Delano group brings back a Christmas opera

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2011 - 9:07 AM

A Delano troupe's first production of 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' in 2009 was such a success that it is being staged again this year with more shows -- including one in Minneapolis.

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Tony Schaust, Linda Schaust and Lucie Shores of "Amahl and the Night Visitors"

Photo: West River Theatre Group ,

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The story sounds a little like a holiday miracle: A community theater group goes from rehearsing a Christmas-themed opera with a first-time director to entertaining audiences totaling 1,500 people -- and raising $10,000 in the process.

For a Delano-based group two years ago, this scenario became reality. With their three performances of "Amahl and the Night Visitors," the world's most-often performed Christmas opera, they had found a recipe for success.

"We filled up the church and had standing ovations at every performance. People said, 'You have to do this show again,'" said producer Gary Janisch.

They waited a year and vowed to make "Amahl" even better for 2011.

With their newly formed nonprofit organization, the West River Theatre Group, new handmade costumes and twice the performances, this year's cast of 28 aims to raise $20,000 for charity, Janisch said. They also have hired Lucie Shores, a pianist and operatic vocal coach, as musical director. "It's been really helpful to have an actual opera teacher, because she knows how we're supposed to sound," said Alyssa Trautman, 11, who is reprising her 2009 role as Amahl.

Both the directors and cast largely attribute their success to the appeal of the story itself.

The one-act, one-hour opera is sung in English. It's the tale of Amahl, an impoverished, crippled boy. One night, he finds three magi at his door; when a crime occurs and Amahl defends his mother from being found guilty of it, the kings see Amahl's generosity -- and before the magi continue their journey, a miracle occurs.

"It's got a lot of layering and depth," said director Linda Schaust.

This year, the cast will take the show from rehearsals in Schaust's garage to performances in three different settings.

While "Amahl" will be performed at the Watertown-Mayer Performing Arts Center and a Buffalo elementary school, the most unusual stage will be at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The opera will be the first theatrical performance ever staged there.

The site is not without its challenges, however.

"To me, doing this particular opera in the Basilica was going to be a big challenge, because there's a seven-second reverberation there," Shores said.

With proceeds at each site going to different local charities, and with the show's cost underwritten by Janisch, co-owner of a real estate development company, extending kindness toward one's neighbors is the primary reason for doing the show, Janisch said.

Shores agrees. "I love the idea that this show is expanding community theater to include more of the community, including those in need. That's what the arts are about -- collaboration and cooperation."

Though front-row tickets at the Basilica are selling for $75, keeping the show accessible to all is essential, Janisch said. General admission to the Basilica performance is a pay-what-you-can "goodwill offering," as are seats for the other five performances.

The message of goodwill, and thus, the meaning of Christmas, are also reflected in the plot of "Amahl," Schaust said.

"The idea is that everyone has something to give, and your gift can be your gratitude. It can be interpreted on a very personal level."

Erin Adler is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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  • AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS

    Performances:

    • 7 p.m. Dec. 2 and 3 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at Discovery Elementary School auditorium, 214 1st Av. NE. in Buffalo;

    • 7 p.m. Dec. 9 and 1 p.m. Dec. 10 at Watertown-Mayer Performing Arts Center, 1001 Hwy. 25 NW. in Watertown;

    • 1 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Basilica of St. Mary, 88 N. 17th St. in Minneapolis.

    Tickets:

    • Admission to the Buffalo and Watertown performances is a goodwill, pay-what-you-can donation. At the Buffalo performances, food or monetary donations will be accepted and proceeds will benefit the Buffalo Food Shelf. At the Watertown performances, donations will benefit Love INC.

    • Three kinds of ticket packages are available for the Basilica of St. Mary performance and can be purchased in advance online at www.mary.org (click on the "register" tab). General admission seating to the Basilica of St. Mary performance also will be available for a goodwill donation at the door. Proceeds will benefit the Basilica of St. Mary and its charity work.

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