The Dallas Opera has never before commissioned three new operas for a single season. It’s also never before commissioned a kid friendly holiday opera. KERA’s Bill Zeeble previews Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus,” which makes its world premiere tonight at the Winspear Opera House.
The Dallas Opera asked composer-librettist Mark Adamo for a couple things: Create a Christmas piece with Pixar appeal, meaning it should work for kids and adults. Make it witty and accessible, like his often performed “Little Women.” And keep it small enough so most companies can afford it. Adamo didn’t’ want to recreate what may be the best known Christmas opera, Giancarlo Menotti’s, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
That work “is wonderful but, it’s a folk tale and rather dolorous,” says Adamo.
Instead, Adamo tackles the season’s glitzy commercialism while weaving in the original and historic Christmas message.
“And I thought if you could do that in some way, you know in a kind of mythic, glamorous way, somehow use the character of Santa Claus to talk about the problem of oh it’s the season of love, max out your Visa card, that would be a show I would want to see.”
Young Prince Claus’s 13th birthday is approaching, His mother the Queen – also a sorceress – orders the elves to prepare the party.
Queen Sophine is determined her son attend the big blowout, despite his reluctance. She tells him his favorite three uncles will be there.
Mezzo Soprano Jennifer Rivera is herself a mother of a youngster. Adamo wrote the part of the Queen for her.
“I was sending him email saying I don’t know how you understand the mind of a mother so well since you’re not one, but you do. And he was always saying ‘well I have one,’” says Rivera. “He gets it. He understands this feeling you have for your child that you want the best for them and you sometimes make the wrong decisions and those are the ones you learn from as a family.”
Adamo writes Claus, at first, as a stereotypically rich kid.
“There was simply the idea of Santa Claus as the original, grasping ‘what did you get me?’ Christmas brat.”
We soon learn why. His father’s been missing for years. Those uncles can’t make the party, and send toys instead. These three are off to Jerusalem with gold, frankincense and myrrh for the birth of a mysterious boy. Claus then tells the elves to fill a sleigh with toys for the child. You might see where this is going.
Paul Curran, the stage director, says it works because these characters are believable. “If we don’t embody what these characters are it really is what I call Helen Keller opera, because it’s out there for somebody that can’t see or hear it. It has to be something that’s 3-dimensional.”
Adamo says early in his career, as an actor in front of kids, he learned a valuable lesson. It was an educational skit teaching 9-year-olds what was appropriate touching from adults, and what wasn’t. He worried they would reject it.
“If we went that dark, that real, I thought the kids would shy away. No, the kids shy away if for one second they sense you are dishonest, if they sense its false, because they’re not civilized like us, they’ll talk amongst them selves. You just need to tell the truth.”
Adamo says that’s what he did, using musical styles borrowed from Handel, from this century, with a dose of percussion and holiday bells mixed in.