Early television programming often was of an amazingly high cultural standard. Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, Philco Television Playhouse, Goodyear Theater and other high-class shows offered a chance to see great actors in great plays and adaptations of the classics. In those days, many more viewers appreciated not only good literature but also classical music, a fortunate fact that led NBC in 1951 to approach distinguished composer Gian Carlo Menotti to write the first opera ever for American TV. The result was the beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors , the story of a poor, crippled shepherd boy and his mother, who are called upon unexpectedly to put the Three Wise Men up for the night on their journey to Bethlehem. The opera premiered on Christmas Eve, 1951, and was such a success that it became a TV holiday tradition for many years. Although Menotti wrote many other wonderful works, Amahl is the one for which he's remembered, and the one Arturo Toscanini praised as his best. This week, Pasadena's new opera company, Intimate Opera of Pasadena, presents Amahl with a stellar cast that includes Suzanna Guzman, Greg Fedderly, Robin Buck and Cedric Berry, along with an extra treat: actor Malcolm McDowell reading Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.; opens Thurs., Dec. 16, 8 p.m., preceded by opening-night gala dinner; also Fri.-Sat., Dec. 17-18, 8 p.m.; mat. Sat. -Sun., Dec. 18-19, 2 p.m. (626) 274-7342 or intimateopera.net for tickets and prices.

Thu., Dec. 16, 8 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 17, 8 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 18, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 19, 2 p.m., 2010

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