Should an aria from an opera written for television be performed in a way consistent with that medium, even if transported from screen to stage? Amahl and the Night Visitors, written and first broadcast in 1951, is the first ever opera commissioned for television and runs an appropriate 46 minutes. But composer Gian Carlo Menotti said he didn’t consider television at all. “All my operas are originally conceived for an ideal stage,” Menotti said, “which has no equivalent in reality.” But in the case of this aria, it doesn’t hurt to think small screen. Television is an intimate medium. Also, at this particular moment in the opera, all the other characters are asleep. The character of Amahl’s Mother is the only one awake, and we are let into her most intimate thoughts. It is a secret shared between character and audience.
Mostly done at Christmas time, Amahl is a poignant tale for many reasons, but perhaps its most powerful essence is distilled in this moment of the Mother’s aria. The plot involves three Kings traveling to bring great gifts to a Messiah. (In the Italian Christmas tradition, “Three Kings Day” is celebrated on the Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas.) In a modest home, a poor woman cares for her child, Amahl, a bright, imaginative boy who is unable to walk without the use of his shepherd’s staff. (Think Tiny Tim goes East.) The aria asks many important questions about wealth, but it is not a merely philosophical exercise. Over the course of the aria, the Mother, through asking these questions, convinces herself that she has the right to steal some of the travelers’ gold for her the benefit of her child.
The aria begins with the mother’s insomnia. As Stanislavsky taught, to play a murderer convincingly, one need only to have killed a mosquito. To understand the Mother’s plight, you need only have been kept awake by one unshakable thought, obsession, or addiction. To further appreciate the Mother’s difficulty, it is important to understand what it means to live in the grip of rural poverty. The totality of it. The isolation. How often does the woman see anyone other than poor villagers like herself, subsisting in the remote desert? Perhaps she, like all of us, has thought “what if?” What if she had been born a princess? What if her son could walk? What if she were not poor?” But in such a hard scrabble life, this woman is tired, and such thoughts require energy, and probably would only take her down deeper, into an even darker place. In some situations, hope is but a tease. No, this woman is not a dreamer. She leaves the land of make believe to her son. She never imagined such a moment would befall her, but it has. She has never had two coins to rub together, and suddenly there it is. “All that gold.” It must be a mesmerizing sight to her.
Whatever you do, pick a specific point of focus for that gold. That pile of gold that is keeping you awake. See it clearly, down left, or down right, or center, but don’t let it migrate.
Menotti has written it low, escalating the pitch during what is a fevered dream of sorts, and then returning to the lower range to be quiet at the end, the way a dream sequence might be directed onstage, starting and ending in reality, but traveling in the imagination. Once you have established the privacy, you can fully inhabit the dream dynamically, but don’t do too much too soon, or you won’t take us with you.
So we begin: All that gold…All that gold…
The gold must pull you in. It must be strong desire. If you’re not feeling it, use a substitution. What do you want so badly you might do something terrible to get it? It is this desire that keeps her awake. The gold is calling to her.
The first question: “I wonder if rich people know what to do with their gold.”
We could spend a thousand words on this timeless paradox. Staying in the Christmas spirit, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a man shouts down at the young lovers, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people!” Wealth is often wasted on the rich. And the idea of the undeserving rich is as fresh today as ever. The Mother’s subtext here: The rich don’tknow the value. It is her first justification.
Before we go on, let’s talk about that gold. Specifically, let’s talk about the “G” in the word gold. Guh, guh, guh, a guttural sound that pulls the tongue into the back of the mouth. Not ideal for singing, right? So take care not to let the tongue get stuck there. And also, you sing the word like, a thousand times, and there’s a pile of gold right there onstage with you. Once that is established, the audience will do the work for you and hear the word gold, so you can get away with thinking of that “g” as more like a quick “c.” All that cold. All that cold. And really, make that “l” nice and quick as well, and no need to overdo the “d,” but if the “l” gets lost and the “d” gets a little breathy, you end up with all that “coat,” so don’t go too far. But especially as you go up and up and up, leave some of the “guh” behind.
Speaking of range, is this an aria for mezzo or soprano? Menotti wrote the piece for mezzo-soprano Rosemary Kuhlmann, more on her in a bit, but the score reads simply, “soprano.” It is often done by both, and there are traps for each. The “high” note is not that high, I don’t have the score with me, but I think it’s a G, or no, A flat? Either one makes it suitable for dramatic soprano, mezzo, or even contralto. But for sopranos, the bulk of the piece lies in the lower register, and climbs upward, but then goes down again, so take care not to sing too heavily in the middle range, which will weaken the high note, nor to overdo the high note, which will cost you some of the bottom resonance you have to go back to. That was singer’s-speak for keep the voice balanced, but I hope it made sense. For mezzos, the caution would be more a matter of ego. A desire to show off too much of the rich creamy lower and middle range could cause you to be too sing-y, and ruin the mood, and as it is essentially a mood piece, not that tough to sing, you might sing it very well, but wouldn’t sell it if you over-sing. This is also one of those cases, as with Ulrica, that the quality of the high note is not really the point. Don’t tell your voice teacher I said so, but if the top not is a little shrieky, I don’t mind. The woman is desperate. And one musical note, consider the “all that” a two-noted appoggiatura. All that gold. You are constantly leaning in to the word “gold.” There is tremendous opportunity for accent and nuance with language throughout that can make or break the piece. Every word has a weight, a relative balance, with “gold” always having the most, well, value.
