Although “The Nutcracker” is what most people associate with live performance in the Christmas season, the Delaware Valley Opera Company (DVOC) has its own tradition of performing the seasonal opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and this year is no exception. The family-friendly tale of a poor shepherd family visited by the three kings on their way to Bethlehem will be performed this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the Kroc Center.
The one-act opera was originally written for television in the 1950s by Gian Carlos Menotti, but has often been performed on stage since then. The stage director of this year’s DVOC production is Justin Johnson, who has directed for the Academy of Vocal Arts, Opera New Jersey, and the Crested Butte Music Festival.
Directing “Amahl” is Johnson’s first experience working with the DVOC, which, he says, “occupies a unique niche” in its identity as a community-based opera company.
The mother-daughter duo
The cast this year features a mother-daughter pair from Belmont Hills in the roles of the 10-year-old disabled shepherd boy Amahl (Nina Gold) and the mother (Theresa Seri). Gold, 10, has appeared previously in “La Boheme” and “The Land of Smiles” in the children’s chorus with DVOC. She was thrilled to be offered the role of Amahl this summer, and within a month had memorized all of the music.
Seri, who is Gold’s mother on stage and in real life, has been singing with DVOC for several years, and finds it a wonderful opportunity for singers like herself with children to be able to perform locally. Professionals “typically travel all over the country and the world to sing opera,” she explains. “My decision was made – I didn’t want to be away from my kids for weeks and months at a time.”
When company members Elizabeth Oliver and Sandra Day first spoke to Seri about “Amahl,” she remembers initially thinking that they wanted to cast her son in the lead role. But at 13, he was already too tall and his voice had changed.
When it was clear that they wanted Nina, she asked her daughter if she would like to play Amahl and got a resounding “Yes!” in reply. The opera specifies that the boy Amahl should be played by a child rather than by an adult woman, whose vocal quality would not be the same even though her range would permit it.
“She won’t sound like an opera singer, and she shouldn’t,” Seri explains. “She sounds like a 10-year old.”
As a modern opera, “the music is rather difficult,” says Seri, “with some interesting intervals that some might find it difficult to sing.”
Working with family
According to her mother, Gold is up to the challenge, having been surrounded by opera and vocal music “since she was in vitro.” Seri says that both her children are very musical and “have been hearing me sing all their lives.”
For her part, Gold is confident in the role, though she says it “can be a bit hard walking around on a crutch.” Amahl, described in the script as crippled, has only the use of one leg and she finds she has to work hard to move across the stage in character.
Working with her own mother makes the acting easier, Gold says, since she doesn’t have to invent the whole relationship. “When I hug her and stuff I don’t feel weird.”
Seri, whose son is also in the production, is grateful for the unique opportunity to perform with her kids. “It’s been a really wonderful experience I don’t know if I’ll ever have again, being onstage with both of my children,” she says.
Johnson says that working with the pair has been “an interesting method experience” since normally actors “have to spend time establishing family relationships and how they feel about each other, and here we had an immediate relationship that doesn’t have to be rehearsed.”
‘A vintage feel of middle America’
The show has “that kind of vintage feel of middle America, the Land of Good Hope” says Johnson. His approach to the production is to bring “the scope of cinematography to the stage,” which is particularly relevant for an opera written for television.
Johnson believes that contemporary audiences are more accustomed to seeing performance cinematically, which he says is “the inherent expectation of the modern audience, but which is quite difficult to do theatrically, because there are no camera angles to direct focus.”
Instead, he manipulates the perspective with lighting and staging, choosing to keep characters onstage rather than following convention which often has the chorus singing from behind a curtain. This directorial choice is in-part driven by the openness of the Kroc Center’s performing arts hall, which doubles as a worship space and is not built as a traditional proscenium stage.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” is a highly accessible opera, with a runtime of about an hour, a libretto in English, and a storyline that closely references the Christmas tale. Seri notes that it’s “accessible to children especially. It’s a wonderful first opera to bring a child to,” she says.
With a story involving the three kings, a disabled child, and a miracle, it’s a holiday story that may pull some heartstrings. “Bring a couple of tissues,” advises Seri. “It’s one really terrific hour of performance, perfect for the season.”
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” runs one night only on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Kroc Center. Tickets are $15 per person, regardless of age, and can be purchased in advance by credit card by calling 215-558-1490; payments at the door are by cash or check only.