The costumes fill two racks in her office, and the posters and programs for the opera are going through their final proofing stages. This, says Kristine Hurst-Wajszczuk, is the final push.
“This part — the labor and childbirth—is less fun for me, I’ll admit,” the UAB opera director concedes. “Rehearsing the music and the drama is what fulfills me.”
|Kristine Hurst-Wajszczuk is directing the famous Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for performance in Hulsey Music Hall later this month. “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” the first opera ever written exclusively for television, is the most frequently performed English-language opera in North America.
Those rehearsals are in the final stages as Hurst-Wajszczuk and the Department of Music ready the famous Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for performance in Hulsey Music Hall later this month. She is directing the 45-minute opera made famous when it aired December 24, 1951, on NBC as the first opera ever written exclusively for television.
Today, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is the most frequently performed English-language opera in North America, staged during the Christmas season throughout the world by countless amateur and professional opera companies.
“This piece is so special,” Hurst-Wajszczuk says. “A great deal of our lives revolve around church here and I felt that ‘Amahl’ would be wonderful outreach for both children and adults. It’s an opera that’s truly accessible to anybody. It’s a great introduction for anyone who has no experience with opera because it’s short, funny, and touching. The music is accessible with beautiful, memorable tunes. Hearing the Christmas story told from a different vantage point brings it alive to many of us.”
Tall tales of Amahl
Children often amaze adults with the stories — or lies — they tell. Amahl is no different. The shepherd boy always is telling his widowed mother tall tales, much to her exasperation. So it’s no surprise she is angered by Amahl’s latest story — an enormous star in the sky, bigger than any they have ever seen. His mother, used to his habitual lying, becomes even angrier with him when he tells her that a knock at the door is actually three kings visiting.
“Amahl is an endearing figure,” Hurst-Wajszczuk says. “There’s a poignant moment where his mother is saying, ‘When will you ever stop telling lies? Our life is difficult as it is. I’m a widow and can’t afford to feed you. Why are you making this so hard on me?’
“She’s frustrated and fears they will have to go begging because they don’t have any money for food. And Amahl, being the wonderful kid he is, comforts his weeping mother by saying, ‘Don’t worry. If we must go begging, I’ll be a great beggar.’ Then he tells this story about how much fun it’s going to be and how he’ll dance and shout, and she’ll sing so loudly people will throw money at them just to make them go away. Even in the face of awful prospects from his mom’s point of view he sees it as a great adventure.”
Hurst-Wajszczuk first saw “Amahl and the Night Visitors” as a freshman in college at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. The opera was an annual tradition at the school.
“In a lot of ways I feel like I grew up musically with Amahl,” Hurst-Wajszczuk says. “I was a freshman in college the first time I saw it, and I wept like a baby. I still cry every time I see it. It has a very special place in my heart.”
UAB Department of Music Chair Jeff Reynolds, D.M.A., suggested to Hurst-Wajszczuk that they look into doing a touring production of the opera every other year, and she was excited about the prospects of bringing “Amahl” to life in Birmingham.
Worked with Menotti
The opera’s composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-born composer, wrote more than two dozen operas and won the Pulitzer Prize for two of his works.
Hurst-Wajszczuk had the opportunity to work with Menotti for four summers early in her career at the Festival of Two Worlds in Italy and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. She sang for both festivals and worked with Menotti himself. That opportunity gave her an up-close look at his production habits. She was always fascinated by his desire to be a stage director for his operas rather than a conductor or musical director.
“He worked from the viewpoint of opera as drama first, not as music first, which is curious considering he was the composer,” Hurst-Wajszczuk says. “He also is unique in that he was one of the few opera composers who included stage directions in the music.”
His productions also were traditional, beautiful and extremely detailed.
“I was in a production of Offenbach’s ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ in which Act II had a built-to-scale replica of the Paris Opera House on stage that was uncanny in its realism. The whole production was truly unbelievable and a visual feast,” Hurst-Wajszczuk says. “Menotti excelled at that. He conceived of every production as visually beautiful. In almost any scene you could have taken a photograph and said, it was perfectly composed.”
Six performances set
More than 50 UAB music students will take part during the course of six performances this month. Philip Copeland, director of the UAB Chamber Choir, is directing the opera chorus.
UAB Opera will present “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in six performances. The first two are free noon matinees Wednesday, Nov. 19 and Friday, Nov. 21 in the Mary Culp Hulsey Recital Hall. Those are for area school children, UAB students, faculty and staff. Tickets for performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22 are $5 and can be purchased at the door. For information, call 934-8906.
The production also will be presented twice on Sunday, Nov. 23, The first will be at 2:30 p.m. at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church, 2061 Kentucky Ave., followed by another performance at 6 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist, 1400 Oxmoor Road, Homewood. Those performances are free.