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Pittsburgh music group features holiday favorite 'Amahl,' a rediscovered classic and more

Resonance Works last staged "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in 2019.
Alisa Innocenti
Resonance Works
Resonance Works last staged "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in 2019.

Resonance Works is bringing back its holiday show, and freshening the program with new guest artists, new music, and even something of a lost classic.

The opera company’s traditional holiday program, a staging of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” returns after a pandemic hiatus, and two of the three performances feature 10-year-old “America’s Got Talent” phenomenon Victory Brinker.

The new music, meanwhile, is a holiday song from a local composer and poet. And the rediscovered classic is “The Ballad of the Brown King,” a cantata by composer Margaret Bonds and famed poet Langston Hughes, featuring Pittsburgh-favorite soprano Anqwenique Kinsel.

Victory Brinker sings in Friday and Saturday's performances of "Amahl."
Resonance Works
Victory Brinker sings in Friday and Saturday's performances of "Amahl."

The performances are Fri., Dec. 16, through Sun., Dec. 18, at the New Hazlett Theater.

Prior to the pandemic, Resonance Works had staged “Amahl” almost annually for years. Gian Carlo Menotti’s hour-long 1951 holiday favorite – the first opera ever written for television – tells the story of an impoverished boy with a physical disability and his mother meeting three mysterious, gift-bearing strangers on their way to Bethlehem.

“The overall theme of hope and optimism in the face of adversity, and also just generosity and the sense of community, really is the big theme of the story, and just can’t help but warm your heart,” said Resonance artistic and general director Maria Sensi Sellner.

This year’s production with live music reunites much of the cast from Resonance’s own inaugural staging, including Barbara LeMay as the mother and Robert Frankenberry and Jonathan Stuckey as kings. The third king is sung by Jesús Vicente Murillo. Brinker, of Latrobe, plays Amahl on Dec. 16 and 17, while on Dec. 18 the role is taken by Evangeline Sereno, of the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus.

Anqwenique Kinsel is the soloist for "The Ballad of the Brown King."
Resonance Works
Anqwenique Kinsel is the soloist for "The Ballad of the Brown King."

“Ballad of The Brown King” too dates from the 1950s. Noted Black composer Bonds and the legendary Hughes, her frequent collaborator, also tell a Nativity story, this time with a focus on one of the Three Kings. “Of the three wise men who came to the king, one was a brown man, so they sing,” begins Hughes’ lyrics. “Could he have been an Ethiope [sic] from an Ethiopian land? I do not know just who he was but he was a kingly man.”

The 25-minute cantata incorporates gospel and calypso music. It’s written for a chorus, with solos by Kinsel.

The show will be a novelty here: Sellner said the cantata appears not to have been staged in Pittsburgh for years, if ever.

The 90-minute program is rounded out with the premiere live performance of “Rededication,” a song for orchestra and chorus by composer Nancy Galbraith, based on lyrics by Sara Stock Mayo.

“She wrote this beautiful poem about light, and the sparks of hope and optimism that push us forward,” said Sellner.

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Galbraith found the poem inspiring as well. She cited a line from it like one describing a light as “Light hidden in darkness -- mysterious, more beautiful than the brightest star.” Galbraith, a frequent Resonance Works collaborator who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, called it “beautiful, wonderful imagery to work with.”

Galbraith notes that her music is more redolent of Advent – and of composers like Aaron Copland and John Adams -- than “Here Comes Santa Claus”-type fare.

The song was commissioned as part of the latest project by the Decameron Opera Coalition, a group of nine small opera companies from around the U.S. that formed during the pandemic.“DOC the Halls,” as the holiday songbook is called, includes eight new songs in all, plus several new carols. All the songs began streaming online Dec. 2, but the Dec. 16-18 shows feature a full chamber-group orchestration, Sellner said.

More information about the Resonance Works holiday program is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: