy to the poor have been revealed in ways that transform everyone as the mission journey to encounter the Christ Child continues.

Striking from a theological standpoint, “God’s preferential option for the poor,” the centerpiece of liberation theology and much missiology since the 1970s, is dramatized with an intensity that has few equals in musical drama.  The theological movement that gathered momentum with Gustavo Guttierez’s Theology of Liberation in 1978 focuses on Jesus’ costly identification with the marginalized of society and his confrontations with the privileged wealthy.  These stances were anticipated by prophets such as Amos and were explicated through Jesus’ many sayings that seek to kindle concern for the poor, from “Blessed are you poor” to the parable of the sheep and the goats.  Menotti’s creativity anticipated the centrality of this theological theme by about 30 years.

Poverty’s anguish not sentimentalized

Amahl is not only poor, but crippled as well, so his longterm prospects for caring for his mother are dim.  The mother, never named, is a widow, so she is an archetype of the absolutely poor in the Bible.  The widow without male relatives – and Amahl’s mother is depicted as utterly alone – was vulnerable to destitution, as we see with the widow of Zarephath, Elijah’s patron, and perhaps the widow of Nain as well.

What Amahl does have is imagination, which he uses to conjure happy scenes amid the poverty, seek his own healing, and, ultimately, to make the offering that precipitates a miracle.  As the opera opens he is playing his pipe outside their hut and marveling at the brilliant night sky which he describes to his mother:

There’s never been such a sky!

Damp clouds have shined it

and soft winds have swept it

as if to make ready for a King’s ball.

All its lanterns are lit,

all its torches are burning,

and its dark floor is shining like crystal.

It’s the Star, though, that has captured his attention:

Hanging over our roof

there is a star as large as a window,

and the star has a tail,

and it moves across the sky

like a chariot on fire.

Like the widow of Zarephath who declared to Elijah that she was gathering sticks for her last meal with her son, the mother is too beset by poverty to indulge in fantasy:

Here we are with nothing to eat,

not a stick of wood on the fire,

not a drop of oil in the jug,

and all you do is to worry your mother with fairy tales.

Thus, right at the outset of an opera about the encounter of the poor with the gospel Menotti challenges sentimental views of poverty as simpler or more grace-filled.  No, it impoverishes body and spirit together.  Indeed, in the mother’s despairing recollection of Amahl’s earlier visions, it is clear that poverty had evoked fear-filled images even for him:

First, it was a leopard with a woman’s head.

Then it was a tree branch that shrieked and bled.

Then it was a fish as big as a boat,

with whiskers like a cat

and wings like a bat

and horns like a goat.

And when Amahl relates how long the star’s tail is, his mother fears that the hunger has gone to his head.  Sentimentalizing poverty is engaged as a possibility, but only by Amahl himself when his mother sobs that they may have to go begging:

If I must go begging,

a good beggar I’ll be.

I know sweet tunes to set people dancing.

We’ll walk and walk from village to town,

you dressed as a gypsy and I as a clown.

Benefiting, however slightly, from the wealth of royalty is anticipated in Amahl’s fantasy, “The king will ride by / and hear your loud voice / and throw us some gold / to stop all the noise,” a line that communicates as well the whimsy that comes with the privilege of power.  Such whimsy and privilege will be significantly neutralized for the real royalty about to arrive at Amahl’s door.

Divisions of wealth and class are challenged

Solemnly entering the theater, the Kings may be wealthy, but they have their own loneliness amid journey images that recall the bitter vignettes of T. S. Eliot’s, “The Coming of the Magi”:

By silence-sunken lakes

the antelope leaps.

In paper-painted oasis

the drunken gypsy weeps.

The hungry lion wanders,

the cobra sleeps.

How far, how far, my crystal star?

“It is nice here,” declares Melchior when the magi have settled into the hovel after their humor-filled arrival, and so begins the process by which poor and rich come to a mutually transformative understanding amid the hope they realize they they have in common.  Amahl is the catalyst:

Amahl:            Are you a real King?

Balthazar:      Yes.

Amahl:           Have you regal blood?

Balthazar:      Yes.

Amahl:           Can I see it?

Balthazar:     It is just like yours.

Amahl:           What’s the use of having it, then?

Balthazar:      No use.

This is a stunning and humbling admission for a king.  Amahl’s initial question echoes that of Pilate to Jesus, but the colloquy challenges the assumptions of superiority  associated with worldly privilege and rank.  The king’s grudging acknowledgment that his blood is just like the pauper’s prefigures the opera’s climax wherein prince and pauper undertake a shared journey, premised on shared humanity, toward shared redemption.

