Amahl & The Night Visitors at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen

On Site Opera ‘s (OSO) mission is to explore new technology in opera. To that end, they held a preview performance of Amahl & the Night Visitors on Tuesday, December 4th at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, the largest soup kitchen in the city since 1982. They are working with Breaking Ground who is New York’s largest supportive housing provider to help people overcome and avoid homelessness. Some in the cast were homeless or had been homeless and given new life by The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and we are thankful for that assistance in their lives.  

Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti

Amahl and the Night Visitors was composed in 1951 by the Italian (later American composer) Gian-Carlo Menotti (July 11, 1911- February 1, 2007) for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television. Menotti could not think of what he wanted to write until he saw the Hieronymus Bosch painting of The Adoration of the Magi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He recalled his boyhood in Italy when he and his brother would await the gifts left by the three Kings. Arturo Toscanini, the great conductor and head of the NBC Symphony, after attending the dress rehearsal, told Menotti tearfully, “this is your finest work.” The initial telecast on Christmas Eve in 1951, drew an audience of millions and became an annual presentation for years. NBC head General David Sarnoff wanted to bring culture to the television viewing public and also formed the NBC Opera Company which showed opera on television and toured the country as well. Today, this masterpiece is rarely presented despite the strong audience reception in the past. Amahl & The Night Visitors was a wonderful presentation at of The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen’s splendid “opera free for all” initiative program. 

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Amahl is a poor crippled boy who lives in a village with his widowed Mother. He is playing his shepherd’s pipe as the opening theme while his Mother is calling him to come home. Taking his time to respond to her, he tells his Mother of a star with a tail in the sky. She doesn’t believe him because he is always telling fibs. As they get ready for bed, there suddenly is a knock on the door and when Amahl opens it, he tells his disbelieving Mother that there is a king. She chastises him for telling lies and future knocks show two kings. When his Mother opens the door, “it is Three Kings” and Amahl exclaimed, “and one of them is black.” The Three Kings are looking for a place to rest for the night for they are seeking a Child who will be a Savior to the world. The Mother sends Amahl to bring the villagers with food and even dance for their royal visitors. Amahl’s Mother, thinking only of her own child and their poverty, attempts to steal some of the Kings’ money. She is caught by the Page and Amahl fiercely defends her. The Kings tell her that the Child they seek will not need their gold. His life will be based on love. The Kings tell her to keep the money but the mother returns it. Amahl offers his cane as a gift to the Child and at that moment, a miracle occurs and Amahl walks unaided. He asks if he could accompany the Kings on their journey to the Child and his Mother gives permission. The final scene is of young Amahl joining the Kings as his Mother waves goodbye to the strains of the shepherd’s pipe opening theme.

I am an opera purist and do not like “updating” or modernizing opera or changing the format. This production was an exception. There were two Amahl’s who both sang successfully on different days. One was Devin Zamir Coleman and the other that we viewed was Luciano Pantano.

In the spirit of giving, in the spirit of compassion, Menotti’s magnificent mini masterpiece bloomed anew and showed a layer of the Christmas spirit previously felt but rarely seen. Eric Einhorn, the stage director, gave us a performance that moved us with the great melodic output of the composer, retained the storyline but gave it a reality and embellished the spirit of charity so dear to the season. Conductor Geoffrey McDonald, led the 20 or so superb musicians in a performance of stirring reality and mirthful abandon. 

Aundi Marie Moore, (Mother),  Luciano Pantano (Amahl)
Photo by Marcello Pantano

Amahl was brilliantly portrayed by Luciano Pantano whose powerful and expressive treble voice echoed throughout the auditorium. Young Luciano sang the song of the sheep, “I was a Shepherd” with poignant tenderness. His blending with his Mother, soprano Aundi Marie Moore showed the love they shared despite his constant “fibs” that soon became true.

