Oh woman, you may keep the gold.
The child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His piercèd hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning, he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life, and receive our death,
and the keys to his city
belong to the poor.
These words are sung by Melchior at the climax of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s operetta “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which we listened to this Christmas morning. “Amahl” is a small gem of poetry and music that bears eloquent and imaginative witness to the journey of the Magi and the hope of Christmas, and it rarely fails to bring me to the brink of tears. Its emotional and narrative heart is centered on the one character who is not named in the title: the mother of Amahl, the crippled boy. Fiercely protective of her son, she can barely feed, let alone cure, him. His escape into flights of fancy has left her skeptical not just of his tall tales, but of hope itself—making her an unmistakably modern figure in this ancient rural setting. And yet her encounter with the extraordinary Night Visitors give this very ordinary mother hope that there is a new King and Kingdom coming into the world—even before the story’s miraculous conclusion.
Here is the amazing and sobering truth: in 1951, this was popular culture. Menotti composed “Amahl” for NBC, and it was broadcast live on Christmas Eve from Rockefeller Center, with a viewership (if Wikipedia is to believed) of perhaps 5 million. To be sure, even in 1951 an opera, no matter how accessible and affecting, was a stretch for TV. But still, in 1951, this was prime time stuff: Menotti’s graceful, modal melodies; the poetry of Melchior’s aria and the shepherds’ welcome; and an unguarded (if somewhat sentimental) meditation on what the coming of Christ into the world might mean for skeptical and wounded souls.
I am not generally a declinist, let alone a pessimist, about American culture. There was plenty of junk on NBC in 1951, and there is decent work being done on television today (or so I’m told by my discerning friends). But listening to “Amahl” this morning I was weighed down by the depressing sense that no one in any corner of American popular culture is creating that kind of accessible excellence any more. Consider also “West Side Story,” Bernstein and Sondheim’s masterpiece that premiered in 1957. Neither “Amahl” nor “West Side Story” were “high” culture—they were for ordinary Americans, presented in the media of middle-class American entertainment. But in a world that had not yet been fully colonized by consumerism’s race to the lowest common denominator, they could make demands on their audience, and offer corresponding rewards, that no one attempts today.
NBC quickly stopped broadcasting operas in prime time. And the age of publicly endorsed works of such transparent piety is also past. If we value works that reflect accessible excellence and imaginative faith, we will have to make them ourselves. But to make them we will first have to love them—and cultivate an audience for them. The decline of popular culture was the work of generations, each asking less of, and offering less to, their children than they had experienced themselves. Restoration, likewise, will take time. If you want to contribute to a flourishing culture and have children in the house this Christmas, you could do worse than introduce them to “Amahl.”