When the Three Wise Men first appear in Amahl and The Night Visitors — a collaboration between Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Madcap Puppets returning to the stage this weekend — Tom Merrill, the show’s conductor, says a great gasp comes from kids in attendance.
The 50-minute opera recounts the story of a boy shepherd, Amahl, his mother and their encounter with the Three Wise Men of the traditional Christmas story as the trio travels to see the Christ Child. Madcap transforms Balthazar, Melchior and Kaspar into enormous puppets — which Merrill and artistic director Dylan Shelton say are “larger than life.” For reference Kaspar is 6-feet-6-inches tall, Melchior is 7-feet-7-inches tall and Balthazar is over 8-feet-6-inches tall. A single puppeteer operates each.
“I think Christmas for me, and a lot of people, is most beautiful through the eyes of a child,” Shelton says. “I think that’s what makes even an adult audience relate to what Amahl is experiencing. Even an adult can gasp when you see giant puppets come into a room.”
First produced in 2012 at the CCO, Amahl runs every other year. And in 2016, Shelton wanted to create a more open experience.
“The show used to have the chamber orchestra on stage right, and puppets and performers on stage left, which I thought created pretty bad sight lines,” he says. “I put the orchestra center stage and all performers downstage.”
Composed by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1951, the opera was the first created for television. It also boasts local connections: the original understudy for Amahl was local doctor G. James Sammarco, and the original conductor was Thomas Schippers, who would later become conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The former still remains involved with the Madcap production; he created a scholarship to fund the musical training for the character of Amahl.
“(Dr. Sammarco will) come in and work with the boys,” Shelton says. “It’s so amazing that he was there with Menotti.”
Though the bodies of the Three Wise Men are controlled via puppeteers, opera singers — who stand and sing when the puppets are in action — lend the voices. “We want the audience to appreciate the relationship between the puppeteer and the singer,” Shelton says.
The puppet has to appear to be singing, so conductor Merrill must cue not only the singer, but also the movements of the puppeteer. Shelton has first-hand experience with that dynamic, originating the puppeteer role of Melchior during the show’s first run in 2012.
“Now stepping out from the puppet and into the director’s chair, I think it’s kind of a unique perspective,” Shelton says. “As an actor, you have your human instrument; you have to initiate that emotional response from within, but it needs to be expressed in a puppet, so your movements are incredibly different. What you’re experiencing inside the puppet is raising a rod from your hip up to the tip of your head, completely unnatural gestures for a puppeteer. The challenge is to make it look authentic.”
Being charged with the title role is an exercise in authenticity, too. Amahl is disabled, innocent and pure of heart; he serves as the conduit for the audience to experience the enormity, splendor and wonder of the Three Wise Men’s mission. Playing Amahl is 12-year-old Mischa Sella, a seventh grader at Walnut Hills High School. Sella is a member of the Cincinnati Boychoir and has built quite the vocal résumé over the last few years. He has performed in Cincinnati Opera’s La Boheme, with the May Festival. Most recently, he was on stage in the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s November production of The Turn of the Screw.
“It’s going to be a fun experience, probably harder than acting,” says Sella. “I have to act and also I don’t have a choir singing with me. It’s more stressful because if you make a mistake, it will be easy to catch.”
But Merrill says he isn’t worried about Sella’s ability to handle the pressure.
“I think Mischa’s in a good place,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing to be a lead role in an opera at the age of 12 or 13. What an amazing thing.”
Amahl and The Night Visitors runs Dec. 21-23 at the Gallagher Center Theater at Xavier University. For tickets, visit ccocincinnati.org.