By Jennifer Willis
Following the immense success of “Dracula” at Halloween, the Ethington Theatre Series will present “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a feel-good Christmas story that has its own feel-good story involving a member of the cast.
“Amahl” was written 60 years ago by Gian Carlo Menotti and was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's “The Adoration of the Magi” hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It’s an opera about a disabled shepherd boy (Amahl) and his mother, who wants more for her son than to be a beggar on the streets.
The pair receive a special visit one night from three kings on their way to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus — and something wonderful happens that changes their lives.
For Claire Penneau, who plays Amahl’s mother, the story and her role weren’t hard to relate to. Penneau, who will turn 38 on Saturday, is a full-time student and a working mother of three. She has spent years as a single parent trying to do what’s best for her children.
“I can relate to Amahl’s mother because I’ve been there,” Penneau says. “I know what it’s like to try and maintain a household under difficult circumstances and to want better for your kids than what you can provide for them.
“Amahl’s mother feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she goes from this place of utter hopelessness and despair to something wonderful. It’s really neat to see her transformation.”
This is Penneau’s first year at GCU and her first performance on the Ethington stage. She studied music when she was younger but gave up the pursuit in order to have a family.
She made the decision after 16 years to go back to school and complete her education. She says the experience, while hectic, has been worth it.
“I’m passionate about education,” Penneau says. “I stopped my formal education to commit to raising my children, and I don’t regret that. I learned a lot from those experiences, too. There are more ways to be educated than in four walls. But I wanted more for myself and my children.”
Returning to school hasn’t been easy, as many adult students know. Penneau also teaches music to middle- and high-school students at Desert Miracle Charter School in Phoenix.
“I wanted to show my kids and my students how important education is,” she says. “Age should never be a hindrance to learning. I hope that through my example, my kids and my students go out and seek knowledge on their own.”
Managing her time has become a balancing act.
“A lot of people ask me how I do it all,” Penneau says. “I think being a single parent has really helped me with that. I’ve learned to focus on the task at hand and living in the moment. If I’m with my kids, then I’m focused on my kids. If I’m at school, then I’m focused on school. I’ve developed a sort of mental fortitude to just do what I have to do at that time and not think too much about the enormity of it all.”
Penneau, who recently moved from Tempe to Phoenix, says she has received plenty of support from her GCU instructors, which has helped keep her on track.
“I lost my mother within the first month of going back to school, and then a friend passed away from breast cancer a few months later,” she says. “With everything else going on, I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. But I received so much support here. I wasn’t expecting that at all. It really helps to feel valued, that your instructors care about you and how you are doing — not just in your classes but in life. (That) makes a world of difference.”
“Amahl” was written in a style unfamiliar to Penneau. It was the first opera to be written specifically for television. And it’s sung in English, unlike most operas.
“My background is in opera and classical music,” Penneau says. “Not only is this opera written in English, which I’ve never done before, but it was also written in the 1950s. I’ve never sung from that era before, so it was a little difficult for me in the beginning to get a feel for the style and the diction. But in the end, I really appreciate what the composer did. It’s a great show.”
“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” directed by Claude Pensis, opens this weekend with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The final three shows will be Dec. 9-11 at the same times. Call 639.8880 or email [email protected] for tickets.
Reach Jennifer Willis at 639.7383 or [email protected].