Sunday, December 06, 2009

Children's Book Monday

I'm ten again, lying on my tummy with the insert of an LP open in front of me on the floor... music spills out of the record player, the words swirl and dance and tears fill my eyes and roll down my cheeks...

Amahl and the Night Visitors
from the opera written by Gian-Carlo Menotti
exact dialogue written into narrative form by Frances Frost
illustrated by Roger Duvoisin

Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors (sound recording)

Even then, at the tender age of ten years old, the words and music of this beautiful Christmas-time opera moved me with all of the emotions my little heart could handle.

Fear. Sorrow. Poverty. Faith. Joy. Generosity.

Amahl, a young crippled shepherd boy, lives with his mother in a middle eastern village. Though they are so poor that the flock of sheep he used to shepherd have been sold, he still sits outside their cottage and plays his pipe to the stars, watching with interest as a new, brighter star has taken its place in the heavens.

Late one night, as Amahl and his mother have gone to bed without supper, without a fire to keep them warm, they are visited by three kings who are in need of a place to rest. Though they haven't anything to offer but a clean, dry floor, Amahl and his mother become unlikely hosts to these wealthy men, and soon learn where they are headed.

Have you seen a child
the color of earth, the color of thorn?
His eyes are sad,
His hands are those of the poor,
as poor He was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold
we bring to His side,
and the eastern star is our guide.

And Amahl's mother answers:

Yes, I know a child
the color of earth, the color of thorn.
His eyes are sad, his hands are those of the poor,
as poor he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or gold,
though sick and poor and hungry and cold.
He's my child, my son, my darling, my own.

[ten-year-old Elise and thirty-two-year-old Elise begin weeping]

Friends and neighbors (shepherds and shepherdesses) bring food from their bounty and share with the visitors, and after a time of dancing and fellowship, all settle in to sleep. And Amahl's mother begins to battle the temptation to take something from these wealthy kings, so that she can feed her only son.

The music- the music!- oh, it is impossible to describe. I know every word, every note, and am still moved to tears as well as great joy. The notes are playful when Amahl plays his pipe, even after his mother has called him three times. One can perfectly picture his crippled walk, because the music plays out a rhythm- step, hop, step, hop- as he makes his way to the door. The kings sing from afar, their voices deep and haunting:

From far away we come,
and farther we must go!
How far?
How far?
My crystal star!

The king who always gets a laugh is hard-of-hearing Kaspar, who, along with an Eh? here and there, has a special box he sings about to Amahl, telling him what lies in each drawer... and the most precious? Licorice! Licorice! Black sweet licorice, black sweet licorice! Have some!

A Christmas miracles lies at the end of this beautiful opera, which cannot be read without being listened to at the same time- I highly recommend keeping the opera in your Christmas box, along with the book, to be rediscovered (with joy!) every year. (Click on the link and scroll down- you may listen to samples of nearly every piece!)

Even the youngest child will find delight in the music- and the story only gets richer as they begin to understand it more and more.

Happy reading - and listening! And tears. Lots of tears.

(My mama just sent me a link to the 1951 performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors- if you scroll to about twenty-one minutes, you will hear the song "Have You Seen a Child?" Or just watch and listen all the way through... beautiful.)

2 fellow travelers shared:

Ellen said...

Hi! I have been following you for a bit, and I enjoy your children's book entries especially. Just thought I'd tell you that I was in Ahmahl and the Night Visitors as a child growing up near UNC-G. There is a chorus, and they needed some kid's voices. My mom was an opera singer, and I was in a kid's choir that the music school recruited from, so there ya go. It was a wonderful experience, and when I read the words, I still hear the music in my head. Thanks for giving me a link to it all. =)

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic! What wonderful things you experienced as a child. So I assume that you recommend both the book and the CD of the opera (or the online streaming version of the audio)? Thank you. Mary Brooke

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