Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" has become a classic during the lifetime of its composer. And Utah Opera presents its popular rendition of the Christmas favorite this weekend, with four performances at the Capitol Theatre - on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 8 and 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets, priced between $6 and $20, are on sale at the Utah Opera box office in the theater, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 524-8383.

Sharing the bill is another Christmas classic, "Hansel and Gretel," in Engelbert Humperdinck's setting of the Grimm Brothers' famous fairy tale. For Utah Opera, its original two acts have been reduced to a one-act series of highlights.A new set has been designed for "Hansel and Gretel" by Ariel Ballif, who also designed Utah Opera's "Amahl" some years ago. Both settings have an intimate feeling, with interiors of humble cottages - the shepherd's cot in "Amahl," and the forester's hut in "Hansel and Gretel."

"But in `Amahl' I tried to open up the outside with a feeling of light and magic, even though it's night-time," said Ballif. "We have the star, and the expanse of the sky.

"In `Hansel and Gretel' we have the little home, with always the forest hovering around - a traditionally pretty forest much of the time, but it can get scary. There are lots of drops and borders and scrims, the trees move in and out, tops of trees go up and down to make the forest bigger, from a child's point of view it grows to awesome proportions. The guardian angels come down, seen through a scrim. Then suddenly the witch's house appears! Hansel's cage is a big birdcage that she orders down from the trees.

"And I wanted a more interesting oven than the usual pile of rocks, so we have a sort of tiled Nuremburg stove. When the children push the witch in, the top blows off, the witch is blown out, and the painted gingerbread children come to life."

Ballif has been teaching theater and designing stage settings at the University of Utah for the past two years, since the dissolution of Theatre 138, which was run for many years by Ballif and his partners. His scenes for "The Miser" and "Driving Miss Daisy" will be seen at Pioneer Theatre Company this year. He's also at work on new scenes and costumes for Ballet West's "Nutcracker," for its 1991 performances.

Though Menotti has composed a dozen operas, including "The Medium" and "The Consul," and has received two Pulitzer prizes for his work, it is doubtful if any of them has been so widely popular as "Amahl." For this one-act opera, as he usually does, Menotti wrote both tuneful music and libretto.

It's the touching story of a little crippled boy, who with his mother shelters the three kings on their way to Bethelem, then is miraculously healed and accompanies them on their journey, to give his crutch to the Christ Child. A hit with American audiences ever since it premiered on a national telecast almost 40 years ago, it's now sung far and wide to herald the Christmas season.

Joseph Heninger-Potter recreates the title role, returning after last year's successful appearances. He attends Skyline High, where he sang the lead in "Free to be Me," an anti-drug program, and "America's Treasures," a puppet show about the Constitution, performed in schools around the state. He's soloed with the Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and has sung at the Assembly Hall, Cathedral of the Madeleine, Provo Tabernacle and Kingsbury Hall.

Tricia Swanson, who sings his mother, was trained in Arizona where she sang leading opera roles in Mesa. She currently performs for Young Audiences and the Utah Opera in Schools program, and is a member of the Utah Opera chorus.

For the 12th year, the lineup for the three kings remains unchanged - filled by veteran performers with Utah Opera: Dave Arnold as Kaspar, Don Becker as Melchior and William Goeglein as Balthazar. All have been with the company from its beginnings, singing many supporting and leading roles, and guesting with other companies. Greg Griffiths will sing the page.

"Hansel and Gretel" is almost 100 years old, having been composed in 1891, and on Christmas Day 1931 it was the first opera ever to be heard live from the Metropolitan Opera on the famous Saturday radio broadcasts.

Soprano Susan Deauvono, most recently seen here as Olympia in "The Tales of Hoffmann," will sing Gretel, as she did last season. She too is a veteran of Utah Opera, singing Musetta in the 1978 production of "La Boheme," and continuing with parts in a dozen operas, including "The Merry Widow," "The Magic Flute" and "Die Fledermaus."

Andrea Evans, a frequent bit player with Utah Opera during the past few years, assumes her largest role yet as Hansel. Evans received her master's degree from Brigham Young University, where she sang in many productions.

Mezzo-soprano Diane Beesley returns to re-create the Witch. Beesley's many Utah Opera roles include Berta in "The Barber of Seville," Suzuki in "Madame Butterfly" and Marcellina in "The Marriage of Figaro." She also sings for Opera in the Schools. Elizabeth Paniagua will sing the Dew Fairy, and the Sandman will be Karen Larsen.

Utah Opera's music director, Byron Dean Ryan, will conduct the singers and Utah Chamber Orchestra in both operas, with Daniel Helfgot as stage director. Currently director of production for Opera San Jose, Helfgot has directed more than 80 operas in the past 20 years, in Europe, in South America - including Buenos Aires' Teatro Colon - and in the United States, including companies in Baltimore, Knoxville, Eugene and the Western Opera Theatre of San Francisco. Lighting is by Greg Geilmann, with costumes by Susan Memmott Allred.