Amahl and the Night Visitors 2013

Amahl Logo

In the run-up to Christmas 2013, Opera Mint staged 12 performances of Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti. The venue was the Tabernacle Chapel in the Hayes, Cardiff.

Opera Mint Wales’s secretary and organiser, Janet Powell, reflects here on the project.

I confess that I really wanted us to do Amahl and the Night Visitors. I had been involved in a short extract some years earlier for a concert that Jayne Thomas arranged and I loved it and wanted to do more. I thought at that time that it would suit Opera Mint but the problem of casting a boy and the shortage of female roles and the fact that it had to happen at Christmas seemed to make it impossible.

But then at the end of 2012 I received an e-mail from Sally Humble-Jackson. She was asking us if we would consider a production of Amahl during December 2013, to be linked with Christmas, the Story at The Tabernacle, and she was offering the performance space, the set, costumes, lighting and a likely audience. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

Several other people were familiar with the opera and interested in this offer. Two of us went to see a performance of the Nativity and were impressed with the space and set and costumes. I brought some copies of the chorus music and a lot more people were hooked. I was acutely aware that a big commitment would have to be made by Opera Mint if we were to consider this, and it seemed that most people were prepared to make this.

There were several problems that then had to be dealt with. Where could be get a boy or boys to play Amahl? Would they see this through to the end or would they drop out? Should an adult soprano also cover the part? Could a soprano sing the Mother? Would there be enough for the chorus to do?

But then several things happened. Firstly we had Dafydd Hall Williams on board and he was keen to do Amahl and came to us full of ideas. He came with a cost, but our treasurer gave the go-ahead for the financal expenditure. And then we found our Amahls. And from then on absolutely everyone was fully behind this venture and Opera Mint was working as a team as never before. For the first time since I have been in Opera Mint the double and triple casting really worked. We learned this as teams of equals – no A and B teams.

Director Dafydd Williams in rehearsal

Director Dafydd Williams

Dafydd started by getting the Amahls and Mothers together to look at the “back story” and I began to realise what a wonderful thing was happening. I think that maybe we approached this thinking that we would have to look after the boys and wondering if they would keep up with what was expected, but right from the start Cameron, Evan and James threw themselves into the whole process in a way that we would never have expected. They immediately embraced the ideas that Dafydd had for the modern representation of the widowed mother and disabled boy and asked question after question about what had happened to their father, why there was no money, why the mother sold everything, how much did she get for the sheep and on and on.

Dafydd intended to “hotseat ” only the mothers but the boys wanted a go as well and their responses showed that they were much more comfortable with this than we were! For instance, when asked one Amahl why he lied to his mother, the response was that he was trying to make her feel better, although this was not working, and that he wanted to be an author and write stories whe he grew up. They learned the music, and especially the words, quicker than the adults. They could not wait to start the acting. They attended hours and hours of rehearsals with their long-suffering parents and did not fail to attend any of the agreed rehearsals. If they had a problem with any part of the music, rather than ignore it and hope for the best, they went quietly to conductor Ben Pinnow or or accompanist Sian Davies and put it right.

Amahls for media

Pictured: The three boys who shared the title role of Amahl (from left: James Bibey, Evan Thomas and Cameron Hughes, all pupils at Llandaff Cathedral School).

Meanwhile the adults were working equally hard to keep up. Mothers and Kings and Chorus were arranging extra rehearsals together. In fact the working together was unlike anything that I have seen before. As Dafydd started to think about props he would sent me e-mails requesting more and more random articles. And, with absoulutely no fuss, everything turned up – hand-made crutches, baskets, pomegranates, medlars, false beards – you name it, it was there. Once the run of performances started, fruit, liquorice and firewood were magically replaced as required.

And the publicity! Posters were designed and printed, as were tickets. An online ticket sales site was set up. Barbara Williams took on responsibility for selling tickets and contacting organisations and distributing flyers. Other people joined in to distribute the flyers. We managed to get articles in the South Wales Echo, Western Mail and Buzz magazine. There were interviews on Radio Wales, including Wynne Evans’ show. The boys took these live radio appearances in their stride and, and with Dafydd, were involved in two brilliant interviews that managed to sell Amahl, Opera Mint, Christmas- the Story all at once, together with the notion (as Wynne said) that opera singers are cool!

I thought that maybe the availability for 12 performances would be a problem, but absolutely everyone rose to this. Principals supported each other by singing in the chorus whenever possible so that all performances had a good sized chorus. People who originally limited the dates that they were available came to extra performances because they did not want to stay way. Some did all 12 performances (despite, in one case, travelling from Aberdare after a full day’s work). People travelled after work, or came straight from the bus or train to be there. One of the chorus singers commented that, despite her original concerns, she was invigorated by these performances and still had some evening left. On a few occasions when I appealed for extra chorus because we were low on numbers, people responded immediately.

So who gained from this?

I think that the company Opera Mint will be stronger than ever for this experience. Everyone was totally supportive and looked after everyone else. It is obvious from the performances that everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The use that Dafydd made of the chorus plus the multi-casting made sure that every performance was different and there were funny and moving moments in all of them. We also took on more than ever before in terms of the number of performances and the difficulty in selling tickets for all those dates, and in terms of the publicity that was required. I think that we got a lot of that right and have learned valuable lessons of the future.

