To understand why the first ever made-for-television opera featuring the story of a young boy living more than 2,000 years ago in Palestine still resonates today, one must turn back the clock to Christmas Eve 1951.
Black-and-white title credits roll to the tune of a light oboe bop in the background on big bulky screens. That’s exactly how Americans — both young and old — first experienced the story “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti. In his address to the NBC audience before the opera aired, composer Menotti explained, “I say this is an opera for children because it comes right out of my own childhood, and I want you to realize it was very difficult to recapture my childhood on television.”
Even so, that manufactured light broadcast through cathode ray tubes some time ago lives on as fond memories.
Now, Fargo-Moorhead Opera Director David Hamilton is tasked with the job of bringing that nostalgia back to life on stage at Moorhead’s Horizon Middle School Theatre.
“This story is so heartwarming I practically cry on stage every time, and I’ve done this some 30 times,” says Hamilton. “But there’s one place in particular when Amahl goes to sleep and his mother sings an aria wondering if rich people know what she could do for her child with just one piece of gold.”
Having previously welcomed three kings journeying to Bethlehem into their home, Amahl’s mother sets out to steal a piece of gold from the opulent wise men. A dramatic and suspenseful scene unravels as she creeps slowly across the stage, eventually getting caught.
The opera is conducted by Stephen Sulich with the three kings played by David Hamilton, Peter Halverson and Anthony Leathem. Other roles include the Page played by Zach Rude, the mother played by Holly Janz and Amahl, played by both Ben Davies and Roman Indrehus.
As a double-casted role, Davies and Indrehus, both 11, will both have their time in the spotlight as lead character Amahl. The role requires a young soprano to hit high notes and also move on stage with a crutch for a majority of the time. It’s a challenge worth facing for these young musicians.
“It was kind of difficult at first because in another musical I sing really low,“ says Davies about “James and the Giant Peach Jr.,” a play opening in January at West Fargo’s Cheney Middle School. “Then in this one, I’m singing really high.”
Growing up in a much different world than the era of the opera’s debut, the story may be the same classic today, but television has changed and evolved many times over. For the two lead singers, this opera is different from TV in a few ways.
“First of all, you’re not burning away brain cells,” posits Indrehus. “And usually in plays and musicals there’s at least one time when people go out into the audience and do something. Once when I was watching ‘Mary Poppins,’ the chimney sweep ended up sitting in the exact same row as me.”
In addition to his current role with Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Davies is involved in other plays as well as singing, including as a member of the choir for the opera’s production of “Hansel and Gretel” in October.
Indrehus is active in two other choirs, including the Fargo-Moorhead Youth Choir. His previous roles include Ralphie in Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre’s “A Christmas Story” last year and Young Simba in “Lion King Kids” in the spring.
It’s a lot of work for the budding performing artists, but it ends up paying off in the end. Outside a rehearsal room, the two discuss what keeps them going.
“To me, what makes it worth it is just singing good songs,” Indrehus says as college-aged students pass by the hallways of the Concordia College music building.
“It’s really fun when we join together and do it all in a group,” responds Davies.
“Yeah, when we’re doing one-on-one training, I was like, ‘Aw, we have to go there,’” recounts Indrehus. “But now that we’re working with other people, I’m like, ‘Yay, let’s go!’”
Just in time for the holidays, this one-act family classic tells the story of a young boy and his mother. It’s a tale of strife and faith with the promise of a miraculous ending.
What: Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15
Where: Horizon Middle School Theatre, 3601 12th Ave. S., Moorhead
Info: Tickets are $5 for children and $30 for adults; tickets.fmopera.og
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and appeared in print on Monday December 9, 2019.