I am certain that this will come as a great surprise to all of you after seeing BARN OPERA's productions of The Magic Flute, Carmen, and Così Fan Tutte, but when I originally considered producing this work, I had some very specific and very controversial things in mind. I do need to make one point quite clear, however, in that I don't specifically look to produce controversy in every show. When I see injustice anywhere in life, I believe it is my obligation and responsibility to speak up, and the opera, even written decades or centuries ago, does not get a free pass.
I know that I'm going to be lambasted for this, but I originally looked at this piece as an obsolete work of utopian fiction, with beautiful music. There are instances in the work that 21st century Josh cringes at, and then there are moments that I believe completely capture the entirety of the human experience: It is a very dynamic and emotional ride for me, for such a compact piece.
The first thing that I decided before I ever thought about how this piece would go theatrically, was that I wanted an Amahl to be a young boy of color. The mother, Helen Lyons, is a brilliant soprano and just happens to be white, but every time I have seen this piece, there is a moment when I shrink under my seat: At the moment the kings first arrive to Amahl and his mother's house, Amahl (known for his storytelling, much to the chagrin of his mother) talks to his mother about the identifying features of the kings, and their crowns, and about the third king says "And one of them is BLACK."
This has always, ALWAYS, rubbed me the wrong way, as if the Black King was a novelty sideshow. I believe that it completely (and wrongly) gives Amahl a racial element that I don't believe is intended, but nonetheless, through the 21st century lens, is apparent. I almost put the score away right then, but then I thought about how I might be able to change the reading of that line in order to make it work. In deciding to have a boy of color, the line no longer reads "isn't that weird, this guy is black" but rather reads "he looks like me and is a king? Maybe I could be a king too!" I believe this is much more in line with the messaging of the show and changes the line from tokenism to aspirational, and THAT is something I CAN get behind!
When I eventually decided that BARN OPERA was going to produce Amahl, we were in the middle of the humanitarian crisis on the southern border in our country, Syria was being obliterated, and I was completely disgusted and without any thought as to how to help the situation. It was in that mindset I began to develop my initial "konzept" for our Amahl. I imagined Amahl and his mother to be refugees just on the USA side of the border, awaiting their asylum hearing. I know this isn't exactly how it works, but I imagined the chorus of shepherds as their central American neighbors still in the "holding facilities." I built the idea around the shepherds dressed in their rattiest clothing, each with mylar blankets and ideally a shadow of a chainlink fence over them all. The Kings would be congressmen, and the miracle would be that Amahl and his mother were granted asylum, after the congressmen discovered compassion for the poor transient pilgrims.
While I did have completely fleshed out exactly how I would produce this piece, I did some self analysis and realized that I was just despondent and numb, like everyone, and feeling utterly helpless. I came to realize, however, that regardless of how horrible I felt, me forcing my arguably divisive beliefs and ideas upon my community would be doing just what I was railing against the other side for doing.
And then, just like the Grinch, my heart and understanding grew three sizes that day.
I am sure that not one decent person, regardless of political affiliation, is happy about the situation at the border, or in Syria, and my highlighting and pointing fingers at what will be one of the black marks on America's history is not going to do anything to bring my community together, or heal divides that already exist.
I have ultimately decided that what we need, as humanity, is not a social commentary but a big, warm, compassionate, musical hug.
Amahl and the Night Visitors is just that. It is a story of a poor mother and her crippled son who exhibit extraordinary generosity in giving everything that they own to provide comfort for three kings that are on their way to visit a "more worthy child." In a moment of self-protection, and unconditional love for her son, Amahl's mother tried to right the cosmic financial injustice by stealing some gold. After a brief outbreak, the kings return the humbling generosity, and a miracle occurs as a result.
The universal nature of love, generosity, human spirit, socio-economic unity and the power of the combination thereof, is a phenomenal lesson to us all in this very broken and divided time. We can all learn a great deal from this story, and hopefully we can take the light of love that Amahl's mother gives her son, the light of compassion that the kings give to Amahl's mother, and the light of generosity that Amahl shares with the Christ child, and when we leave the church after the performances, shine our collective light of humanity to dispel the darkness of hate, oppression and otherness.
November 1, 2019
BARN OPERA & The Salisbury Congregational Church's
Amahl and the Night Visitors - G. C. Menotti
December 13 & 14, 2019
Director: Joshua Collier (Artistic Director, BARN OPERA)
Music Director/Pianist: Kristen Carr
Amahl's Mother: Helen Lyons
Amahl: Joshua & Johnathan Kafumbe
King Kaspar: Martin Schriener
King Melchior: Nicholas Tocci
King Balthsazar: Cailin Marcel Manson
Page: Tobias Duke
The Barn OPera