The dramatic centerpiece of the opera’s themes is the dialogue the mother has with the kings about the Child and about the gifts the kings are bearing toward him, while Amahl, the child who she wonders may be the one they’re seeking, goes out to gather the neighbors to greet the kings.  The kings describe the Child in transporting lyricism that sketches the cosmic reach of his kingship – and his solidarity with the poor:

His eyes are sad,

His hands are those of the poor,

as poor He was born.

The mother’s heart-rending lament, as a fourth voice over the climax of the royal trio’s encomium, that her child is such a child, but neglected and ignored, emphasizes a central feature of the Incarnation: the Word has come as the Child who is in solidarity with every child.  The story of every child is touched by the poverty of this Child.  The Child’s early endangerment is echoed in the threats experienced by every endangered child in history.  Every child points to the Child, and the Child points to every child – they are mutually defining.

The arrival of the neighbor shepherds to greet the kings is the opera’s lighter sequence.  Their identity echoes the biblical shepherds, of course, but here they are bystanders, for they do not seem to have seen the star, and they arrive and depart with no particular intimation of the Christ event.  Instead, they convey joyful and generous community in contrast to both the hovel’s destitution and the kings’ chilly distance.  They offer simple produce and dance for the kings – both beyond the means of Amahl and his mother.

The pathos of Amahl’s poverty and lameness is evoked before the household beds down for the night when he asks Kaspar whether among his magic box’s stones there is one that could cure a crippled boy – and then gives up when deaf Kaspar can’t hear the question.

A Child for every child and all humanity

The opera’s climax is catalyzed by the mother’s attempt to steal a little of the gold, which is being protected by the page as he, the kings and Amahl slumber on.  “Do rich people know what to do with their gold?” she asks, and then cites all the things she could do for her child with the gold.  The answer, of course, is that, no, rich people don’t tend to know, or have any interest in knowing, how their wealth could bless the poor.  She follows her final rationale – “Why should it all go to a child they don’t even know?” – with the refrain, “For my child . . . for my child . . .”

Horror erupts when the page awakes and catches the mother in the act.  Amahl awakes and rushes to her aid, trying to beat the page off.  When Kaspar motions the page aside, mother and child fall sobbing into each other’s arm.

Melchior’s gracious response indicates that the entire encounter in the hovel has been revelatory.  The kings have come alongside the poor, witnessed the destitution, received hospitality, seen the desperation endemic in poverty, and they have been touched by the love between poor mother and poor son.  The kings realize that Amahl is one of the children the Child they seek has come to meet, and that his solidarity means that gifts offered to Amahl and his mother are offered to the Child.  Melchior responds with pure gospel:

Oh, woman, you may keep the gold.

The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold.

On love, on love alone

He will build His kingdom.

His pierced hand will hold no scepter.

His haloed head will wear no crown.

His might will not be built on your toil.

Swifter than lightning

He will soon walk among us.

He will bring us new life

and receive our death,

and the keys to His city

belong to the poor.

The mother shares in that revelation as she returns the gold, declaring, “For such a King I’ve waited all my life,” and that if she weren’t so poor she would send a gift of her own. Her longing is like the sentiment expressed in Christina Rossetti’s “In the bleak midwinter”:

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a wise man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him – give my heart.

Mission journey in gratitude

Mirroring his mother’s wish, Amahl impulsively offers to send his crutch – “Who knows, he may need one, and this I made myself.”  He raises his crutch and takes a step of offering, and then another – and then realizes that he is walking for the first time in his life.  It is an electrifying moment of miracle, the source of which the kings immediately recognize:

He walks!

It is a sign from the Holy Child.

We must give praise

to the newborn King.

We must praise Him!

This is a sign from God!

Ultimately Amahl wants to take the crutch to the Child himself, now as a gift in thanks.  After the most touching farewell with his mother, he rides off with the kings into what the far-off shepherds sing is a dawn of peace.

Listening to the original NBC soundtrack phonograph record as a child in India, I always had the conviction that Amahl would never return.  The conversions he, his mother and the magi experienced in their several ways seemed so transforming that I felt that life could and would never be the same.  It felt to me that Amahl was embarking on a journey of discipleship and that the coming of the Christ child would make of his life a mission life where the very notion of home would be finally and permanently relativized.

Maybe I was reading my own life as a child of missionaries into Amahl’s life.  Maybe over the years my own life in mission has intensified my missional hearing of the opera.  Yet that conviction persisted, and I feel it today.  It brings pathos at opera’s end, not so much for Amahl, for he is embarking excitedly on a new venture, but for the mother.  After Amahl’s departure she is more alone than she was at the beginning.  In a production at Adelphi University on Long Island a few years ago, her final solitude was emphasized as the spotlight rested on her – simply on her gazing into the distance – as the last strains of the orchestra faded away.

