By Jenny Neyman
As holiday-season traditions go, Kenai Central High School’s performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” is more sporadic than most, happening only once every four of five years or so.
But just like caroling, Christmas cookies and other hallmarks of the season are made more special because they only come about every so often, “Amahl” is worth that much more for the wait.
Renée Henderson, choir teacher at KCHS, first directed “Amahl” at KCHS in 1974, and has done it typically every four or five years since, if and when she’s got strong enough singers to handle the demanding vocal parts.
“I for sure don’t do it several times a year. I was lucky to ever get one done,” Henderson said. “It’s not a normal thing, at least for me, to be able to find the many talented voice parts it asks for, because they are not easy parts to sing. I happened to have a strong group of kids fit the bill this year. They’re difficult parts, that’s just all you can say. That’s why it’s done by professionals. But they (the students) like the challenge and the writing that Menotti did is different than our ears are accustomed to. Basically, it takes a lot of time to hear where the different intervals and parts of the song are going, and some have better luck than others at that, and some have to really, really put in the time.”
This year’s cast is Lorin Thompson, seventh grade, playing Amahl; Chelsea Hart, junior, playing Mother; Brady Perkins, senior, playing the king Kaspar; Randy Jackson, senior, playing the king Melchoir; Cole Chase-Cochrane, junior, playing the king Balthazaar; and Dax Thompson (Lorin’s brother), senior, playing the Page.
The opera is about a poor, widowed mother and her crippled son, Amahl, who are scratching by to survive as best they can. One night, three wise and wealthy kings ask to take shelter in their home for the night on their journey following a star. It isn’t specified in the opera, but the implication is they are the Three Kings following the Star of Bethlehem to witness the arrival of the Christ child.
Being an opera, even the dialogue is sung. And the way the music is written adds to the drama of the story.
“Some of the chords are more dissonant than things that you would find in, say, hymns or folk songs or pop music. There are some bitey moments in there, but then they always resolve and it always end up beautiful,” Henderson said.
Having a live orchestra, which adds depth and vibrancy to the music, is a fairly new addition to KCHS’s “Amahl.” In the past, Henderson has used a piano, but this year there will be two pianists — Maria Allison and Mim McKay — as well as over a dozen others in the volunteer orchestra. Henderson asked local musicians to participate, all accomplished, well-respected performers in the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and other venues.
“The music is beautiful and luckily this year we have the people willing to volunteer and give their time so we have an orchestra. That’s just going to be wonderful,” Henderson said. “They’re a pretty talented bunch of ladies and gentlemen. It doesn’t get much better, from my point of view. It’s really a pleasure to have such wonderful people, and they play so well. They’re not mediocre, by any means. They just are wonderful professionals working at other jobs, you know how it is in a small community.”
The opera was originally commissioned by NBC, and Henderson remembers seeing it air on TV around Christmas every year when she was in high school in South Dakota. She thought it would be fun to direct, managed to stage it that first year, and from there a tradition was, accidentally, born.
“Oh, I don’t know. Why does anything turn into a tradition? You kind of like it and think, ‘Oh, I might have the kids that can do it this year,’” she said.
Ideally, she likes staging it four or five years apart so Amahl, a male soprano role played by a middle-school student, can play one of the king roles when he’s in high school. It worked out this go-around. Brady Perkins, who played Amahl when he was in eighth grade in the last performance, now is playing Kaspar.
“He’s an old guy but has lots of energy and is really excited about everything. He needs to be calmed down by the other characters, and falls asleep a lot,” Perkins said of Kaspar.
This time around, he isn’t as nervous as when he played Amahl, he said. That helps him enjoy the experience more, especially in how it differs from a regular choral performance, which involves standing still and singing, or theater, which is movement and acting, but not singing to the same degree.
“It’s a lot more challenging, you have to move and sing at the same time. It’s not too difficult and it makes it a lot more fun, I think. You get to show your own emotions and be a different character, instead of singing and standing still with a bunch of people,” Perkins said.
