The Dallas Opera commissioned composer Mark Adamo to develop the music and lyrics to a new opera. The subject chosen by Adamo was the backstory of Santa Claus’ childhood and how he transitions from the privileged Prince Claus of Nifland – deprived of the paternal attention he craves – to the selfless champion of loving attention to the emotional needs of all children.
The resulting work is not a “children’s opera”, but a musically sophisticated fantasy, that explores a 13-year old boy’s psyche.
Jonathan Blalock’s Prince Claus
The task of creating the role of a believable 13-year boy was assigned to American tenor Jonathan Blalock. The leggiero weight of Blalock’s voice and the stylish fashions of Set and Costume Designer Gary McGann (and David Zimmerman’s wig and makeup) all contributed to Blalock’s transformation into a believable young teenager.
[Below: Jonathan Blalock as Prince Claus; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
In an opera in which all seven characters have complex and distinctive vocal sounds, Blalock was the evening’s standout performer.
Jennifer Rivera’s Queen Sophine
Claus’ mother, Queen Sophine, possesses magical powers that are employed to promote and to defend her son, even at the expense of her spellbound husband.
Sung by American soprano Jennifer Rivera, whose appearances in Adamo’s previous works Little Women and Lysistrata were praised, the role was written for Rivera’s wide vocal range.
[Below: Jennifer Rivera as Queen Sophine; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
The role encompasses, in Adamo’s words, “rococo vocal filagrees” and other musical devices to denote a high-strung, emotionally domineering maternal presence.
Lucy Schaufer’s Ib, Hila Plitmann’s Yan, Kevin Burdette’s Ob and Keith Jameson’s Yab
The realm of Nifland abounds in magical characters, including party tables, suits of armor, and other living palace decorations. The realm also includes four elves who, as Claus’ operatives, propel much of the opera’s action.
[Below: from left to right are Ib (Lucy Schaufer), Yan (Hila Plitmann), Prince Claus (Jonathan Blalock) Ob (Kevin Burdette) and Yab (Keith Jameson); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Each of the four elves represent a distinctive vocal range, Hila Plitmann’s soprano, Lucy Schaufer’s mezzo, Keith Jameson’s tenor and Kevin Burdette’s bass. In the elfin ensembles, Adamo cleverly introduces complex musical forms – which he characterizes as “singing on the edge”.
Matt Boehler’s Donkey/Messenger
The Donkey, sung by Matt Boehler, is the personification of a metaphor for a parent, who, absorbed in his own concerns, fails to give his children the attention they crave.
[Below: Matt Boehler as the Donkey; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Although a seemingly unsympathetic character, the Donkey is redeemed by opera’s end. Boehler’s performance was ultimately moving and nicely performed throughout.
Adamo, who had adapted American literature and Greek comedic drama for his first two operas, Little Women and Lysistrata, turned to a work based on recently discovered texts from the early Christian era for his third, The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene. [See my reviews at Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013 and A Second Look: San Francisco Opera Mounts Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” Magnificently – July 7, 2013.]
For his fourth opera, he returns to the time of Jesus to create a story wholly of Adamo’s imagination.
The Three Kings of Orient [the Magi] are each uncles to Prince Claus of Nifland, whose king, the prince’s father, has disappeared through his mother’s magical spell, because the King had failed to come to Claus’ three previous birthday parties.
[Below: From left to right, Ob (Kevin Burdette), the Donkey (Matt Boehler), Prince Claus (Jonathan Blalock), Ib (Lucy Schaufer) and Yab (Keith Jameson); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
The Magi send the Donkey to apologize that they are unable to attend Claus’ party. They have been beckoned by a star shining over Bethlehem, heralding the baby Jesus to whom they are bringing gifts.
Claus, whose only consolation on his fatherless birthdays was enjoying the toys he received, regards gold, frankincense and myrrh as terrible gifts for a child, whom he believes should have toys instead. He decides he will upstage his uncles by delivering toys in person (calling upon his mother’s magic to create a reindeer and sleigh transportation system).
Claus’ reaction is to enlist the elves in creating toys and other presents for the newborn child. The attempt to deliver the presents proves to be unsuccessful, but it gives Claus the idea that every child should receive presents (and parental love), not for just that Christmas but for all time.
The Dallas Opera production
Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” is the third Dallas Opera commission to have a world premiere this year, following Joby Talbot’s “Everest” and Jake Heggie’s “Great Scott” [See World Premiere Review: Heggie’s “Great Scott” is a Great New Opera, Hilarious, Endearing, Sophisticated, Profound – The Dallas Opera, October 30, 2015.]
The staggering commitment of resources by The Dallas Opera to new American operas, which included “Moby Dick”, the most successful 21st century American opera [see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010], has raised the company’s stature in the operatic world.
In launching “Becoming Santa Claus”, the great Scottish director Paul Curran was enlisted to stage it.
The conducting assignment was assumed by The Dallas Opera’s music director Emmanuel Villaume (his first world premiere of an opera in English). The Dallas Opera Orchestra performed under his direction with distinction.
[Below: The lighting design for “Becoming Santa Claus”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
A brilliant technical team – Gary McCann (sets and costumes), Paul Hackenmueller (lighting), Driscoll Otto (projections) and David Zimmerman (wigs and makeup) – gave the new opera a brilliant sendoff.
The opera’s finale included lines of bell-ringing children appearing in each aisle of the darkened theater and an extraordinary display of the theater’s ceiling lights that formed the image of a Christmas tree. The story’s resolution was endearing, the music accompanying it particularly effective.
The audience reaction at opera’s end was warm and strongly positive.
Early Thoughts on a New Work
The opera and staging have impressive strengths which the resources of The Dallas Opera highlighted.
In contemplating the work’s future, as it moves into smaller venues and is presented as a “holiday season opera”, I can imagine useful discussions on performance details, perhaps even inserting an intermission in the one hour 40 minute long work. Such discussions might include some tweaks to the character of Queen Sophine, to clarify whether her motivations are principally maternal (towards her son) or spiteful (towards the King).
I recommend this opera by all those who appreciate contemporary American opera and the new forces that are transforming it.
For further information, see my conversation with Adamo: Redemption for Mary Magdalene: An Interview with Mark Adamo