A troupe of unusual performers descended upon Wartburg College Monday morning.
Three wise men, a mother and her son, camels and a parrot, not the kind that just show up unannounced on a college campus.
They had traveled from Rochester, Minnesota, over the weekend, in tight quarters resembling two giant wardrobes, but appeared to be in great shape when the doors to their makeshift dressing room opened to introduce them to Waverly.
It turns out the guest performers were none other than the historic Amahl puppets, the life-sized creatures that have stirred the imagination of many a child and taken just as many an adult back to their own years of fairy tales and innocence.
The reason for the puppets’ first-time visit to town was fitting — they were to debut in “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” this year’s Christmas performance of the Wartburg Community Symphony.
Doing the honors of greeting the puppets on Monday was Brian Pfaltzgraff, the chair of the Music Department at Wartburg College, a soft-spoken man with a passion for demystifying music and finding engaging ways to involve lay audiences in the joy of experiencing it.
Also present at this meet-and-greet event of sorts were former Mayor Chuck Infelt, and Joanne Jones, the co-presidents of the Wartburg Community Symphony, a non-profit organization committed to bringing “great music to the community.”
The Amahl puppets, which were commissioned for a production of “Amahl” attended by Queen Elizabeth to celebrate the opening of Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1997, will make their artistic debut in town at 3 p.m. on Dec. 15, at Neumann Auditorium.
Tickets are $17 for adults, $7 for youth in kindergarten through 12th grade, and kids under 5 are free. There is also a special family ticket for $25 available at the Waverly Chamber of Commerce office during regular hours or at the Pink Daisy during Christmas Greetings on Main on Dec. 12 for advance purchase by cash or check, which includes admission for two adults plus children.
The performance will be nothing short of an unique cultural event in the Cedar Valley.
The puppets will be joined on stage by the symphony, under the direction of its new conductor, Sam Stapleton.
Local talent will perform the songs. Travis Toliver, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, will be Balthazar, one of the three Biblical Magi, along with Pfaltzgraff, the department head, who will be Kaspar; and soloist Gary Moss, who will be Melchior. Amahl’s mother will be voiced by Jennifer Larson, a faculty member, and soloist Karla Hughes, will sing Amahl’s parts.
Numerous dexterous puppeteers — many of them volunteers — will handle the puppets, which often need two people to help them come to life.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” tells the Nativity story in a one-act opera commissioned for television and first performed by NBC Opera Theatre on Dec. 24, 1951.
What’s fascinating about the opera is that in a fitting twist of fate its origin somewhat mirrors the lessons of the biblical story it tells. The composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, had accepted a commission to write the first opera for television by Christmas in 1951, but with the deadline looming, nothing seemed to spark his creativity.
At a loss and somewhat despondent, he found his mojo when one day, while ambling through the Metropolitan Museum in search of inspiration, he stopped in front of Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece “The Adoration of the Kings.” Suddenly, the scene took the composer back to his childhood and the many happy Christmases he had experienced in his native Italy.
At that moment, the composer realized that the Three Kings had brought him the gift of inspiration he so viscerally desired, and the opera was born.
The Waverly performance will be a perfectly timed, meaningful gift for the holiday season, Pfaltzgraff said.
It is a fairy tale with an enduring message about the true meaning of love and the far-reaching impact of its power.
It recaptures the promise and innocence of childhood, told through the eyes of a disabled boy.
“It is a wonderful story about redemption and about the fact that the material world is not all that there is,” Pfaltzgraff said. “It is about the message that ‘On love His kingdom shall be founded.’”