BY ELSIE LYNN PARINI
Perhaps these dark weeks of December bring sweet, warm smells of mulled wine and gingerbread to your kitchen, or perhaps a family trip to a tree farm, followed by a mess of tangled twinkle lights and familiar memories unwrapped with each paper-covered ornament. Yes, ’tis the season for traditions.
But let’s be honest, sometimes — just like that gingerbread house hardening on your counter — traditions can get a little stale.
Josh Collier, artistic director of Barn Opera in Brandon, has just what we need to spice up our holiday traditions. He’s bringing “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a 40-minute opera to the Salisbury Congregational Church on Dec. 17 and 18.
Actually, he’s bringing it back to the Salisbury church.
“Glenn Andres (a member of the church and Salisbury resident) contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in putting on the production,” Collier remembered. “I said, yeah, let’s do it!”
That was 2019 — pre-pandemic.
“When we realized we were going to sell out, I talked to the cast about doing the performance again in 2020 and we announced that we were launching this as an annual tradition,” Collier paused. “And then… Covid.”
For 2020, Barn Opera made a virtual effort, but this year, the original 2019 cast is coming back in person and Collier is committed to making the tradition stick.
“My plan is to do this annually,” he said. “It’ll be the same story, the same show, but with a different take each year.”
What makes the show different for 2021?
Well, the biggest difference is the protagonist, Amahl.
In 2019, Amahl was played on alternating nights by brothers Joshua and Jonathan Kafumbe. But, as it happens, their voices matured and Collier needed to find a new singer for the role.
“There is a problematic moment in this opera,” Collier noted; a moment that made him consider not producing the show.
A little background first: “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was the first opera to be broadcast to a national television audience — that was back on Dec. 24, 1951. The story revolves around a young handicapped boy and his mother, who live in a poor village on the route the three kings travel to meet the Christ-child after his birth. The kings arrive, weary from their journey and they stop for the night, enjoying the hospitality of Amahl and his mother. There is a great disparity in the wealth of the kings and Amahl’s mother, and socio-economic conflict ensues, with a beautiful resolution fitting the spirit of the season you’ll have to see.
“One of the kings, King Balthsazar, is black and in every production that’s how it should be,” Collier explained. “The problematic scene is when Amahl answers the door and says something to the effect of ‘Mom, there are kings at the door, and one of them is black.’ It lands really poorly. So I decided if I’m going to put on this opera, Amahl is going to be black — that way when he says that line it comes across as ‘that man looks like me and someday I could be a king too.’”
This year Amahl will be played by Ambrose Cusick.
“Ambrose is 15 years old, his father is a white American and his mother is of Asian descent,” Collier described. “And Ambrose is openly transgender.
“I’m really excited about the prospect of working with Ambrose,” Collier continued. “He’s a sophomore at Burlington High and has worked with Lyric Theater a few times. What I love most is the fact that he is so comfortable in his skin. The lyrics reference “oh, little boy” a lot, so the character does need to be a boy. I think this is a great opportunity to give visibility to the trans community in anyway we can.”
Collier has decided that whenever he produces this show, that sensitive line will be changed to resonate with whomever is playing Amahl.
Joining Cusick will be Helen Lyons as Amahl’s mother, Cailin Marcel Manson as King Balthsazar, Nicholas Tocci as King Melchoir, Collier as King Kaspar and Tobias Duke as Servant. The principle performers are joined by a nine-member community chorus and accompanied by the “remarkable” pianist Felix Jarrar.
The performers have all been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and will perform unmasked in the Salisbury Congregational Church. Capacity will be limited to 120 (the max is 150), and audience members will need to show proof of vaccination and are encouraged to wear masks indoors.
Performances will be held at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 17 and Saturday, Dec. 18, with a run time of no longer than 45 minutes.
“Because of the nature of the story, the sacred space gives the right atmosphere,” said Collier, adding that the show will not be reproduced at Barn Opera in Brandon. “We don’t have a heavy handed Christian approach… the characters are, for sure, but the story is about unbridled generosity and that’s something that transcends religious boundaries.”
Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for children (plus fees) and are available at barnopera.com.