Hidden from small

“Amahl” and the “television opera”: The creation of a rare, important genre

November 29, 2018

It’s not as if Gian Carlo Menotti sat down one day and said, “I think I’ll invent a new genre today.” Yet with the composition of Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1951 (the Philadelphians perform the work December 13 and 15), that is essentially what he did. Almost unwittingly, the Italian-born American created what has come to be considered the first opera composed for television. Although he himself might not have seen it as a huge milestone initially, the 45-minute telecast established a tradition of “television opera” that has continued, in one form or another, to the present day.

The original television broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1951.

Opera had, of course, been a part of television since its earliest days, just as it formed part of radio’s beginnings. By the mid-1930s, the BBC and other European networks were including operas (or portions of operas) in their transmissions, and in 1940 NBC presented an abridged version of Pagliacci. But Amahl established something entirely different: opera composed specifically for television. And although it and many of its successors were later adapted for the stage, their origins as television operas were essential to their very essence.

The concept behind Amahl was perhaps not as startlingly new as it might seem. New operas had appeared on television shortly after their staged versions (Kurt Weill’s Down the Valley was telecast a year after its premiere, and Menotti’s own The Old Maid and the Thief was seen on TV in 1948), and indeed broadcast companies around the world had been commissioning operas for radio since the mid-1920s. To some extent it became the task of publicists and critics to declare Amahl a milestone. “It may be said at once that television, operatically speaking, has come of age,” wrote Olin Downes in a rare front-page review in the New York Times on Christmas Day, 1951, adding that Menotti’s “tender and exquisite piece,” which tells the story of the Magi from the point of view of a young disabled boy named Amahl who is miraculously cured when he offers his crutch as a gift to the Holy Child, formed a “historic event in the rapidly evolving art of television.”

The brainchild of NBC General Music Manager Samuel Chotzinoff and Artistic Director Peter Herman Adler (who had been a pupil of Alexander Zemlinsky), the newly created NBC Opera Theatre had lofty ambitions. Adler dreamed that television opera would “bridge the gap between the mass audience and the opera house” and “develop a new kind of opera.” The success of Amahl was so great (there were repeat performances, live and taped, for years afterward) that it propelled the Opera Theatre to commission works from a wide range of composers between 1951 and 1964. CBS and others followed, and the phenomenon quickly spread to Europe. Most of these composers took to heart what Amahl had taught them: Television opera required small casts, expressive acting, a clearly articulated story, and relatively simple melodic design.

Some composers took to these challenges naturally. “The saving of musical time interests me more than anything visual,” wrote Igor Stravinsky of his venture into TV opera in 1962. “This new musical economy was the one specific of the medium which guided my conception of The Flood. Because the succession of visualizations can be instantaneous, the composer may dispense with the afflatus of overtures, connecting episodes, curtain music.”

Composer Igor Stravinsky and his advisor Robert Craft going over the score to The Flood in 1962. Photo by Ernst Haas

As increasingly sophisticated technology enabled more complex teleplay, composers created works that felt as if they could only exist as television dramas. By the time of his second attempt in the genre, The Labyrinth (1963), Menotti was ready to embrace all of the special effects TV could lend. “And in the process, he fashioned an opera that (unless extensively revised and rethought) could never be given on the stage,” John Ardoin writes. “The Labyrinth’s moral … is all but submerged in video trickery, from a gravity-free sequence aboard a rocket ship to a railroad car that fills with water to become a swimming pool.”

Composers were learning to embrace the interconnections between teleplay and music—much as film composers had been doing for half a century. Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave, composed as a television opera for BBC Two and first shown in 1971, opens with a set of chords specifically designed to coincide with camera shots. “The camera shows a series of family portraits,” writes Jennifer Barnes, whose Television Opera (2003) was a first attempt at a history of this genre. “Britten has written the figures in the orchestral score to time precisely with the change from picture to picture. This means that the opening pages of Wingrave are both a score and a camera script.”

Drawn by the promise of enormous viewership, many composers found they were willing to risk the notion their works might never be staged in exchange not only for the hope of a mass audience but also for the excitement of creating dramas that were emphatic, dramatically fierce, and above all, concise. The time restrictions that had frustrated participants in broadcasts of savagely abridged repertoire operas were welcomed by these new composers.

Composer Benjamin Britten on the set of the TV opera Owen Wingrave.

When Britain’s Channel 4 created a series of television commissions in the mid-1990s, it dictated that each opera should be precisely 51:45 in length (including opening titles) and entirely dependent on television techniques. Channel 4’s Andrew Yeates said that he wanted works that were “unsuitable for live performance,” thereby assuring that the televised version of each would become the artwork itself. Recent composers such as Jonathan Dove (Man on the Moon) and Alexina Louie (Burnt Toast: Eight Mini Comic Operas about Love) have shown themselves quite comfortable in this ever-increasing “miniaturization” of opera.

But none of this could have been possible without the staggering success of Menotti’s defining mini-opera, whose commercial appeal helped compel increased interest in the genre. Over the next two decades NBC was joined by CBS, the CBC, and a wide range of European networks in commissioning works by Lukas Foss, Ezra Laderman, Norman Dello Joio, Carlisle Floyd, Jack Beeson, R. Murray Schaefer, Malcolm Arnold, Hans Werner Henze, and many others.  

In fact the “body” of TV operas composed since Amahl is probably larger even than we know. Many of the recorded broadcasts sit gathering dust at studios around the world—and sadly, many of the operas were never recorded at all. The original video of Owen Wingrave, for example, lay in BBC’s vaults for 20 years before anyone even thought about asking to see it. Many studios continue to guard carefully the surviving copies of these operas as their own property. Lively studios in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern European countries are thought to have produced television operas, although these networks having been subjected to “such radical political and cultural changes,” Barnes writes, “that the archives … are in disarray, with much accidentally or deliberately destroyed.”

As we begin to see more of these works, we will doubtless begin to gain a new appreciation for television operas in their original form. For if digitally remastered versions of every episode of The Twilight Zone are considered a thing of value to our culture, surely these works will eventually be deemed worthy of excavation.

NBC’s Adler imagined TV as a means of mass distribution of opera, and history has not necessarily proven him wrong. Though few composers write operas expressly for television (and thus one might reasonably say that television opera as we know it is virtually defunct), a single showing of a new work on PBS’s Great Performances (such as that of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in April 2017) reaches exponentially more viewers than the opera’s entire run at the 3,700-seat Metropolitan Opera.

If Menotti’s live Amahl reached more viewers in a single night than any work in the 400-year history of opera, the Met and others are taking these numbers to a new level—especially with the advent of live HD technology found in thousands of cinema multiplexes worldwide. And although opera-lovers will continue to revere the live experience, anyone who believes that introducing new operas to untold millions is a bad thing is simply not “thinking outside the proscenium.”

Amahl and the Night Visitors

Thursday December 13 7:30 PM

Saturday December 15 8:00 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Bramwell Tovey Conductor

Dante Michael DiMaio Boy Soprano (Amahl)

Renée Tatum Mezzo-soprano (Mother)

Andrew Stenson Tenor (King Caspar)

Brandon Cedel Bass-baritone (King Melchior)

David Leigh Bass (King Balthazar)

Kirby Traylor Tenor (A Page)

Philadelphia Symphonic Choir 

Amanda Quist Director

Omer Ben Seadia Stage Director

Click here to purchase tickets.

Paul J. Horsley is performing arts editor of the Independent in Kansas City and writes for several publications nationwide. During the 1990s he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently served as music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star.