Ms. Moore’s frustration at being poor with a crippled child was keenly felt. Amahl sings “Don’t Cry Mother Dear,” when she suggests they go begging so they can get some food to eat. Her Puccini-like singing of “Do they know …All that gold” was one of the amazing highlights of this magical evening. Ms. Moore’s radiant and powerful soprano was always tapered to accommodate her partner (son) Amahl so that both voices blended and resonated evenly. “I will miss you very much” was so beautifully presented at the end.

Joseph Gaines was a colorful, and lovable King Kaspar and his singing of the iconic “This is my box” was amusing. His tenor was expressive and often rhapsodic. His happy cries of “lovely, lovely, lovely,” still echo in memory.

Daniel Belcher’s robust baritone made him a miraculous irascible King Melchior and his shredded strands of colored costume a bit of a roustabout. He occasionally sat in the audience and always created a bit of a stir with his quizzical antics.

Musa Ngqungwana was a strong King Balthazar and one always felt that his deep rich basso was assurance that all would be well. His magnificent vocal blend with his two royal friends on their mission to find the child who will redeem the world in, “Have you seen a child?” was glorious. He wore dungarees as part of his costume. The three “Kings” had an aura of being homeless as well. Some of their “gifts” were cans of beans and peas, old newspaper shreds and even Kaspar’s parrot was a newspaper picture of one. Each homeless looking King carried themselves with a sense of strength and persistent dignity.

Jessica Jahn’s costumes were colorful and truthful, each one summarizing the character of good people gone astray by circumstance but showing joy and big bigheartedness.

The peasants and villagers excellent dancing was arranged by choreographer Winston A. Benons, Jr. He put exceptional zest and flair in the dancing. It was nice to chat with Winston and Omari Contasté one of his stellar dancers.

One of the most touching moments was when Amahl (Luciano Pantano) asked King Kaspar, “amongst your magic stones in your box, is there one that could cure a crippled boy?” Kaspar who was very deaf replies,”eh?” and dejected Amahl said, “Never mind.” This was very poignantly done. When Amahl’s Mother sings, “All that gold,” and “For my child,  and is caught stealing some of the gold and cash by the King’s Page, security guard Jonathan R. Green, his soaring cries of “thief, thief” had us jumping in our seats. Amahl fiercely defends his Mother, threatening to beat him. The page was dressed in a modern Security guard outfit and of course, being a large adult, overwhelmed young Amahl but kept him at bay.  

Eric Einhorn Stage Director with cast of Amahl
Photo by Marcello Pantano

When the “Kings” forgive Amahl’s Mother and sing of the Child again, she gives the money back and Amahl offers his “walking cane” in case the child might need one. Amahl discovers at that moment, that he is walking like a normal child. All the Kings marvel and ask if they could touch him which he allows. Reluctantly Amahl lets the Security guard touch him, “but only once!”

All ends happily with a loving duet between mother and child and with the familiar shepherds pipe echoing Amahl’s opening theme. The three Kings leave for their journey to the Child as Amahl’s Mother waves goodbye to the familiar and friendly shepherds pipe theme.

The chorus sang wondrously, the dancers were seemingly energizer batteries in their enthusiasm. Shawn K. Kaufman’s lighting design was vital, Gabrielle Vincent’s hair and makeup design was clever and kudos to choral director Michael A. Ciavaglia. The chorus singing of the Shepherds’ song (Emily, Emily, Michael, Bartholomew) was delightful. My wife Judy sang this at Santa Monica City College in their choir when Amahl and the Night Visitors was fairly new.

The applause and cheers was a strong testament to Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Christmas masterpiece changed, yet powerfully unchanged, in its message of peace and kindness and generosity especially at Christmastime.

Luciano had his talented musical family there. Mother Tanya, Dad Marcello, sister Leeza, grandparents Nikolay, Lubov, Nino, and Judy. Our guest was opera lecturer Lou Barrella who was profoundly moved as we all were. This was an Amahl to savor and keep in one’s heart. 

Joseph Gaines (Kaspar), Claudia Dumschat, Tatyana Pantano, Nikolay Klitsenko, Luciano Pantano (Amahl) Leeza Pantano, Winston A. Benons, Jr. (Choreographer) 
Photo by Marcello Pantano

It was nice to see Dr. Claudia Dumschat, Music Director from The Church of the Transfiguration aka “The Little Church around the Corner” where Luciano Pantano sang his first Amahl.

