Amahl and the Night Visitors
The story of Amahl and the Night Visitors held a unique place in my childhood. Raised with television, and the nascent slew of 1960s holiday television specials, I was used to the bright colors and cue-the-commercial rhythms of what passed for holiday entertainment in our semi-secular-cum-neo-Judeo/Christian culture.
In the early 1970s I was exposed to something different: a Christmas story (the version I saw of Amahl and the Night Visitors aired on KCET, our local public broadcasting station) with darker hues and more plaintive cries, sung in an operatic fashion that I had not before witnessed. That production was in color, but muted colors at that, and if memory serves seemed to air later in the evening, after the jingles and Rudolph's had all gone to bed. The sets weren't fancy, there were no special effects, and what laughs were there to be found had to do with one special box a wise man sang about, and a hidden treasure of delicious licorice.
I loved and still love this story and its simple production values and themes. A crippled boy who tells tall tales, a mother who risks terrible punishment to provide for her son, and the wise men who spend the night, having followed a star that burned so bright in the sky it was seen as a beacon. This opera, written directly for television, first aired on Christmas Eve in 1951 (black & white version, natch) and was written by Gian Carlo Menotti, who appears in this YouTube video, speaking about his creation. It is just over fifty-four minutes in length, and should you choose to take a look I recommend the use of speakers.