Night vision: Ash Lawn Opera’s annual holiday gift

Georgia Castleman will sing the role of the shepherd boy for the third consecutive year, in Ash Lawn Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy Ash Lawn Opera Georgia Castleman will sing the role of the shepherd boy for the third consecutive year, in Ash Lawn Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy Ash Lawn Opera

When Georgia Castleman takes her third and final curtain call for the lead in Amahl and the Night Visitors on Saturday, she will be giving up a role that was a gift to the opera world.

In 2012, Ash Lawn Opera expanded into a winter season and introduced local audiences to Amahl, a one-act opera with an unusual backstory. The work premiered as the first opera composed for television, and in turn became the first recurring holiday viewing event. It debuted live on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951 and had 14 additional showings on the network between 1952 and 1978. Due to its popularity, Amahl appeared on TV stations around the globe throughout the 1950s.

When NBC executives commissioned Gian Carlo Menotti to create it, they had no idea how it would be received by television audiences, and didn’t consider its translation to the stage, but Menotti fully intended for his opera to be performed in a traditional setting someday. The Telegraph quoted him on the subject in his 2007 obituary: “On television you’re lucky if they ever repeat anything. Writing an opera is a big effort and to give it away for one performance is stupid,” he said.

Eventually, Amahl made it to a theater stage, and Ash Lawn Opera’s Artistic Director Michelle Krisel, who saw the production on stage as a child, grew up loving the story of a poor shepherd and his mother who get a visit from three traveling kings—a tale that Menotti based on his observations of painter Hieronymus Bosch’s “Adoration of the Magi.” It wasn’t long after Krisel took the helm at ALO that the company brought on the modern classic and made it into one of Charlottesville’s must-see holiday outings, a true community event that counts an average of 20 local children among its performers and is conducted by the esteemed music director of Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia, Kate Tamarkin.

“This is a dream come true for me to be able to expand in this way,” Krisel told C-VILLE as she prepared for the inaugural opening in 2012.

In its second year of presenting Amahl, ALO cast 15-year-old high school student Castleman in the lead role.

“My favorite thing about playing this recurring role is that each time I practice the music or get up on stage as Amahl, I get to relive this child’s most exciting and joyful moments,” Castleman told C-VILLE in an e-mail.

As Castleman navigated her mid-teens, her understanding of the role grew deeper. “Every year I find a new element to bring to the character as I grow and see deeper meanings in each line I get to sing. I am also amazed by the music of this opera every year. It is gorgeous and one of my favorite things to listen to around Christmastime.”

Krisel saw something special develop in Castleman and is exuberant about her performances. “We are so lucky Georgia has agreed to perform the demanding role of Amahl three seasons in a row,” she says. “It has been exciting to watch her evolving maturity with each season, but right from the start, I was so impressed by how she mastered what is very complex music while embodying the character of a young boy.”

From a one-off event to an annual tradition, the impact of Menotti’s opera could not have been anticipated as the singers prepared to go live in 1951, but almost 65 years later, it’s clear that Amahl and the Night Visitors’ story of inspiration, determination and triumph is a gift to be experienced—for the audience and performers alike.

“Creativity is something that can be so lost on our generation, so experiencing Amahl’s child-like creativity is a gift, as well as getting to sing this beautiful music,” Castleman says.