Guest Blog: ‘Amahl’ and Media Technology

On Site Opera welcomes Mark Schubin, an historian on the intersection of opera and media technology, to share the fascinating historical connection between media technology and Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Look at this Holiday Opera’s Intersection with Media Technology

by Mark Schubin

The original production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. WNBT was later renamed WNBC-TV.

Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera commissioned for television.  It was first broadcast live on NBC on December 24, 1951 and was so successful that NBC broadcast it live repeatedly (first in black-&-white and then, starting in 1953, in color, and, later still, in recorded versions), and it was also broadcast in countries as diverse as Australia, Nigeria, and Thailand.

Amahl and the Night Visitors began a trend of commercial television networks commissioning operas.  NBC went on to commission another 12 operas, CBS 14, and ABC 3 (not counting commissions by public television and individual commercial stations) from such composers as Igor Stravinsky, but Amahl and the Night Visitors was the only opera commissioned for television to be broadcast at least once a year (on NBC) for 17 consecutive years (with additional later non-consecutive broadcasts).  

NBC Opera Theater director Kirk Browning, later at Live from Lincoln Center and Live from the Met.

Amahl and the Night Visitors was also the only opera commissioned for television to make a successful transition to the stage.  That might be because Menotti wrote it as a stage opera, fearing that it might be seen just once on television.  After the success of Amahl and the Night Visitors on TV, Menotti became intrigued by the possibilities of TV-only opera.  For another NBC commission, in 1963 Menotti created Labyrinth, which used video effects and, therefore, could not be shown on a stage.  It had just the one performance (on TV), though it’s available on YouTube.

For Amahl and the Night Visitors, television director Kirk Browning, who went on to direct all of the televised operas for the Live from Lincoln Center series and the first operas in the Live from the Met series, came up with an idea that allowed the opera to be staged in one NBC studio while the orchestra played in another.  He had a camera shoot the conductor not just for broadcast but also to be shown to the singers on multiple monitors.  That had the added benefit of allowing the singers to see the conductor no matter where they were facing.  The concept of the “conductor monitor” was later adopted by most opera houses for that see-the-conductor-wherever-you’re-facing reason.

Mark Schubin has been televising opera since 1973.

Strangely, Amahl and the Night Visitors was not the first opera commissioned for broadcast to be aired on television.  That honor goes to Patrick “Spike” Hughes’s Cinderella, commissioned by BBC radio.  When BBC TV producer Dallas Bower heard the radio broadcast, he decided it should be adapted for television.  It was televised on BBC on December 13, 1938 (and repeated eight days later), so it was another holiday opera.  One of the dancers in it was Antony Tudor, who later became a famous ballet choreographer.

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Introducing: On Site Opera’s Mobile App!

In light of Amahl’s long history with technology, this seems like an appropriate moment for On Site Opera to delve into its next experiment with new technology in opera. We are excited to announce the beta test of the On Site Opera mobile app, now available for Apple devices and Android devices. This app will be used to present  digital performance programs (instead of paper) to reduce our environmental footprint, and to present supertitles during our site-specific performances. We look forward to testing this app during performances of Amahl, and hearing your feedback to make improvements for its future use.

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