Light from the stained-glass windows gleams bright gold against the dark sky. I climb the steps of the old stone Metropolitan Methodist Church and tug open the big door. From an upper room somewhere, the sound of singing descends — beautiful, ethereal and strangely warming after my trek through the cold streets.
These are the voices of the Motor City Lyric Opera, rehearsing for the company’s debut performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Music Hall on Dec. 19. Although this marks the third year that Amahl has been performed at the Music Hall, the production will officially launch the Motor City Lyric Opera as a new addition to Detroit’s cultural landscape. The company was founded this year by soprano Mary Callaghan Lynch, an area native who has performed internationally and serves as classical voice coach for Aretha Franklin. Lynch had produced and starred in Amahl for the last couple seasons, but was recently inspired to start something new.
“The real impetus for this company was Amahl,” she says. “It is really my most cherished childhood memory. The music is so beautiful. It’s a touching story. The other thing that I think is wonderful is that it has a very inspirational message: It is in giving that we receive.”
Lynch goes on to relay the story behind the 50-minute children’s opera — how an impoverished crippled boy, Amahl, and his mother (played by Lynch) are visited by the three magi on their way to see the Christ child, and how their lives are transformed. Amahl’s composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, was commissioned by NBC to write the opera, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. According to legend, Menotti himself had been crippled as a child and experienced a miracle.
The role of Amahl is played by two different boys (they split the shows between them), Mathew Rybak and Brandon LePage. LePage, a 13-year-old student at Wyandotte’s Wilson Middle School, is enthusiastic about the production. “I think it’s just amazing that you hear all these stories about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus, and there’s not really anything about the actual Christmas story. And the way Menotti did some of the voicing, it lets us sing almost like a professional opera singer would sing, which has got to be pretty hard considering how young we are.”
Just before heading home, I find my way upstairs, past the empty sanctuary, and listen to the Amahl choir — directed by Brazeal Dennard — rehearsing. Afterward, I meet up with Thomas Conlin, the renowned conductor who is working on this production with the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. Conlin mentions a recent surge in opera’s popularity. “I believe that it has to do with the fact that everything in our lives has become so synthesized and computerized and mechanized. And we crave some kind of emotional involvement in something. That’s the thing that opera has over all other forms of theater. It’s so emotional. That’s basically what opera is — it’s a distillation of feelings.
“I’ve conducted The Nutcracker over 400 times and Amahl about 80. And both of them always make me cry. I never get tired of them — they’re so human. I enjoy doing children’s concerts because I can dial back to whatever age I think most of the kids are. When you’re a kid and you discover something, your eyes pop out and you want to take it in, soak it up. And adults just look at stuff and move on. Backstage after performances, men come back and they say, ‘I’m so embarrassed. I cried. I’ll never go to another one.’ What’s the response to that? What are you complaining about?! Pity the poor people who don’t feel anything. Of course you cried — it’s moving. If you have any blood in your veins, you’ll cry when you see Amahl.
“I think the best thing a parent can do is to take their kids to see Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Nutcracker, the Michigan Opera Theatre, the ballet, the symphony. They may sit there and fuss, but some of it will sink in and then they’ll find that not long after that, when they’re out of college, settled down a little bit and have jobs, all of a sudden they’ll remember, ‘You know, that was a nice experience.’”
Amahl and the Night Visitors by the Motor City Lyric Opera (with the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, and the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble) runs Dec. 19, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 21, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.; and Dec. 22, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts (350 Madison, Detroit). Tickets are available from the Music Hall box office at 313-963-2366 and at TicketMaster outlets.Christina Kallery writes about theater and performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]