Gian Carlo Menotti, composer and librettist of Amahl and the Night Visitors, hand-chose Chet Allen for the role of Amahl after an exhaustive cross-country search. Given that Menotti also tried to cast the then-unknown Maria Callas as lead in his opera The Consul, it's probably fair to say that he knew beautiful singing when he heard it.
As mentioned in the previous blog post, Menotti apparently helped persuade Chet to pursue opportunities in Hollywood at the request of his mother. Whether or not this was the best thing for Chet at the time is difficult to say. Similarly, Menotti tried to help Chet after the youngster's voice changed by casting him in a production of his opera The Medium, but that raises the question of whether or not casting Chet as a mute was truly the best idea.
Either way, I have no doubt that Menotti's heart was in the right place. In fact, after Chet's death, Menotti never looked at his wonderful opera Amahl in the same way again, as he came always to associate it with the troubles that beset the opera's first star.
Menotti is known primarily as an operatic composer whose works held popular appeal. This popular appeal may have run its course at some point, and Menotti's fame gradually waned over the years. Some people may have thought that his music had become dated or was overly derivative, or maybe tastes in general had became more eclectic. Nevertheless, today's audience need not be confined by the changing trends of past decades. The fact is, Menotti was a terrific composer, and his great works will in all probability persist forever.
One piece which I love is Menotti's Concerto for Violin in A Minor. Here we have the first movement, as played by Jennifer Koh. Listen to how, at 3:51, the notes just explode off her bow. What a fantastic piece of music performed beautifully!
Of course, it is opera where Menotti made his mark. Along with Amahl, Menotti's most celebrated work during his most prolific run was likely The Consul, a full-length opera written in 1949. Here is the powerful "Now, O lips, say goodbye," with Susan Bullock.
In June of 1952, Chet Allen somehow found himself on the pages of People Today magazine. People Today was a small format magazine that dealt with celebrity gossip among other things from the early 1950's through the 1970's.
Front cover of People Today, June 4, 1952
The mention of Chet Allen is brief and cryptic. Here's the text:
Chet Allen, 12, lead in Gian-Carlo Menotti's TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, went on a hunger strike rather than sign a film contract for 7 yrs. at $50,000 per: "I must be free for Gian-Carlo". Menotti persuaded him.
Maybe there is some truth here. From other sources linked on this site, we know that Chet was a reluctant star who wanted to keep working with Menotti. Maybe he told his parents he would stop eating rather than head to Hollywood. And his mother did apparently ask Menotti to intervene and convince Chet to sign the contract., so this is probably what the story is alluding to, though what the reader might have inferred from the article as it was written is hard to know.
My parents were both musicians – my mother, a violinist; my father, a tenor and music historian – so I was always immersed in classical music growing up. It was only natural, then, that the record album I reached for every Christmas during the holidays was Amahl and the Night Visitors. We had the original cast recording on vinyl, and I listened to it with the same measure of enjoyment each year. Nor did I ever really stop listening to it, for it has that soulful, haunting quality that doesn't allow for letting go.
My parents were also two of the five million people who watched the 1951 live broadcast of the opera. They were both 13 years old at the time. My mother still recalls the occasion vividly. Her father, a violinist in the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, urgently gathered the family around the TV set and explained that they were going to see something very special. Needless to say, the telecast didn't disappoint, and my mother sometimes reflected on what an amazing performance the boy, in particular, gave as Amahl.
My father has performed the role of Kaspar several times over the years, including his favorite production that featured my younger brother in the role of Amahl. Unfortunately, I was separate from that part of my family at the time, half a continent away, but my father still talks about my brother's interpretation of Amahl with glowing pride. I can also remember as a very young child being treated to my father's histrionic bellowing of “This is My Box”, either along with the record or a cappella, or maybe it was both.
This past fall, 2016, I happened upon the 1951 performance of Amahl on YouTube. How was I to know that it had been around for years? But the discovery was jarring; it was an impossibility, and all the memories, not just of Amahl, but of family, childhood, loss and hope came back to me, as that is the power that this opera has. And, of course, I wondered about Chet Allen, and I knew that this bright spirit would always be Amahl, but was also more than Amahl. Learning more about who he was became the impetus for this website.
In the comments section of this post, please feel free to share your own Amahl and the Night Visitors experiences past or present, including any upcoming performances you would like to announce.