If you’ve seen Amahl once or many times, go again this Christmas.  If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss it!

Postscript: While Amahl is typically produced in Advent, it’s more appropriate to Christmastide and especially Epiphany.  Metro New York area residents will be interested to know that it is produced annually at Grace Episcopal Church, at Broadway and 10th St. in Manhattan, on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Feast of Our Lord’s Baptism.  The parish choir puts it on in the context of Evensong, and the production is free and open to the public.  For drivers, street parking is free on Sundays and there is a garage on 10th St. in the first block just west of the church.

[For another gospel reflection on Amahl, by Marshall Scott on Episcopal Café, click here.]

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Responses

  1. AMAHL needs revival, well done, was it recorded or filmed?

    Canon Jim Rosenthal
    London UK

    • It may have been recorded, but I would not suggest the Adelphi University production as a video norm. The strongest performer was the Indian American who played Amahl. The Mother and the Kings were played by Adelphi students, who did fairly well but did not have the performing maturity to offer compelling performances. I’ve wondered whether the film of the original NBC production may yet be made available, but web research indicates that the “kinescope” of the original was lost and that, amazingly, a few later BBC productions were not recorded in a way that was reproducible for wide circulation. Moreover, it turns out that Menotti forbade any TV productions after 1966. The silver lining is that many of us have thus relied on our imagination! The recent production I’ve felt was most worth reproducing was one by the Little Orchestra performing at Lincoln Center in about 2005, but I have no idea whether it was filmed.

  2. In response to this posting I’ve heard from a friend from shared school years in India, whose parents were Methodist missionaries in Pakistan, and with his permission I include some of his comments here:

    “’Amahl’ was very important in my family. My brother sang the lead role in a production in Lahore around 1960, I think, when he was 13, and my mother was the piano accompanist – so there was much rehearsing that went on at home, and we all pretty much knew all the numbers by heart. A magical opera in so many ways! Thanks for reminding me about it.

    “P.S. I think you’re right that poverty is a key element in ‘Amahl’’s appeal – the unexpected intersection of the Three Kings’ lives with that of the impoverished mother – the idea of the prince and the pauper. A universal theme. My parents (one or both of them, perhaps with other collaborators) adapted the libretto to create a play in Urdu that was well received by the common people who saw it at Christian Institute in Raiwind. My dad’s Urdu was much better than most missionaries’, as he himself had been a missionary kid who grew up speaking Hindustani – which as you know is a mix of Urdu and Hindi – but quite possibly a Pakistani collaborated on the writing. And, of course, poverty is a key concept in Christianity (the rich man not getting into heaven, etc. – a theme that doesn’t seem very compatible with fundamentalist Christianity’s current marriage to right-wing politics in America). I suppose it is connected with the idea that suffering is in some way key to salvation, and with the notion of sacrifice (central to the Isaac story and reappearing in the New Testament as the divine parent sacrificing his son – sacrifices that are both overturned, one before and one after the fact). The prince’s unexpected encounter with poverty is also central to the Buddha story, of course, and compassion for the suffering of all beings is an essential aspect of the Boddhisattva.”

    Isn’t it striking that my friend’s missionary parents, whom I remember well, sought to adapt “Amahl” to the Pakistani environment through creating an Urdu play? They recognized the implicit missional energy of the opera and turned it to use in a missional enterprise. “Amahl” is set in an indeterminate place somewhere east of Bethlehem, so one imagines Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan – some place through which the magi would travel on their way from what one presumes might be Persia. The spare rural setting and the feel of the drama would be compatible with a Pakistani audience. The adaptation illustrates the historic commitment of missionaries to present the gospel through whatever media they believe might best speak to their audience. In this case, missionaries took up the imaginary tale of an immigrant Italian-American, sensed its gospel authenticity and suitability to their context, and set about helping it speak to a Pakistani audience through the Urdu language. The vignette also illustrates the importance of missionaries’ knowledge of local languages. Even with a Pakistani collaborator, they obviously knew Urdu well, for such an adaptation is a considerable task. Doubtless this was just one of the many ways in which they communicated authentically with the people whom they were serving.

    Finally, this kind of exploration always offers something to the missionary as well. Almost certainly these particular missionaries came to new insights about Urdu and the tasks of translation and adaptation in their context. In all probability they came to additional insights about the fit between the gospel and the situation of their audience. And I would be surprised if they did not come away from the project with new understandings of the Incarnation of God in Christ and of the mission into which they’d been called. I’m confident that, like most missionaries, they learned as well as taught, discovered as well as shared.


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