It’s by no means a revisionist version of the Nativity, but when Ars Choralis performs Miracle in Bethlehem, an opera composed by Barbara Pickhardt with lyrics by Johanna Hall, audiences may be surprised by the vividness of such characters as Herod, the Magi, the innkeeper, and an invented but entirely appropriate innkeeper’s wife. “The story has taken on a new life, and yet the story that we read in Luke and Matthew is all there,” said Pickhardt.
“It’s a ‘popera,’” said Hall, “written in the style of opera, but the melodies are so accessible.”
The production will premiere at Overlook Methodist Church in Woodstock on Saturday, December 7, at 7 p.m., with another show on Sunday, December 8, at 4 p.m. It’s been ten years in the making, a labor of love for chorus director Pickhardt and pop lyricist Hall, who wrote the words to such hits as “Still the One” and “Dance with Me” by Orleans and “Half Moon,” the B side of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
The merging of two widely different musical backgrounds makes for a dynamic creative mix that could have been awkward, but Pickhardt said, “Working with Johanna is a pleasure and an honor. It always works between us.”
Hall, known primarily as a songwriter and music critic, has had a theatrical bent since childhood. “I am the daughter of a drama critic,” she said. “I grew up going to theater and knowing all the Broadway shows and standards. At the end of his life, my father only loved opera. He would be so pleased. Having the opportunity to do a long-form story like this is a lifelong dream for me.”
Her career began in the sixties, when, as rock critic for the Village Voice, she was, she reported, “the only critic in America who did not pan Janis Joplin when she left Big Brother.” A friendship with Joplin resulted, and Johanna and her husband, John Hall, wrote “Half Moon” at Joplin’s request.
The Halls moved to Woodstock when Bob Dylan, Todd Rundgren, and other luminaries were generating a strong local rock music community. John put Orleans together, and Johanna became the band’s “word lady,” supplying lyrics for several hits. The couple’s songs were recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Millie Jackson, Chaka Khan, and other pop stars.
In recent years, Johanna wrote about music for Woodstock Times. She also became a member of Ars Choralis, the Hudson Valley chorus whose repertoire ranges from classical to modern, with a consistently spiritual bent, whether expressed through Christian masterworks or through programs on subjects such as American slavery or the women’s orchestra of Birkenau during the Holocaust. The group has performed throughout the local area and at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, as well as in Europe.