Revisiting Amahl, Opera Orlando builds on a new holiday tradition

It’s not a tradition until you do it twice.

Opera Orlando’s season continued this weekend with their second annual production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a Christmas-themed opera by Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The performance at Dr. Phillips Center’s intimate Pugh Theater establishes what the company hopes will become a new holiday tradition in central Florida.

The 1951 opera tells the story of the young boy Amahl, who is disabled and lives in a rich world of his own imagination, fueled by bible stories. Amahl and his mother, herself weary of her son’s exaggerations, are surprised to find that he seems to have imagined into existence the Three Kings of the biblical Christmas story.

Opera Orlando's new 2017 production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors
Opera Orlando’s new 2017 production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Photo by Brion Price.

Though originally set in an earlier time, directors Cara Pfost and Grant Preisser chose to reimagine Amahl and his mother as a small, modern family. The choice to modernize the setting is notable for a production hoping to become a tradition of its own, and I found that it served the performance by making the magi and their coterie seem even more otherworldly by comparison. This impression was even further enhanced by a costume design (by Kim Welborn) that separated Amahl’s black-and-white world from the vivid colors of the Kings stepping out of his imagination. My only concern about the setting is that the family is harder to “read” as poor, a fact which is central to the narrative.

Another staged change to the story was the addition of a small dance ensemble. Three figures seem to surround and support Amahl’s spirit and imagination. The tasteful choreography emphasized the centrality of Amahl as the entry point into the narrative, and had the added benefit of foreshadowing the shepherds dance in the middle of the opera.

Rodrigues, Colsant, and Lovett as the anachronistic magi
Rodrigues, Colsant, and Lovett as the anachronistic magi. Photo by Brion Price.

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Amahl is its local cast. While many productions might fly in flashy out-of-towners, Opera Orlando shows the talented artists here in central Florida. I was particularly impressed by Morgan Davis Peckels as Amahl’s mother. Her voice was full without being aggressive, a delicate balance which was also reflected in her performance of charming warmth and parental authority with Amahl. Another highlight among a stellar cast was eponymous night visitors: the three kings, sung by Peter Rodrigues, Joseph Colsant, and Chevalier Lovett. In some of the more exposed scoring—this performance is accompanied by a small chamber ensemble led by music director Robin Jensen—the three kings’ voices blended beautifully. The ensemble virtuosity of the trio was matched by the three as soloists, as each brought his own amusing levity in solo passages, which highlighted the fantastical absurdity of the narrative.

While Menotti’s Amahl may not achieve the Christmas ubiquity of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, it is exactly the same sort of sweet, welcoming repertoire that is perfect for the holiday. And working with less familiar material, creative productions, and world-class artists, Opera Orlando can find a middle ground between nostalgia and novelty that creates a holiday tradition worth returning to each year.

Kadenze is my new home for learning about creative technology

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made a big splash a few years ago with the launch of Coursera. If you’ve not heard this wacky term, a MOOC is an online course that is usually free or cheap, and involves a nearly unlimited number of students to take a class simultaneously. I’ve read of Coursera courses that have had tens of thousands of students. This creates an active community, and a low-pressure learning environment. Coursera is a platform hosting college courses from major universities on a wide variety of topics.

Kadenze is a relatively new MOOC platform that focuses on creative technology. It was founded in part by professors at California Institute of the Arts and Princeton University (among others) who specialize in computer music. You can audit all of their classes for free, which allows you to watch lecture videos, read course materials, and participate in class discussions. To submit assignments and receive feedback, you can sign up for a premium account at $10/mo.

I’ve audited parts of four or five courses on Kadenze in the last year. The quality of the content and instruction is extremely high, and the topics are right up my alley. One small frustration is that there is no way to watch the videos offline. I often want to watch on my iPad while I’m in low-connectivity areas, and there’s currently no good way to do that.[1] Apart from that minor quibble, my experience has been great, and I would strongly urge anyone who has summer tech learning goals to check out their upcoming offerings, many of which focus on free, open-source software.

  • Introduction to Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists – This is a class by one of Kadenze’s founders, Ajay Kapur, on music programming language ChucK. The videos are a little hokey at times, but it’s a terrific starting class. One of these days, I’ll post a little about a project I’ve been working on in ChucK. It’s not quite ready for primetime just yet.
  • The Nature of Code – Dan Shiffman on creating visual programs in P5.js that mimic natural processes like flocking, schooling, and branching.
  • Programming Max: Structuring Interactive Software for Digital Arts – Not open yet, but I’m all about this. For those on team Pure Data, there’s a PD course scheduled for the end of this year with Sergi Jorda and the Notorious MSP himself.
  • Touring Modernism: From the French avant-garde to American Pop and Beyond – This one is a little bit not like the others, in that it’s a little more theoretical than applied, but the first unit of lecture videos that are available as I write this are stellar! Professor Lisa Wainwright of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago[2] is a really engaging lecturer, and she gets to use examples from right there at the Art Institute!

So if you’re like me and set unreasonable learning goals for the summer time, these courses are worth every penny of either the free or paid tiers. Kadenze is one of those rich resources that makes me want to quit all my jobs and responsibilities and just dive in to learning stuff really deeply and making wild and reckless creative decisions. If you’re making something with what you learn there, please share. I’d love to see.

  1. In fairness, this is not entirely Kadenze’s fault. While they provide the MOOC platform, they don’t own the content. Rather, they license it from the people and institutions who create it. I suppose this arrangement helps keep costs down, but I would definitely pay the $10/mo. if I could watch offline.  ↩
  2. …of Latter Day Saints, I suppose.  ↩