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Capturing the essence of Christmas

It’s classic Christmas fare: the three wise men directed under the light of a shining star to the birth of a miracle child. But next weekend, the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church is putting on an imaginative retelling of the ancient tale, in the 1951 English-language opera: Amahl and the Night Visitors.

It’s a variation of the biblical story written by Gian Carlo Menotti. The story unfolds from the perspective of a family of simple means, a widowed mother and her crippled son Amahl, who are visited upon by the three gift-bearing magi in the middle of the night. Playing the title character Amahl in the one-hour play is 12-year-old Adrienne Enns.

“This is my first opera,” she explains. “So it’s different for me and I think it’s going well.”

A novice Enns may be to opera, but audience members will likely not notice as the young actor displays an extraordinary dynamic range in her singing abilities. She’s been on the stage since she was about five-years-old, she says, beginning with the Community Players of New Hamburg production of Music Man, and has performed with the Stratford Festival, playing a younger version of Tommy in the eponymous play.

Adrienne Enns as the titular character confronts the Page, played by Kevin Derksen, in a climactic scene from Amahl and the Night Visitors. Inset, Pamela Derksen plays Amahl’s long-suffering mother. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]
“We are so fortunate that she was able to do this. She’s the only person in the solo cast who’s not actually from our church,” said director Stephanie Kramer, who had heard of Enns, a New Hamburg resident, from her previous theatre performances.

“She’s a very accomplished young lady, but her singing and her acting is just superb. And she really captures the essence of the character beautifully.”

“You have to kind of engage the character. You have to think like them, talk like them and engage their personality,” said Enns. For Amahl, that means putting herself in disadvantaged yet earnest shoes her character.

“He’s always positive. He’s very poor first of all, and he’s crippled, so that even brings more of it down. But he always tries to stay positive and try and help the mother to also stay up and keep going.”

Alongside the piano arrangement, Enns effortlessly blends her singing with co-star Pamela Derksen, who plays Amahl’s worrying mother.

“It’s very dear to my heart this show, as a mother now being able to connect with what she’s going through,” said Derksen, whose husband and children are also featured in the play. The mother worries about her son’s future, especially with his reliance on a crutch.

“Trying to raise a child with no money, no resources whatsoever … it tugs at my heart, for sure.”

In the story, Amahl has a habit of telling tall tales, so it’s hardly surprising that his mother is unconvinced when he claims to witness a star “as big as a window” above the house. She’s even less impressed when the child reports the night visitors rapping at their humble door are, in fact, a party of kings in resplendent dress, carrying elaborate gifts and seeking respite.

The three kings, Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, played respectively by Daryl Roth, Laverne Brubacher and Mark Diller Harder, are imbued with their own quirky character traits as well.

“Well the kings are really interesting because you have Kaspar, who is deaf, and kind of a little bit of a comic relief in the opera,” said Kramer. Her husband, Daryl Roth, plays the role of Kaspar.

“Malchior, he is sort of the gentle character … he seems to be a bit of a leader amongst the kings. He takes charge a lot of the time but always in a gentle and kindly way.” The third king, Balthazar, played by pastor Mark Diller Harder, meanwhile connects with Amahl, and is willing to answer all of his questions.

For Kramer, a voice instructor at Conrad Grebel College, Amahl and the Night Visitors has a fairly personal meaning. She’s in the director’s chair now, but has played the part of the mother on four separate occasions over the years, including at the last production of the play at the church 22 years ago.

“I think the story is really a charming story. And it connects with people really well. It’s a story of people living in poverty finding hope and thinking about being generous, and finding that through the story,” she explained.

“It has a religious significance, but it also has a current significance in terms of discerning, really, what’s the important thing in life. I just love the story. And then the music is just phenomenal too.”

Accompanying the kings and carrying their loads is the ever watchful Page, played by Pamela Derksen’s husband Kevin. He maintains a careful vigil over the frankincense, myrrh and, especially, the precious gold, that the three wise kings have brought with them – a plot point that becomes crucial later on.

Providing the chorus are the neighbouring shepherds, amongst them two of the Derksen’s three children Charlie and Lucy, ages 7 and 6, who come to greet the kings.

It’s a light and heartwarming tale, with themes of compassion and forgiveness perfectly in line with the spirit of the season.

“It’s a touching story, and a story of healing and transformation,” said Kevin Derksen, who is also a pastor at the church.

“In the context of the Christmas season, that’s often full of sorts of glitz and glamour and commercial stuff … it’s a sweet story of beauty and of connections and relationship, and a nice counterpoint to much of what we otherwise get at Christmas.”

Despite being an opera, Amahl is fairly short show, and certain to appeal to a wide viewership of all ages, say the cast.

“[The] first thing I tell them is that it’s short,” said Pamela Derksen. “A lot of people have the idea that operas are very long and boring. This one is nice and short, just under an hour. It’s also a family-friendly show and it’s a nice festive show as well, so it’s a nice thing to bring family out to at Christmastime.”

Enns agrees, pointing out the common misconception of operas being long and long-winded affairs. For the young talent, the experience is bound to help her along in her ambition to become a professional actress, and broaden her horizons.

“I think that it’s new and different. I really like it because it’s something that I’ve never done before and it’s good to change things; it’s good mix them up,” she said.

Amahl and the Night Visitors will be playing for two nights on December 2 and 3 at the St Jacobs Mennonite Church, 1310 Kings St. N. The play starts at 7 p.m. both night. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students, and $5 for children 12 and under, available through the church office by calling 519-664-2268 or by emailing church@sjmc.on.ca.

The proceeds from the event are going to support renovations to the former church parish house, which is being leased to not-for-profit MennoHomes to use as affordable housing for a newly arrived Syrian family.

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