It is hard to imagine a world in which there were only a few television stations to choose for your at-home entertainment. Harder still to imagine one of those stations commissioning a living American composer to write an opera to be premiered and performed live on national television on Christmas Eve. Yet, such was the case for the Italian-American composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, and his opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
For the debut broadcast of NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame Holiday Special, Menotti was asked by Peter Herman Adler, the director of NBC’s newly formed NBC Opera Theater (yes, NBC had an opera theater company) to write an opera written specifically for television, and for an American audience. Menotti took his inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi that still hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As the date of the broadcast neared, Menotti had yet to finish the score and the singers learned the music peacemeal, as Menotti sent the final passages of the opera just days before the premiere. Menotti’s partner, the composer Samuel Barber was brought in to orchestrate the music and the conductor was the young and esteemed Thomas Schippers.
On December 24, 1951, on NBC, a nationwide primetime viewing audience of approximately 5 million people watched the premiere of Amahl and the Night Visitors on 35 affiliate stations coast to coast. It was an enormous success and until 1962, there was a live broadcast on NBC every year and it was the first television special to become an annual holiday tradition, far predating A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).
In the booklet for the original cast recording, Menotti writes —
This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
I actually never met…