And the audience loved it. I was stopped in Ikea by a lady who had seen our Amahl and had been part of a production that the Sherman Theatre did in the 70′s. She thought that our production was wonderful and could not understand why it had taken that long for the opera to be performed again. Sally told me that someone in the audience told her that this was “The best kept secret in opera”. One of my colleagues from the Job Centre rushed off after the performance before I had a chance to speak to him as he was about to cry! In fact there was a lot of sniffing from the audience every night so we must have been doing something right.

I hope that Dafydd found this production a thoroughly rewarding experience – he has already indicated that he would be prepared to do Amahl again. He had the challenge of working with multi-casting and 12 performances and with a different combination of people for each and, of course, with the three boys. I think that all of this presented useful new challenges for him and, wherever his career takes him, I doubt that he will ever forget his creation of Barbara’s role as the Virgin Mary. He has already said during the radio interview that he loved the energy that the boys brought to the performances and that he loved working with them. He certainly could not have given more to Opera Mint in terms of time and commitment – I have never seen anyone work so hard.

Cameron, Evan and James grew in confidence before our eyes. I found the relationship between Amahl and the Mothers at the end of the opera the most moving part, but this had come a long way from Dafydd’s original warning to the boys – “Brace yourself – hug coming”.

Right from the start they presented three very different Amahls. James was extremely musical and confident but had not acted before. Evan was probably the most experienced actor but, as the oldest, was a bit concerted about his top notes. I think this actually gave him a vulnerability that was perfect for Amahl – my friend in the audience commented that when he was cured of his lameness it was as if his voice took on a stronger quality as though it too had been healed. Cameron was the youngest by two years and watching his confidence grow was a joy. Like everyone else, the boys worked as a team and helped each other. I don’t think there was rivalry in terms of wanting to be better than anyone else, but I definitely think that no one wanted to let the others down. And the reward was to see their performances – all their school friends who came to see then, James filling several rows with his proud family, Cameron taking everything up several notches when his Dad was in the audience and choosing his reserved seat with great care, and pointing out that he had better not put him in the front row as he was tall and would block the view of the people behind, and Evan, who spoke of his Nan on the radio interview and glowed with pride as he settled her into the audience.

And we gained new friends. The partnership with Sally and the Tabernacle has been very rewarding and Sally has become a firm friend. We learned to appreciate each other’s needs and differences. Some of Opera Mint went to watch the Nativity, I read at the Tabernacle carol service, some of the Nativity actors came to see Amahl and were very moved and understood what all the exra work for all of us had been about. We helped each other to clear up and what could have been a very difficult sharing of space became a way of making new friends.

The boys’ teacher at the Cathedral school could not have been more supportive or more delighted with the results. She came to three performances to see each of the boys, bringing pupils with her each time, and stopped me as I rushed around Marks and Spencer to say how thrilled she had been with the whole production.

Sian Davies was with us again and loving it. Far from being overburdened with the number of performances, she told me that she could not wait to get there every time and absolutely loved it. She also confessed to being moved every time and having to wipe a way a tear most nights. She said that she has loved working with Ben and they have made a great team. They both made themselves available for more performances than they originally agreed to once they became involved in the whole process. Ben has been a rock and remained completely unflappable. Sian already wants to know what we are doing next.

And this has been good for our new members, who did most of the performances. Two of them were even persuaded to take on the role of the Page and we watched them all grow in confidence each night. The three pages went hill walking one day which, with hindsight, probably should not have been allowed in case they damaged themselves and we were Pageless!

For myself, I have loved every minute. The relationship between the Mother and Amahl really moved me – I found the earlier scenes where the Mother is being very hard on Amahl really difficult. All they boys were a joy to sing with and, I think, made my performances better – I did not have to worry about trying to act for most of it as I was genuinely moved. I had a lump in my throat for every performance whether singing the Mother or watching Gail and Angela. The part where Amahl jumps to defend his mother got to me every time. I could not help contrasting this to Queen of the Night – also a troubled mother, but what a difference! I also loved the challenge of singing lower than I usually do – but how much easier to find the emotion required for the Mother in this range. I loved learning the role with Gail and Angela and the boys.

I have been working in the prison where there is not much cause to hope. Many of the people that I meet there have never achieved anything in their lives and are without dreams for the future. It did me good to be around Cameron, Evan and James for a while as they were a reminder that there are young people out there with talent and charm and the ability to achieve wonderful things. Admittedly they are lucky in that they have loving and supportive parents and a good school, but they are making the most of everything and are absolutely delightful boys as well. None of them had ever sung opera before but they loved this experience, and if we have encouraged them to want to be our opera singers of the future, what a result! And, perhaps most important of all, Amahl got me through Christmas! I always find it a difficult time of year, but I had no chance to moan. And it was a reminder of what Christmas should be about and I love that it happened right outside one of the biggest shopping centres in the country.

We do not have a professional photographic record of Amahl this time as our usual photographer was ill and there was little opportunity to take formal shots (although Ben’s father has taken some, so fingers crossed). I did however, take some informal shots, mostly backstage. One thing that stands out in all of these is how happy everyone looks and how the boys look as much a part of Opera Mint as everyone else. Maybe these are a more fitting memory of this experience?

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