by Ann M. Colford

Colorful and creative things are happening in Coeur d'Alene this Christmas season. Two of the Lake City's more venerable cultural institutions - the Coeur d'Alene Symphony Orchestra and the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre - join forces for the CSO's annual Christmas concert, under the baton of David Demand. The orchestra will play a selection of seasonal tunes in the first half of the concert, with Spokane soprano Ann Fennessy featured on vocals. After intermission, Fennessy returns to the stage to join a cast from the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre in a fully staged production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. This is the first collaboration between the two organizations, but the directors of both groups are happy about the prospects.

"I think it's going to be a nice concert," says Demand, who came on board as Coeur d'Alene Symphony Orchestra director last June, in addition to his duties as musical director at St. George's School in Spokane. "We're happy with the way things are going."

Roger Welch, the artistic director of the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre, says he's getting excited as the rehearsals come together. "It's a great cast," he says. "And great singers in the chorus."

The first half of the concert will showcase a combination of popular and classical tunes of the season, from Corelli's "Christmas Concerto for String Orchestra and Harpsichord" to "The Donkey Carol," a song by the contemporary choral composer John Rutter, with Fennessy as vocal soloist.

The Spokane soprano joins the orchestra for two more holiday selections that span a couple of centuries: "Rejoice Greatly" from The Messiah, and "The Christmas Song" by Mel Torme. "You know, the 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire' song," Fennessy clarifies.

Gian Carlo Menotti's one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, celebrates its 50th birthday this year and holds the distinction of being the first opera ever written specifically for television. In 1951, NBC commissioned Menotti to produce a one-hour opera as a Christmas season special. The show's first broadcast came in December 1951 and it aired for 13 consecutive holiday seasons. Originally written in English, the opera has been translated into dozens of languages; over the past 50 years, Amahl has become a perennial favorite of performing groups worldwide.

"We were approached by the orchestra to produce the show," Welch says. "The company has done it before, but I had never seen the show. I did some research and found I really liked the story."

Menotti's opera

tells the story

of a young boy, Amahl, and his mother, who play host to the three kings of biblical tradition as they travel to Bethlehem. Amahl is lame and relies on a crutch to get around; he also lives in his imagination, spending his time gazing at the sky and inventing stories. His father has died, so while the son spins wild tales, his mother must face the harsh reality of putting food on the table. So when Amahl tells first of a fantastic star that has appeared in the sky, and then announces that three kings have come to visit, his mother is understandably annoyed and frustrated. Fennessy plays the role of Amahl's mother, and after some initial reluctance, she's finding plenty of depth in the character.

"When I first read the dialogue, I said, 'I don't want to be bitchy,'" she laughs. "So I tried to find out where it was coming from. I want to find ways of being angry and yet reflecting her incredible love for this little boy who's such a dreamer."

After reading through her part, Fennessy has come to understand Amahl's mother better. "She's a widow, and I see her as having been kind of beaten up by the world," she says. "If you think historically, a woman with a child and no husband in that time would have had a real struggle. She has no family to support her, and she really wonders how they'll get enough food to live from day to day."

The rest of the cast are all veterans of opera or musical theater productions. David Denman Smith, Michael Muzatko, and Mark Cotter will play the three kings: Balthazar, Kaspar, and Melchior. Frank Jewett takes the part of the Page, and young Matt Reese appears in the title role. The twelve-member chorus includes more local stage and concert hall favorites, including Jack Bannon, Julie Powell, Patrick McHenry-Kroetch, and Max Mendez.

Welch believes the opera is easily accessible for children. "It's in English, it's short, and the characters are familiar because people know the Nativity story and the three kings. It's a great introduction to opera for kids. You take 45 minutes and you come away having seen a wonderful show."

Fennessy attributes the opera's enduring popularity to its magical, miraculous qualities. "I think we're hungry for magic," she says. "Those of us who are Christians know the story and we want to believe it. We want to believe in these three travelers and the baby. We want to believe that the sky opened up and these simple shepherds were able to see the glory of God."

The vocalist is excited about working with Welch. "This is my first chance to work with Roger, a director I've heard so much about," she says. "A good director gives you good ideas that make sense, that you would've never thought of." Welch, in turn, is impressed with his lead vocalist. "She goes from 'Chestnuts Roasting' to 'Amahl,' so she really shows her range."

The Coeur d'Alene Symphony and Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre pair up to present Amahl and the Night Visitors at NIC's Schuler Auditorium on Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets: $10; $7, seniors; $5 youth 18 and younger. Call: (208) 769-7780.

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