What happened before the three wise men made it to the manger where Jesus lay?
The magi stopped at the house of a widow and her crippled son — or so it was, according to Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas-themed operetta, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
The cast of the show is hard at work rehearsing for performance week — the week of Dec. 2-4, which will feature four performances in McNamara Rehearsal Hall.
According to pianist and Teacher of Music Debbi Wyse, Wyse and Teacher of Music Melissa Osmond produce the show every four years. This is the third time they’ve done it. Wyse said her role is overseeing the music for the production, but that Osmond is doing the lion’s share of the work because she has many of the singers in her one-on-one voice lessons. Wyse will play piano for the shows, but since it is scored for two pianists, senior Katrina Bopp plays the second piano.
Because the operetta is under an hour, and in English, it’s a very family-friendly show, Wyse said. In the past, all their performances have been packed. During performance week, there will be one performance each on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m., and two on Friday — one at 7:30 p.m. and another at 9 p.m.
“There’s a miracle in it,” Wyse said. “It’s beautiful and tender. People end up crying.”
Because so many talented students auditioned, Wyse said she and Osmond double cast the roles of the mother and Amahl. Sophomores Susena Finegan and Katie Scheu play the mothers, and sophomore Sarah Schutte and junior Sydnee Heim play Amahl. Each set of actors will perform twice. The other roles — such as the three kings and page — are not double cast.
Sophomore Jonathan Henreckson, who plays one of the magi named Caspar, added that it is challenging working with two different sets of actors. He said he usually tries to act the same way every time, but that each set of people reacts to his lines differently.
Henreckson also said that although the double casting has its trials, having the male role of Amahl played by female actors hasn’t proved a challenge to him.
“I knew from the start it would be a woman,” he said. “I just look past it.”
Wyse added that it is not atypical in operas to have what she called “pant roles,” where a man’s role is designed for a female mezzo-soprano.
Finegan said she had never sung opera until she wanted to get into Hillsdale’s music program and began practicing her senior year of high school.
“I’d been singing my entire life, but I didn’t realize I could sing opera,” Finegan said.
Now, she enjoys it.
She said the music in this opera skips around a lot and is very jumpy.
“That’s what makes it interesting, and not boring at all,” Finegan said, giving her compliments to Wyse and Osmond for being wonderful directors.
The show will also feature Hillsdale’s chamber choir as the shepherd’s chorus. Sophomore Sarah Casebeer choreographed a dance in the middle of the operetta done to entertain the three kings.
Wyse, Henreckson, and Finegan all commented on the difficulty of the music.
“It’s a huge challenge. The music is fairly tonal and the intervals are all over the place,” Wyse said.
In many cases, sections of music sound similar, but have different entrances, so the singers must work hard to come in at the right time.
Henreckson said even though the opera is written for two pianos, neither piano is playing the melody along with the singers.
“If you get one note wrong, the next person might start on the wrong note,” he said. “You have to be spot on to keep on the same page.”
Additionally, although much of the music is very harmonious, Henreckson said there is also plenty of dissonance.
“But the dissonance is what makes it cool,” he said. “I’m a music major, so I geek out about it. It has really interesting harmonies.”
His favorite part of the whole experience is working with the people he’s working with, he said.
“I’m having the time of my life,” he said. “Everyone is so good.”
He added the first time he and his fellow magi, freshman David Woods and senior Tomas Valle, got together to sing, they locked together perfectly.
He strongly suggested students and faculty take the time to come enjoy the show.
“The opera itself is gorgeous,” Henreckson said. “And it’s in English, so it’s easy to follow and you won’t get lost.”
The box office is already ticketing for this event and Wyse said she expects Friday’s shows to sell out quickly because of the broad audience appeal. Tickets are free and reservations can be made by calling or emailing the box office.