Inspiring Amahl: What Gifts Do You Bring?

By: Greg Campbell

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In 1951, Italian composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to write the first opera for television. Up to this point in time, Menotti’s operatic output included Amelia Goes to the Ball (1937), a radio opera entitled The Old Maid and the Thief (1939), The Medium (1946), The Telephone (1947), and The Consul (1950).

With Christmas Eve as a deadline for the new commission, Menotti found himself with no story in mind and in what he describes as “serious difficulty.” One brisk November afternoon in New York City, Menotti decided to venture to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By chance, he stopped in front of The Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1475) by Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516).

An oil painting on wood panel, the work features a strong perspective effect and use of gold leaf. The piece depicts a nativity scene, including characters that one might see in an Italian presepio or French crèche.

In the booklet accompanying the original cast recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors, Menotti recalls his response to the painting: “As I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.” This moment of inspiration led to the creation of Amahl and the Night Visitors, one of the most frequently performed operas of the 20th century and a lasting holiday family tradition for many.


Menotti wrote Amahl and the Night Visitors as an opera for children to recapture his own childhood. Growing up in Italy, Menotti and his brother received holiday gifts from the Three Kings (unlike American children, who anxiously awaited Santa Claus). Menotti reports never actually meeting the Three Kings, but he does remember hearing them in his imagination: “I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel’s hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.”

Menotti recalls distinctive characteristics of each of the Three Kings. King Melchior (Menotti’s favorite), for example, was wise and had a long beard while King Kaspar was eccentric and hearing-impaired. Menotti writes, “To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas time one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town.”


As you enjoy Amahl and the Night Visitors, consider the notion of inspiration.

Where do you find inspiration during the holiday season?
What holiday traditions from your childhood inspire you today?
What new traditions might you instill in your community?
What gifts do you bring to friends, family, and our larger Kansas City community?