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The Enduring Appeal of Holiday Opera `Amahl'

Composer Menotti recounts how a scene in a painting inspired him

GIAN CARLO MENOTTI is giving a Christmas present to the nation's capital this year, a new production of his opera ``Amahl and the Night Visitors,'' which has become a contemporary classic. The new ``Amahl'' is directed by Menotti himself in 18 performances at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, beginning today and continuing through Dec. 17. The production is designed by Zack Brown.

Backstage at the Eisenhower, Mr. Menotti talks about what it is that brings people back again and again to this 66-minute opera, commissioned by NBC and first telecast on Christmas Eve in 1951.

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``Sometimes I wonder, myself,'' he says. ``If I knew, then maybe I'd be able to write another.''

The work is particularly beloved by children, who have empathy for the poor and lame little boy who is visited by the Three Kings bearing gifts on their way to Bethlehem.

``First of all, I think what I succeeded in doing,'' says Menotti, ``is to portray a little boy who has a sense of humor and was not a goody-goody, so that he also appeals to children who are a little bit rascals.'' Menotti notes that Amahl is a show-off, ``and that appeals to children. They see themselves. And then, of course, it appeals to mothers, because your children are never quite what you want them to be. [And] you have a mother who has a crippled child; so it inspires compassion in people.''

Crucial to ``Amahl,'' too, ``is the element of faith...,'' Menotti continues. ``In all my operas I've tried to delve into the creative power of faith. I believe that if you believe in something strongly enough, you can make it happen and that, in any case, faith is more productive than unbelief. It you believe in nothing, you will produce nothing.''

Menotti also introduced the element of healing into his opera as a result of an experience from his own childhood. ``That is the element of the miracle,'' he says, ``that fact that, because of the faith, because he believes ... that this [Christ] child is about to cure him, he is cured.'' Menotti says at the age of three he himself was lame. His nanny, a very religious woman, took him to a religious site, where he was blessed. ``And my leg has been fine ever since,'' says Menotti.

It was his own experience that inspired the final scene in this opera, in which the lame Amahl, wanting to send his most precious gift to the Christ child, offers his own crutch, which he made himself. As Amahl lifts the crutch and steps forward to give it to the Kings, he walks for the first time.

A month before the Christmas deadline for the opera NBC had commissioned, Menotti was walking through the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He stopped in front of ``The Adoration of the Kings'' by Hieronymus Bosch and suddenly heard, in his mind's ear, a sound he remembered from childhood. John Ardoin in his book ``The Stages of Menotti'' mentions that moment. He quotes the composer's boyhood memories of trying in vain to stay awake at night for the visit of the Kings who brought the Christmas gifts, and dreaming of that sound. ``I remember hearing them. I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.''

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Menotti is his own librettist for the operas he composes. He is an articulate man who, just before our interview, spoke for nearly an hour on ``Perspectives from an Artist'' at a National Summit Conference on the Arts and Education at Kennedy Center last month.

Born in Cadegliano, Italy, Menotti composed his first opera at 10 and his second at 13, when he entered the Milan Conservatory. He later studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and also in Vienna. His opera ``The Consul'' won a Pulitzer Prize and Drama Critics Award and has been seen in 20 countries. Among his other operas are ``The Telephone,'' ``The Saint of Bleecker Street'' and ``Goya.''

Menotti, who has been composing for 60 years, is a lively-looking man with gray hair, tangled black eyebrows over dark brown eyes, and the comfortably dressed appearance of a country squire. He was well into his second hour of talking, when I asked him how music comes to a composer. Does he occasionally hear a tone, a sound, even a melody whole?

``Sometimes it can happen,'' he admits. ``I was with [composer] Samuel Barber once, walking up in the Tyrol. He had a stick, and there was a gate made of many pieces of wood. He just went like this with the cane [he draws an imaginary cane across boards], and it made a little sound - la la la la la - just like that, and he immediately wrote it down. And then he used it one of his - I think it was his piano concerto. Sometimes it's happened to me, too, that I hear some certain sound. I think of a French writer, Paul Valery, who said that the work of art is never finished but only abandoned.

He also says, ``I often think an artist is like a dowser. You go around with a [dowsing rod] and hope that the thing shakes and that there is water somewhere. But at times you walk and walk, and the thing will never shake. And in a certain sense, when people ask me, what do you look for in your music, I say, `I look for the inevitable.' I think that is the only thing that is important - to find in a sense what's already there. Michelangelo said it's very easy to make the statue: You just take out from the marble what is too much, and there is the statue waiting for you inside it. That's what I'm trying to do find my music in, [something like] the statue inside the marble.''

Menotti, the father of the Spoletto festivals in his native Italy and in Charleston, S.C., is at work on a a new cantata. ``Lament for the Death of Orpheus,'' commissioned by the city of Atlanta, may be performed this spring.

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