Livermore Valley Opera's "Amahl" promises entertainment,
By Lou Fancher
Livermore Valley Opera first presented the work in 2012 and two performances at the First Presbyterian Church of Livermore on Dec. 13 signal its sophomore return. LVO Artistic Director and Music Conductor Alexander Katsman says he anticipates "Amahl" becoming a Tri-Valley tradition during the holiday season.
"It's one of the best and the most inspired operas of Menotti," he says.
Arguably, the work's most charming features are it's lyrical score, a short running time, a gently humorous, less-verbose-than-most libretto and a surprising applicability to modern times.
"Amahl" is "The Nutcracker," another perennial favorite, turned on its head. Where Nutcracker's dancers and Tchaikovsky's well-known score pirouette around a child's idolization of a toy (commercialism made balletic and heroic), Menotti's text tells the story (spoiler alert) of a boy who has one precious possession and gives it away. Imagine the impact of a 21st century child voluntarily giving up a cell phone and understand the power of the piece.
Amahl and his mother once had a flock of sheep, but have had to sell them. They are reliant on begging: Amahl's disabled leg and dependence on a crutch helps plead their case and fill their beggars' cups. Despite their destitution, Amahl's spirit is effusive. He's a dreamer, a seer of a star "as big as a window," a boy whose crutch becomes a mighty oar, providing social connection, movement, empowerment. His mother is beaten down by worry and often dismisses her son's exclamations of miracles -- until The Magi, three wise kings bearing gifts for the Christ child in Bethlehem, knock on the door of their meager hut, asking to spend the night.
During the night, Amahl's mother imagines how much "all that gold" could do for her child and steals one small coin. She is caught, defended by Amahl and forgiven by the kings. As they prepare to leave, Amahl gives the kings the only gift he can offer, his crutch. Expecting nothing in return, his leg is healed.
Menotti wrote the libretto after his memories of childhood were triggered by a painting, Hieronymus Bosch's "Adoration of the Kings," and an imagined, haunting song. The song reminded him of the Three Wise Kings: in Italy, where he grew up, they bring gifts for children much like Santa Claus in the United States.
Katsman says the role of Amahl is considered one of the most demanding for boy sopranos because of its length, range and the acting ability it requires. Daniel Ostrom, 12, in the seventh grade at Holmes Junior High School in Davis, sings with the San Francisco Boys Chorus and will play Amahl. He performed the opera last year with the Monterey Symphony, appearing with Michelle Rice, the mother in the LVO production.
"Daniel has a beautiful boy-soprano voice," Katsman says. "His voice range to perform this opera has to be around two octaves."
Daniel says "Don't You Dare" is syncopated, odd, and the hardest song to sing. Performing with Rice last year, he learned to sing out, to find a better tone by projecting from his back and chest.
"She's encouraging," he says, "and fun." The message of Amahl, he says, is special.
"It teaches people that if you are kind and if you are giving and not self-centered, good things will happen to you."
Daniel began singing in a church choir at age six. Auditioning for the boys chorus on a lark, he joined at age nine and says classical, baroque and contemporary music are his favorites. For listening, he likes The Beatles, adding classic rock to his playlist.
"When I'm singing," he says, "it's an escape from everything around me. I become the character and everything else is blocked out. When I sing, I just feel happy."