STONINGTON — Dara Blackstone wasn't joking when she said she hoped Gian Carlo Menotti would never find out.
Menotti, the late Italian composer who died in 2007, will not find out, of course, that Blackstone has cast a 13-year-old Stonington girl with very long hair in the role of the shepherd boy in her upcoming production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors."
"Menotti specifically said Amahl should be played by a boy," said Blackstone, the musical director and founding artistic director of Stonington-based Obesa Cantavit. "We have to do something with with her hair."
Cate Statchen, who will play Amahl in Saturday's 2 p.m. production of the opera, stood nearby wearing her shepherd's costume and winding her hair on top of her head.
Statchen, who's been singing since she was 5 years old, was unfazed. A former Calvary Church chorister and a member of New London's Anglican Singers, Statchen sang under Blackstone's choral direction in Connecticut Lyric Opera's production of "Carmen" last fall, and was in the ensemble of Salt Marsh Opera's stunning recent production of "La Bohéme."
"She loves to sing," said Cate's mom, Harriet Jones Statchen, who also sings with the Anglican Singers, as does Cate's older sister, Jane.
"I just tagged along with my sister," said Cate, a seventh-grader at Mystic Middle School who also plays percussion.
Blackstone, who is the musical director at the United Church of Stonington, said there were three reasons she wanted to produce Menotti's opera.
"First," she said with a smile, "I saw it when I was a kid."
The one-act opera holds a unique place in musical history, added Blackstone, as it was the first opera ever composed specifically for television in the United States. Menotti wrote it for NBC, and it first aired on Christmas Eve 1951. The opera was an instant hit, she said, and remains Menotti’s most popular work.
"Secondly," added Blackstone, "is the story itself."
The drama tells the story of a young, disabled shepherd boy, Amahl, and his mother, and their chance meeting with the Three Kings. The royal visitors arrive at their door looking for hospitality and some directions on their way to visit the Christ Child. When Amahl offers his crutch to the Christ Child, he is healed and able to walk again.
"The incident sparks quite a lot of comedy, some conflict, and in the end, a small miracle," Blackstone said.
Thirdly, she said, "As a conductor, I just love this opera. It's a gem of a one-act opera and it attracts excellent people to be in it."
The performance will also feature internationally recognized opera singers in the role of the three wise men, Blackstone said. Jurate Svedaite Waller will play the Mother, Daniel Juarez will be Kasper, Maksim Ivanov is Melchior, and Kofi Heyford will be Balthazar.
Elena Zamolodchikova will play piano, and choral singers who have previously sung under the baton of Blackstone in OBesa Cantavit, the Connecticut Lyric Opera Chorus, Griswold Players Community Chorus, United Church of Stonington, and Ad Hoc Carolers will also participate.
As the shepherds dance for the Kings, audience members will be asked to participate by bringing offerings of nonperishable food items for the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and the Jonnycake Center of Westerly to "help replenish their shelves after the busy holiday season," Blackstone added.
“To have people from so many choirs and my professional colleagues coming together as a show of unity, to deliver the all-important message of the first made-for-TV opera, is a wondrous gift,” said Blackstone. "It's a way to keep the spirit of Christmas miracles around for just a little longer."
"I'm just so grateful to be in it," said Cate. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm so lucky to be singing."
"She sounds like me," said Blackstone with a smile