Tonight’s performance tells me that there is a future for Luciano Pantano in opera or theatre. His Italian, Russian and Jewish background are all combined from Tchaikovsky and Pushkin, Verdi and Puccini, Bernstein and Berlin to demonstrate the joys of art and music.

Menotti smiled in his heavenly realm. Judy and I met him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and again at Avery Fischer Hall at performances of Amahl back in the 1980s. 

Marcello, Nino & Judy Pantano with Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti at Brooklyn Academy of Music – 1984

We thank On Site Opera, Breaking Ground and the people in need that it helped and The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen for keeping this great opera shining in our hearts this Christmas of 2018.

The Gerda Lissner Foundation Holds Holiday Celebration

Midge Woolsey & Stephen De Maio Photo by Judy Pantano

The Gerda Lissner Foundation held its Holiday Celebration at the Liederkranz Foundation in New York City on the afternoon of Sunday, December 2nd. The decorations, Christmas trees, and general decor made all feel the irresistible holiday spirit.The damp, mild rainy weather was banished by the good cheer that permeated the concert room. Gerda Lissner President, the much loved Stephen De Maio returned to the helm and spoke of guests from Sweden and China. He thanked his Board members and trustees; Michael Fornabaio, Karl Michaelis, Barbara Ann Testa, and Cornelia “Conny” Beigel.

Mr. De Maio noted the lucky presence of the accompanist from the Metropolitan Opera, Jonathan Kelly, recognized Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Pfeifer, great supporters of the Gerda Lissner Foundation and introduced our host for the concert, the affable and radiant Midge Woolsey, famous fundraiser and host of PBS. 

Ms. Woolsey spoke of the powerful words of author Rene Brown about the importance of vulnerability being the trigger of creativity. When singers put themselves “out there,” they are vulnerable to the caprices of vocal sniffles and audience caprice.

Pianist Johnathan Kelly with singers Piotr Buszewski, Xiaomeng Zhang, Pascale Spinney, Sonja Krenek & Meryl Dominguez.  Photo by Judy Pantano

During a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall many years ago, I took some friends backstage and the great Pavarotti came out. He immediately saw my daughter-in-law Bernadette was not smiling. He went up to her and said, “Maybe you no like a my performance?” No? Maybe you no like-a MEEEE!?” She again shyly nodded her denial! When it was picture time he shouted, “find that girl, find that girl!” and proceeded to take a picture with her and himself together. She was then smiling broadly.  My sons James and Marcello were amazed and amused! Then we all posed for a photo with the now happy Luciano Pavarotti!

That is the vulnerability of all artists. They should care about each and every member of the audience. Poor Bernadette, she was just shy! She never knew about how much they care. She does now and always smiles at the memory. 

Ms. Woolsey gave a brief analysis of the scene from La bohème and soprano Sonja Krenek sang “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La bohème which premiered in 1896 with the then 28-year-old conductor, Arturo Toscanini. Ms. Krenek is the possessor of a dark impassioned soprano that was both touching and humble. She diminished some tones effectively and moved us all as Puccini would have wished. Her encore was “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam which is one of my favorites.  

Robert Steiner, Jane Shaulis, Faith Pleasanton,Murray Rosenthal, Nino Pantano & Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

I remember tenor Frank Parker singing it on an Arthur Godfrey’s Christmas Album in the 1950’s. Parker, a TV favorite”Irish tenor” on the Arthur Godfrey show was Italian. It is the only Christmas song recorded by Enrico Caruso. His 1916 recording in French will give you chills. Ms. Krenek sang it with passion and soul and I have to say, like Bob Hope, “Thanks for the Memories.” Her beautiful red dress made me think of my beloved Sicilian Grandmother Rosalia who always wore red for Christmas Eve.  

