Bringing opera to the masses -- The 1951 success of ''Amahl and the Night Visitors''

In 1951, the fledgling NBC Television Opera Theatre asked Gian Carlo Menotti to write an opera, the first ever commissioned for the small screen. Suffering from composer’s block in November, Menotti was wandering through New York’s Metropolitan Museum when his eye fell on a painting, Hiëronymous Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi, and inspiration struck. According to Menotti, the work carried him back to his childhood in Italy, where the three Biblical kings are the equivalent of America’s Santa Claus. He wrote Amahl and the Night Visitors and the tale, which first aired Christmas Eve of 1951, was an immediate sensation.

The New York Times ran a front-page rave review the next morning, and The New Yorker called the 50-minute opera a work with ”the complex simplicity of true legend.” Veteran director Kirk Browning, who brought Menotti’s staging to television, says he wasn’t caught completely off guard by the acclaim. When composer Arturo Toscanini had visited a rehearsal earlier that month and burst into tears, Browning says, ”we knew we were moving from the profane to the sacred.”

The excitement over the opera was such that NBC rebroadcast the show the following April. It became a Christmas staple, airing every year during the ’50s and ’60s. A 1979 production, taped in London and the Holy Land, is available on video. Amahl is performed live about 500 times annually, making it the most watched opera in America.


Dec. 24, 1951
Holiday tourists have tickets to Broadway’s hit The King and I on their wish lists. Gene Kelly spreads cheer with his movie, An American in Paris, Rosemary Clooney does the same with ”Come On-A-My House,” and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, keeps CBS execs merry as TV’s top show.