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The University of South Carolina's Opera company, directed by Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, and USC's School of Music partnered with the Brevard Philharmonic under the direction of Donald Portnoy in a collaborative production of Gian Carlo Menotti's beloved one-act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors at Brevard College's Porter Center for the Performing Arts. Maestro Donald Portnoy, professor of violin and conducting at USC, is the newly-appointed Artistic Director and Conductor of the Brevard Philharmonic. Neil Casey was musical director, Anita Tripathi Easterling was scenery designer, and John Whitehead was costume designer. Music in the lobby was provided by a string group from the Transylvania County school system which benefits from the outreach program of the Brevard Philharmonic. As an additional treat for the numerous children in the audience, the opera was preceded by a reading with string accompaniment of Twas the Night Before Christmas by the mayor of Brevard, Jimmy Harris, who was seated in an armchair with his three children at his feet.
Menotti’s story of an impoverished mother and her crippled son who is healed when three mysterious kings seeking the Christ child pay them a visit has become the composer’s most performed work. First commissioned in 1951 by the National Broadcasting Company for a television audience, the opera has become an iconic holiday standard. Menotti’s inspiration was fired in part by his own childhood experience in a part of Italy where it was customary for the three Magi, not Santa Claus, to bring children gifts, and in part by his own unexpected healing. “As a little boy I was lame for a while, and my nanny took me to a miraculous Madonna in a church near the village where I was born. I was given some kind of blessing, and immediately I could walk. It has given me a sense of awe for the simple miracles of life.”
The challenges of presenting an opera in Brevard College’s Porter Center where there is neither orchestra pit nor stage wings were resolved by placing the small orchestra on stage right, utilizing stage center as the locus of the action, and having characters enter and exit either behind the central set or off stage left. Having the orchestra on stage where there is optimal sound projection engendered some problems of balance, especially when the three Kings were singing in their lowest tessitura. There was also the distraction of seeing the characters glance to their right for visual cues from the conductor. The role of the mother was sung superbly by Jennifer C. Davis who had no problem projecting over the orchestra. The character of Amahl was sung using a mike by Witt Bauknight, a poised 11-year-old who possesses a lovely instrument capable of pure and accurate high notes, but who faltered in pitch and timing, most conspicuously when singing in harmony. The 10-member chorus provided an appealing dance sequence, utilizing as best they could the small central space. The three Kings, sung by Evan Broadhead as Melchior, Tyrone Wallace, Jr. as Balthazar, and Barry Sharrock as Kaspar, were magnificent in appearance, but could have sung more life into their roles.