Next Piotr Buszewski who sang “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Mr. Buszewski sang in a radiant, clear and flexible tenor with an exciting cadenza, pleasing diminuendos, and a resounding “pen sier” finale. He is a slender, youthful Duke and an irresistible tenor. His white and black jacket made him an updated 20th century Cavalier. His encore “Bóg sic Rodzi” (God is born) by Franciszek Karpinski, was a Polish Christmas offering. Pope John Paul II, I am certain, is watching from above and smiling proudly.
Soprano Meryl Dominguez sang the rhapsodic “Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine. Ms. Dominguez has a very imposing beautifully colored voice with precision and seemingly endless high notes that soared and took us to the endless corridors of romantic love that existed in Doretta’s vulnerable heart. Her encore was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” with the opening verse sung in a rich and evocative loving tone with a golden thread of longing. 

Glenn Morton Maestro Eve Queler, Deborah Surdi &
Michael Fornabaio  Photo by Judy Pantano

Pascal Spinney, mezzo soprano sang “La Séguedille” from Bizet’s Carmen. Not since American soprano and silent film star Geraldine Farrar whose 1915 film (Cecil B. DeMille) Carmen was sensuality itself, have I seen so strong a presence of Tyrannosaurus Carmencita-a real man-eater who makes mush of poor Don Jose. Ms. Spinney who is also a dance award recipient was able to illustrate enough sex appeal and sing it with lusty luscious abandon. It’s like Carmen could not help how she felt. All she needed was a pet praying mantis. Her final note strongly hit and flamboyantly tossed away was evocative of Don Jose’s fate. Ms. Spinney’s delightful encore was “Santa Baby” written by by Joan Javits and Philip Springer (Joan is a relative of former Senator Jacob Javits) My wife Judy and I saw Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby” in Tivoli Gardens in Denmark circa 1966 and this performance really brought it back in full vibrant force. Santa come down the chimney tonight! Brava! 

Jane Shaulis, Arthur “Trace” Stout, Susan Stout &
Joseph Gasperec.  Photo by Judy Pantano

When I saw the dazzling pianist Jonathan Kelly playing this number, I felt like I was watching Cole Porter and soprano Rosa Ponselle at some fabulous 1930’s Christmas gathering.

Baritone Xiaomeng Zhang, sang “Onegin’s aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. His large vibrant baritone and excellent Russian diction showed the palette of vocal wonders that lay ahead for this outstanding singer. The combative nature of Onegin was expressed in a reflective way that did not demonize him. Bursts of power flooded the room in this display of what should be a very strong interpreter of this role. Mr. Zhang then sang “Over the Snow for Wintersweet Flowers,” a Chinese winter song by Xuean Liu that was sung with tender abandon. With the recent passing of the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky, we feel the blessings from Opera Heaven with Dmitri nudging and encouraging future singers of Eugene Onegin. I am certain he smiled and gave Xiaomeng Zhang a nod and a blessing. 

Nino Pantano, Takaoki Onishi & Barbara Ann Testa
Photo by Judy Pantano

The singers received much applause and bravos and piano virtuoso accompanist Jonathan Kelly also received much applause for his pianistic accompaniment which was perfection itself! Midge Woolsey’s enthusiasm and love of her subject made us all privy to something precious. 

When the concert was over, we went to the dining room for a superb Filet Mignon dinner. It was nice to see so many friends and Ken Benson opera manager with baritone Takaoki Onishi who just won the Dmitri Hvorostovsky prize. “Lissnerites” enjoying this special tribute to a wonderful Yuletide, Hannukah and New Year!  

Philipp Haberbauer, Louise Simmons & Robert Funck
Photo by Judy Pantano

We thank Midge Woolsey, Stephen De Maio and his sister esteemed New Jersey educator Marie, Michael Fornabaio, Barbara Ann Testa, Karl Michaelis, Cornelia “Conny” Beigel. Philipp Haberbauer, the General Manager at The Liederkranz Foundation did a marvelous job of making us all feel welcome. 

Stephen De Maio & sister Marie De Maio &

Karl Michaelis Photo by Judy Pantano