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January 13, 2013

A little night music

‘Amahl’ promises emotional experience

SHARPSVILLE — Amahl’s mother is tempted.

The three wise men are staying at her home near Bethlehem for the night, and she knows they have gold with them.

Her son is crippled and she fears he will have to turn to begging to survive. Played by Roxanne Chapman, the mother intones, “for my child” repeatedly to try to justify stealing the precious gift.

A king’s page (played by Mark Nelson) sees her and yells, “Thief.” The wise men are roused by the commotion and scold her. “Shame,” they sing.

Edgar Groves, musical director for Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” stops the action. He tells the kings to add a syllable to “shame,” and to make the second syllable a higher note. “Sha-MA,” he says is how he wants it.

The cast runs through the scene again, and it continues with the page and the wise men alternating commands to Amahl’s mother to “give it back.”

Groves stops them again. He tells the wise men - bass Alan Anderson, baritone Tom Kelso and tenor James Kerr - to enunciate the words more clearly and to make sure the “k” in “back” is heard.

“This is very difficult, musically,” explains Dr. Francisco Cano of Valley Lyric Opera, which is staging “Amahl” with Area Community Theatre of Sharpsville.

Groves leads the singers through the scene again, animatedly pounding out the beat with his foot and baton. And again. Several times, in fact, before he is satisfied.

Cano, seated across the room, voices his agreement.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” is an opera and, while it originally was shown on television, is written in English and was called a children’s opera by the composer, there’s nothing dumbed down about it.

“Metrically and harmonically it’s not really what we’re used to singing,” said Anderson of Mercer, who plays Balthazar, and comes to the show with experience with the Shenango Valley Chorale, Valley Lyric Opera and Greenville Area Community Theatre.

Chapman said the opera is somehow not modern but not traditional.

“There are a lot of areas where you feel you’re pulling your part out of the air,” Chapman said. “There’s not a lot of help from the accompaniment.”

Nelson, of Sharpsville, has to sing consistently at the top of his baritone range, sometimes traversing competing 4/4 and 5/4 meters.

“That’s opera,” Nelson said. “That’s what’s to be expected.”

To top it off, they don’t even have a month of rehearsals to pull it all together.

That’s community theater, to rephrase Nelson’s sentiment.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” was commissioned by NBC and first performed in 1951. It tells the story of the three wise men on their way to visit the infant Jesus. They stop off at Amahl’s house for a night’s rest. Amahl is a crippled boy who undergoes a miracle during the stay and is allowed to accompany the magi to seek the Christ child.

In many communities, a staging of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is as traditional as runs of “Nutcracker” or “A Christmas Carol,” and the organizers hope that the Jan. 18-20 shows will be only the first of what will become an annual seasonal staple in the Shenango Valley.

“This is one I always wanted to do and Ed always wanted to do,” said Cano, who owns the venue where it will be staged, the Pierce Opera House in Sharpsville. “I mentioned it independently of him and he mentioned it independently of me and Sue (Piccirilli) put it together.”

Amahl is supposed to be played by a boy soprano, but organizers were not able to find a boy singer who could handle the part. They violated Menotti’s cardinal rule by casting Marie Lineman, a 16-year-old Greenville girl, as Amahl, but Cano has no regrets about the choice.

“She’s silk,” he said. “Very natural talent, very natural voice.”

Although she is younger than any of the other singers, Marie’s performance resume is no less impressive than anyone else in the cast. She played in “Hansel and Gretel” with Valley Lyric Opera and a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue with ACTS, appeared with the French Creek Theatre in Meadville and New Castle Playhouse, and sang the role of Sandy in Greenville High School’s production of “Grease.”

Oh, and she sings with the Shenango Valley Chorale - directed by Groves - and her school choir.

Working with adults in “Amahl,” more is expected of her, Marie said, and she has to work harder to reach that level of expectation.

“It’s a lot more difficult but everyone’s really nice,” Marie said. “It’s really a lot of fun. You learn more with an experienced cast.”

“Mr. Groves is really picky, but in a good way, of course,” Marie added.

Chapman, of Greenville, described the rehearsals as “really intense” because of the small window of time in which to get the show staged. At this point, they hadn’t even worked with stage director Sam Perry.

Fortunately, the cast members are easy to work with and are committed to putting on what she thinks will be a “great, great show,” Chapman said.

“The voices that (Groves) chose just blend really well,” said James Kerr of West Middlesex, who plays Kasper.

Nelson said “Amahl” probably is a good introduction to opera because it is a shorter piece, and is sung in English.

“It will appeal to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s English so you won’t have to read subtitles or learn a foreign language.”

Although some of the chorus parts have become choral music staples, it’s unlikely audience members will walk out of the opera house humming any of the tunes, said Kelso of Mercer, who plays Melchior.

“It’s an emotional piece,” Kelso said. “If you have any musical background at all, I don’t think you can hear it and not be affected.”

Show times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Pierce Opera House, 100 N. Mercer Ave., Sharpsville. Reservations can be made by calling 724-815-4388 and tickets are available at Muscarella’s, Sharpsville. Info: www.actsharpsville.org

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