As in other towns, holiday traditions abound in Asheville: Sitting (and swearing) in traffic on Tunnel Road. Paying a lot of money to go to Biltmore House to look at a lot of lights. Enduring yet another production of The Nutcracker because your umpteenth cousin (niece/nephew/grandchild/godchild/child-you-barely-know) is starring as The Mouse. Swearing off commercialism in favor of spirituality — again — only to give in at the last minute and find yourself back on Tunnel Road (damn it), headed for the mall and another pair of Isotoner gloves for Aunt Whoever.
The list, unfortunately, goes on.
This year, however, the Asheville Lyric Opera wants to give you a new — and much brighter — tradition: the company’s first presentation of Gian Carlo Menotti’s classic Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. Commissioned and premiered by NBC in 1951, the opera tells the story of Amahl, a crippled shepherd boy who’s visited, one star-bright night, by three kings on their way to bestow gold, frankincense and myrrh upon the Christ child. Hearing their account of the baby Jesus, Amahl casts aside his crutch and dances joyously, miraculously cured.
So why forsake your other beloved holiday traditions in favor of this one? ALO founder David Craig Starkey, who’s also the company’s general and artistic director, and Bryan Franklin, the company’s opera apprentice, harbor an excitement for this show that would convert all but the most hard-bitten Christmas curmudgeons.
“It’s the perfect theatrical experience for Christmas, with singing and dancing and ballet and merriment,” enthuses Starkey. “You can come and see your neighbors, your friends, your family perform in this beautiful story.”
Starkey has a point. Previous ALO productions have featured a number of performers from outside the area — up to 40 percent of the cast, in some shows. Amahl and the Night Visitors, however, is cast almost entirely with locals. Double-cast, in fact — different actors and choruses will perform the show on different nights.
“One of the goals of the company was to identify local talent sources and performers, and we’ve been able to do that very successfully. Part of our mission is to provide performing opportunities for those people,” says Starkey. Thirteen-year-old Matthew Glover, an eighth-grader at Fletcher’s Apple Valley Middle School, will carry the lead role on his shoulders for all performances.
Asheville High School and East Hendersonville High School provide the choirs, while locals Eliza Gilbert and Molly Johnson take on the role of Amahl’s mother. Molly’s husband, Mark Johnson, and Starkey’s father, Dr. David E. Starkey, play King Casper. Robert Craig and Bryan Franklin appear as King Balthazar. And Franklin and Starkey (junior) do double duty as King Melchior.
This will be Starkey’s second opportunity to act with his father in Amahl. In Youngstown, Ohio, in the ’70s, he played the lead role opposite his dad, who portrayed King Melchior.
Franklin feels that having family members perform with one another adds to the show’s appeal.
“There’s a connection between a husband and a wife, or a father and a child, that’s really special. They understand each other much more deeply than other actors, communicate in deeper, richer ways. Seeing David and his dad work together is really tremendous.” According to Starkey, the audience will be able to experience the cast’s unique connections firsthand. “It’s a production that lends itself to a lot of personal involvement. The way our show is directed, you — the audience — will be a part of it, too.”
He explains: “The whole theater is used as the stage. The entrances of the kings, and their journey — there’s a part in the show where the kings are singing and traveling, and that whole part takes place in the audience. The kings actually move through the audience. Dancers bearing gifts for the kings come in from all directions. And you will be a part of their journey; you will be a part of Amahl’s journey. You’re right there with the performers. The orchestra is right there in front of you. Everybody’s a part of it.”
Rather like a traffic jam on Tunnel Road (but with a lot less swearing and a lot more singing, and infinitely more fun). And by supporting a local production with local performers, you’ll be supporting a company that gives back to its community at every opportunity — through educational outreach and by presenting gorgeously produced, professional opera in an intimate setting. Sure sounds like the Christmas spirit to me.