THE tale of the Nativity is one of the most recognisable and iconic of all stories. Whether you are buying your Christmas cards or attending your children’s nativity play, you are never far away from the image of the manger scene.

It has inspired much of the music performed during the festive period, including many of the carols that York Opera have sung in their annual Christmas concerts, presented in recent years at the National Centre for Early Music in Walmgate.

For this year, however, York Opera decided to embrace events of the Nativity and have chosen to perform not just one, but a double header of productions strongly inspired by this story on December 16 and 17.

Each evening will start with a performance of Menotti’s Amahl And The Night Visitors, a one-act opera telling the story of a night when a young boy and his mother are visited by three travelling strangers as they follow a mysterious star that has appeared in the sky.

The second half will see a performance of The First Nowell, a staged production of the Nativity with music arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams and dialogue inspired by the Mystery Plays.

So why did York Opera choose to perform these two pieces instead of a more traditional carol concert? Part of the reason was the temporary closure of the York Theatre Royal, meaning they had to rethink their usual schedule of a fully staged autumn production, followed by a Christmas concert. They saw this as an opportunity to stage a production during the festive season instead, allowing them to perform two pieces that they otherwise would not have had the time to do so.

It was also a decision inspired by how the two separate productions come together to form an evening of "exceptional and varied" music. From the emotional story and exciting dance of the shepherds in Amahl And The Night Visitors, to the more reflective The First Nowell, the music perfectly blends the operatic and the festive, and audiences can expect to hear favourites such as The Sussex Carol and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, in addition to the famous carol after which The First Nowell is named.

There were further motivations for choosing these two productions, as chairman Hilary Dyson explains. “One of the joys of the Nativity is how many characters you need to tell the story, and we effectively have two casts to fill," she says.

"We have shepherds, angels and dancers, as well as two separate sets of three kings. It means that many of our members have the chance to perform a role, and show our audiences what we are capable of.”

It promises to be a festive production unlike any that York Opera have performed in recent years. What has not changed, however, is the venue, with the NCEM concert fast becoming an annual tradition. “We're delighted to be returning there once again,” says Hilary. ‘It’s the perfect setting for a Christmas performance, and we always get great audiences when we go there. We’re certainly enjoying the challenge of using the venue in a way that is different to our previous Christmas shows.”

Tickets for the 7.30pm performances are available on 01904 658338 or at

By Michael Foster