Having a live orchestra brings a lot to the opera, and Perkins said he likes the music. Being a high tenor, he has it somewhat easy, since he has the melody most of the time, he said. But everyone is working hard on polishing their parts, and the performance should be worth seeing and hearing
“Because it’s interaction with the community and interaction with all of the youth of Kenai, and you see all of the progress in what they’ve been working on. I think it’s going to turn out really well. We’ve been working really hard, so I think it’ll be a good production. It’s a really good experience, I’m having a lot of fun,” he said.
This year’s Amahl, Lorin Thompson, is a seventh-grader at Kenai Middle School. He’s moving, so won’t be able to return as a king, but is enjoying the experience, nonetheless.
“Just being able to participate and just the opportunity and the privilege,” Lorin said. “Just having the main part and being the only middle-schooler.”
Lorin said he picks up music fast, but that practicing and hitting the high notes can be a challenge. The dual challenge of acting as well as singing has been a fun task.
“His mom is really sad and he just tries to cheer her up, so he’s the one always in a cheerful mood. And trying to help his mom think that it’s not the end of the world,” he said.
Carol Ford is returning as the acting director which she did in the last performance, as well.
“When the last one was done I was saying, ‘I hope I don’t ever direct this again,’ because those kids were so wonderful, they were ‘the kids.’ I thought, ‘I wouldn’t want to have to do it with a different group of kids.’ But I’m finding that’s not at all true. They’re completely different and I’m loving every minute of working with them, too,” Ford said.
“Both times I’ve done it have been superexciting because the kids that Renée and Rosemary (Bird, at Kenai Middle School) come up with who are interested in doing it usually are kids who have a superhigh standard in their singing and all their activities. They’re getting kids who really generally take the music very seriously.”
Directing opera is an interesting challenge for Ford, who directs musical and nonmusical theater.
“It’s quite different, in some ways, because there’s of course no dialogue. All the dialogue is singing, so you can’t do your own timing. You can’t have the person think about something, or have them cross and give more power to something by the normal methods you’d have at your disposal, because you have to keep up with the timing of the music,” she said. “It’s fun to figure out how you’re going to get everything you want to get into a moment when you have to move on with the music.”
Being restricted in timing and dialogue that needs to be sung with certain inflections may seem like the opera would be the same each time it’s performed, but that isn’t the case, Ford said. Each group of kids performing it is vastly different, and they bring those differences to their parts.
“It really, naturally, ends up quite different. One of the things that I love about directing is finding out what each person has to bring to the script and to the story and then capitalize on that, rather than saying, ‘This is the interpretation of the story and everybody’s going to do it the same.’ A lot of the blocking is totally different because of just how the kids move and who they are and what their movement says about their personality — their own and also the personality of the characters,” Ford said.
The same, elaborate costumes made by Chris Cook for the last performance are being used again in this one, with the seeming simplicity of Amahl and Mother’s clothing a striking contrast to the sumptuous regalia of the kings.
A difference this year is having students choreograph the dances, including Selia Butler, Esther Hamilton and Joey Kummert.
“The dancers are all volunteers. They have just had a ton of fun doing the dances. They’re really attuned more to helping tell the larger story,” Ford said.
That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of the process, Ford said, finding how all the parts contribute to the whole.
“What really, really, really matters to me is the story, and how wonderful to have somebody like Renée point out to them that the most important part is each part. That the story is what it’s about, but so is the music and the vocals — it’s the whole package. They’ve got to hit their marks on a whole bunch of different levels, and these guys are going to do it,” Ford said.
Henderson said she appreciates the level of drama Ford is able to impart to the performance.
“Just the privilege of having Carol Ford come in and work with the kids. She’s an amazing director. It’s a privilege to have her come into the school and help us out,” Henderson said.
Ford said she hadn’t heard of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” before Henderson asked her to help direct it, and has felt enriched from the experience.
“To think she’s been gracing the community with this every few years for 35 years is pretty darn exciting,” Ford said. “And that she’s giving all these kids an opportunity to try opera with a classic story line and composition. It’s fantastic, I think. And it’s the first taste a lot of those kids get seeing and trying to sing opera. It isn’t something that’s easy to sing, but it’s accessible, the audience is going to love it and even kids are going to find things to enjoy in it. It’s a real blessing to the community, I think, to have a chance to participate and watch this every few years.”
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Renée C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. The performance lasts about 45 minutes. Donation will be accepted, to defray the costs of royalties, music rental and performance recording.