Amahl’s Mother and other Stories of Christmastime

When I was a very little person, I’d watch Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Nutcracker (the Gelsey Kirkland/Mikhail Baryshnikov one), very year at Christmastime. It was as much of a tradition, when I was a little person, as baking cookies and singing carols and going to the Loop and walking State Street, looking in the windows. My mother loved Amahl. I loved The Nutcracker (although Baryshnikov’s hair was almost spectacularly bad). I seem to recall that we watched them in the late mornings, before my mother had to go to work. My mother, you see, is a musician; Christmas, like weddings (or high holy days), is a musician’s bread and butter. And so my Christmases have always been very different.

Our Christmas traditions have changed, a little. We don’t sing carols so much anymore: S listens to them on repeat on the radio; E despises them; S says that E and I will burst into flames if we cross the threshold of a church, or sing something religious. (I love church architecture, and routinely visit them to glory in their construction, and for that matter work in the shadow of crucifixes, but S just points out that I haven’t touched any of them.) Our mother still works at Christmas, making it one of the least restful holidays one can imagine. Before I wrote this, I’d just returned from dropping off a stand light across state lines; she’s finishing up what might be her thirtieth concert in the past three weeks. (She had three in one day, this past week.) It’s a wonderful thing, and we are all so very tired, her most of all.

Both Amahl and the Kirkland-Baryshnikov Nutcracker look a little different, now, than they did in my childhood. Herr Drosselmeyer is about the creepiest Crazy Uncle anybody could ever want, and manages to get creepier on almost every viewing—as Wes Blomster writes in The Daily Camera in 2008, he turns the pas de deux into a ménàge a trois. And while I really appreciate Clara’s sudden maturity, well, it’s a little odd, and I was glad enough to find that the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker provided a far less creepy Herr Drosselmeyer. (I mean, he’s weird as hell, but he’s supposed to be, as far as I can tell. Presumably only a weirdo would have a nephew turned into a nutcracker.) Amahl is a little different: I think, looking back on it, that my rather strong aversions to its themes of poverty and class were probably the first hint that I’d end up a union rep in every workplace in which I’ve had a union.

Amahl and the Night Visitors is, for the uninitiated, intended to be a sweet and miraculous story of the first Christmas, as a handicapped shepherd boy is cured and heads off with the three kings to Bethlehem, leaving behind his doting mother. (God knows when he’ll see her again, which always bothered me.) Gian Carlo Menotti, Italian-born American and grand composer of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, wrote it as the first-ever opera for television. Like Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Amahl is a boon to musicians (and singers) everywhere. I loved Willard White’s King Balthazar, dignified, majestic, and possessed of a voice that was the most magnificent thing I could imagine, but I identified with The Mother.

The woman doesn’t even have a name! She’s barely allowed to be a person (even a mother), but, at least when she’s performed by Teresa Stratas, she blazes forth, human and fallible and, always, the one with whom I identify. Her home is invaded by horrifying rando guys with crowns! And a nasty servant! (I think the guy’s one step off from Iago, personally.) Despite having no money, no space, and no food, she’s expected to house, feed, and even entertain these four randos who dropped from God knows where on their trusty camels, following yonder star. Management has a knack for putting its foot on labor’s neck, and it’s right there on hers, worse than ever, as she’s nearly turned over as a thief for taking some of their gold.

I am a musician’s kid, and, on the other side, the descendant of Carl the Commie, the union man who had to leave Prussia because von Bismarck wasn’t best fond of unionizing commies. My mother’s union, of which she’s been a member since around 1962, makes sure that people like those three kings can’t get away with bilking her of her pay. It was, to junior pinko me, entirely unacceptable that Menotti and the world thought it was fine and dandy for Amahl’s nameless mother—who doesn’t even get the honor of a damn title, like Clara’s mother, Mrs. Stahlbaum—should not only receive no remuneration for her trouble but should be threatened with the thief-takers and expected to give up her son without a fuss. The more we watched it, over the years, the bigger my problem with it: Amahl’s mother got screwed, and I was supposed to look at it as a joyous tale of the season. I didn’t like the season, and I didn’t like the people who thought it was okay to screw over a poor woman that way, and take her away her child because they could. (It was probably Iago’s idea.)

I don’t think I do Christmas traditions very well, except perhaps for the family part: when one is from a huge Irish family, one does family rather well, by default. (And then one thinks in sagas, and ends up writing 130,000 word epics.) I’m not even sure I like Christmas all that much, although certainly it has marked me, from those long nights waiting for my mother to come home from her gigs (I started those at a few months old, apparently, waiting up after spring concerts long after my father had fallen asleep), to the walks through my father’s hometown, looking at some of the world’s most unique creches, creations which surely deserve (and will get) their own post, one day.

Despite being rather poor at holiday traditions (except for Hoppin’ John on New Year’s!), I carry The Nutcracker with me, and Amahl—and, most especially, my big, huge problem with the treatment of Amahl’s mother, who got screwed over so badly. I love the Christmas lights beyond all reason and all measure, our defiance in the face of darkness, our ancient raised finger to the dark as the light begins its slow return. (This is probably where S would make some snarky comment about E and me and our combustibility.) I’m hoping, this year, to go out to see the store windows on State Street, even though I have no little people to take with me: one can still enjoy widows, and the Lincoln Park Zoo lights, at thirty-two, after all. (I will also be working, the day after Christmas, and the day after that, and after that, too. I am, after all, academic support staff.)

Years and years ago, before I even had the words, the cavalier treatment of Amahl’s mother, the most decent—and relatable—character in the whole damn opera, made me angry. I wanted to reach back and change her world, and her life, because she deserved a lot better. As I got older, still waiting up for my mother to come home from work, I brooded over her namelessness, and her powerlessness, and the ways in which the wealthy and the powerful and the male (because Iago shouldn’t really have had any power at all, either) used their wealth and their power and their maleness to step on her neck and steal away her child. This year, I stumbled across an article about Mary’s Magnificat, and decided that clearly Mary, who celebrates bringing the rich low and stripping them of money and power while raising up the poor and suffering, would also have disapproved of what happened to Amahl’s mother. Clearly I’d been onto something, all along.

Then, of course, I grew up, and chose a graduate school in part because it was unionized, and was an officer there, and have spent my time on bargaining teams and grievance committees and can recite your Weingarten right to representation, in case you might need a reminder. Maybe Amahl’s mother was part of the inspiration, or maybe it was just me, surging out with childish words and a whole lot of anger, long before I had theory and logic and ice on my side. Either way, my Christmases will always be a little different. I’ll always be ready to recite your Weingarten rights, and I’ll never feel all that festive until the season is actually over.

But are you celebrating Christmas, wherever you are? Or are you working (and, I hope, drawing time and a half)? Then may your celebration be joyous, and without the trauma of three rando kings and their favorite Iago dropping by, and may we all remember Mary’s Magnificat, as we head forward towards 2019.

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