The three kings will make a stop in Bangor on their way to adore the Christ child and present him with splendid gifts. In the Queen City, the trio will find a lame shepherd boy whose humble gift for the babe will outshine theirs.
That is the story of the one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” by Gian Carlo Menotti. Written in English for television more than 50 years ago, it was broadcast as an annual Christmas special from 1951 through 1978.
The Bangor version is being directed by Stephanie Lanham as a fundraiser to support the mission trips to Eastport and Honduras of the youth group at All Souls Congregational Church and various mission ministries at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Lanham, of Bangor, previously directed “Godspell” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with teenagers in the casts.
The mostly adult cast required for “Amahl and the Night Visitors” includes a chorus of about 20, the three kings — a bass, baritone and tenor — Amahl’s mother, a soprano, and Amahl, a boy soprano.
Lanham has three sons who sing and have appeared in many shows she has directed at All Souls and Bangor Christian Schools. She had always thought one of them would play Amahl, but the timing never worked out, Lanham said after Monday night’s rehearsal.
Her “fantasy cast” always included her husband, Sam Lanham, Bruce Mallonee and Steve Gormley as the kings and Bridget Larson as the mother. As her own children outgrew the role of Amahl, doing the show began to look like it might remain just a dream, Stephanie Lanham said.
“Stephanie and I have talked about doing ‘Amahl’ for a very long time,” said the Rev. Renee Garrett, director of Christian nurture at All Souls, who leads the youth mission trips each summer. “We waited for an Amahl to show up. We’re pretty excited about finally being able to do it.”
Matthew Williamson, 11, of Orono, attends All Souls with his mother, Alison Mitchell, and stepfather, Sid Mitchell, both of Orono. Matthew Williamson has the unusual gift perfect pitch, according to director Lanham, but had never performed on stage before.
That, the boy said, has been his biggest challenge.
“The hardest part,” he said in a phone interview Thursday, “has been putting on faces — trying to act. But I like the chance to sing and to learn how to be up on stage.”
His onstage mother agreed with him about performing.
“This is what I love — talking set to music,” Larson, of Bangor, said after Monday night’s rehearsal. “I haven’t been onstage in at least 10 years but I feel very comfortable with this music. It’s what I’ve trained for.”
Matthew Williamson said that he would like to do more theater in the future and thinks children his age should come see “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
“They would get to see an opera and to see what it was like back in those days,” he said.
NBC commissioned Menotti to write the opera for a live television performance on Dec. 24, 1951. It was broadcast live from NBC’s studios in Rockefeller Center in black and white as the debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame and was the first opera written for television in America.
Menotti said that he drew inspiration from the painting “The Adoration of the Magi” by Heironymus Bosch, which the composer saw while walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
It was seen on 35 NBC affiliates coast to coast by an estimated 5 million people, the largest audience ever to see a televised opera, according to Mitchell Hadley, author of “Three Kings in 50 Minutes.” It also was the first Christmas special to become an annual tradition and was presented each year during the Christmas season from 1951 through 1966.
In 1978, a new production was filmed by NBC, partly on location in the Holy Land. It did not become a tradition as the earlier version had. The 1955 and 1978 versions were released on video. Recordings of the 1951 and 1962 productions were recorded by RCA Victor and released as records. The 1951 version has been re-leased on compact disc.
Menotti, who was born in Italy but moved to the United States when he was 17, died in early 2007 at the age of 95. During his lifetime, he composed 25 operas, nearly all of them in English, according to Menotti’s obituary in the New York Times.
He also founded the Festival of Two Worlds that began in 1958 in Spoletto, Italy, and directed for about 40 years, the Times said. In 1977, Menotti was a co-founder of its American offshoot, Spoletto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.
When Menotti died, the Times reported that “Amahl and the Night Visitors” had been performed more than 2,500 times in churches, schools and theaters around the country since it was first performed in 1951.
IF YOU GO
What: “Amahl and the Night Visitors”
Music and libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 2, 3, 6, 8 and 9
Where: All Souls Congregational Church
10 Broadway, Bangor
Cost: Free but donations accepted
Running time: 45 minutes
Cause: Missions sponsored by All Souls Congregational Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church, both in Bangor