Back to the question about rich people and their gold. There is a whole subset of questions to this. She sings: do they know that a house can be kept warm all day with burning logs? (Do they know?) Do they know how to roast sweet corn on the fire?...Do they know how to milk a clover fed goat? And a whole bunch of other things you have to get in the right order. Memorizing is fun! Picture each situation clearly, and always in order, a child can be fed, a house kept warm, sweet corn on the fire, a courtyard with doves, a clover fed goat, hot wine on cold winter nights. Again and again and again, which will only help the obsessiveness. And the “do they know?” interjected between each question shows the woman’s urgency. Is she asking God? Can he hear her? Will anyone answer?
First, after the logs and the corn and the doves, the Mother returns to the lure of the gold, her obsession. It is a psychological leitmotif. All that gold. All that gold. Stronger every time she returns to it. (Some people say there are a lot of repetitions in Mozart, others say there are none, because you should never sing something the same way twice.)
And now to the heart of the matter: “Oh, what I could do for my child with that gold!”
And then another question. (Even with the rhetorical questions, make sure you really ask. She needs to go through these motions to justify stealing the gold. She has to put up a good fight within herself.) Now she asks, “Why should it all go to a child they don’t even know?” And quickly thereafter she observes, “they are asleep.” (Where onstage are they? Place them from the start, and to make things clear, put them on the opposite side from the gold. Gold downstage left, perhaps, people upstage right.)
So, they are asleep. Now the final question, and really ask it, “Do I dare?”
And the final rationalization, she’s gaining courage, steeling herself for the act. “If I take some, they’ll never miss it.”
“For my child,” she repeats several times, reminding herself of the purity of her motive. And here you must include one gesture, the reaching out of your hand so that someone can grab your wrist and cry “thief” when the aria ends.
But as for all those “for my child”s, I wouldn’t do any acting here at all. The relationship to the lyric and the meter is not exactly what you might think, and you need to count. “For my child,” -count beats- “for my child,” -count more beats- etc. The counting will give your face all the focus and concentration it needs. And you needn’t much voice. The fevered dream is over and you must ground us again in this intimate, made-for-TV moment. The others are asleep, you must now take action, for your child.
Menotti, like other great composers, leaves a lot of clues in the music, text, and situation,. and I hope my thoughts are consistent with his intentions, but as always, these thoughts are offered only as food for thought, and to get your own creative juices flowing. Opera is art, not science, so take what you like here, and leave the rest. Your interpretation will be yours to discover.
Some History about the Opera and the Singer:
This opera came on the heels of Menotti’s The Consul, which ran on Broadway and won the Pulitzer the year before. It was commissioned by NBC in 1951. Way back in ’39, NBC also commissioned Menotti for the first opera written for radio, which was to be The Old Maid and the Thief.
Imagine the excitement mounting for this first-ever TV opera, especially as Menotti, a notorious procrastinator, delayed and delayed. Fortunately, his procrastinations took him to the Metropolitan Museum of art, where reportedly he saw Hieronymous Bosch’s painting The Adoration of the Magi, and got inspired. The performance was given on Christmas Eve, with the NBC Symphony’s conductor, Arturo Toscanini, at the podium.
The role of the Mother was originated by mezzo-soprano Rosemary Kuhlmann. A native New Yorker, Kuhlmann was 29 at the time of the first broadcast. Born in 1922, she was just in her early twenties during WWII when she joined the WAVES, studied Morse code, and sent secret messages. After the war, she went to Juilliard as part of the GI bill. Not much of a fan of opera, she was singing with the Robert Shaw Chorale when an audition to take over the role of the Secretary in the Broadway production of The Consul came up. She got the role, and later auditioned for Menotti for the role in Amahl. For the audition she sang Voi lo Sapete, the mother’s aria from Cavalleria Rusticana, it is a dramatic aria that builds from the bottom, similarly to All That Gold. According to Kuhlmann, Menotti said, “you’re a little young, but we’ll make you look like a biblical woman."
Later, he called to ask her, “what’s your good high note?” To which she replied, an A, which he made the high note for the Mother’s quartet with the kings. After Amahl she had other operatic successes, notably taking on the major role of Magda Sorel in the Consul, singing with New York City Opera, and continuing to play the Mother in the annual televised performances of Amahl for a decade or so. She retired to raise a family, and later worked as an executive assistant to a VP at Pepsi.
Rosemary Kuhlmann died in 2019 at the age of 97. Because of her service in the war, she was buried with military honors. Among her cherished memories must have been the moment after the broadcast in ’51, when she walked into Rockefeller Center’s iconic supper club, the Rainbow Room, and received a standing ovation.