Arts & Culture

‘Becoming Santa Claus’ adds opera to holiday calendar

Dallas Opera presents ‘Becoming Santa Claus’ at the Winspear Opera House.
Dallas Opera presents ‘Becoming Santa Claus’ at the Winspear Opera House.

When it comes to performing arts at the holidays, dance has The Nutcracker, theater has A Christmas Carol, and classical music has Handel’s Messiah.

But opera? There’s not a go-to Christmas title that companies can do annually to ensure solid box office. Sure, there’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, and companies often program their every-five-years production of La bohème in the winter.

Composer Mark Adamo might have a solution. His Christmas-themed opera Becoming Santa Claus has its world premiere by the Dallas Opera for four performances beginning Friday at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas. The matinee Sunday will have a live simulcast at Lincoln Center in New York.

“I liked the idea that there could be an actual Christmas opera that could introduce audiences, young or old, to the form in the way that The Nutcracker does for ballet,” he says. “On musical quality, you could hear it year-round.”

The result is the 100-minute-long Becoming Santa Claus, which is an original story inspired by the nicer Western legend of St. Nicholas (as opposed to some of the creepier origins) and the biblical story of the three wise men.

In the opera, for which Adamo also wrote the libretto, a contemporary family and a fairy-tale world intersect. The audience meets a bratty kid — who will become Santa — and his transformation is the symbol of giving that we now associate with him. The Dallas Opera describes the plot like this: “In an Elven kingdom in the Far, Far North, Prince Claus will celebrate his 13th birthday with the party to end all parties; however, a bright star has signaled a momentous birth. Claus decides to dazzle this newborn with an assortment of the very latest toys before discovering that love is the most treasured gift of all.”

“I wanted to do something about the complexities of giving things at Christmastime,” Adamo says. “The idea of Santa Claus as the ultimate grasping of this what-did-you-get-me brat. … I wanted it to feel like a lost Grimm’s fairy tale, but one that would intersect with sacred myth.”

Locally, Adamo’s operas Little Women and Lysistrata have been produced by Fort Worth Opera. At that production of Lysistrata, in 2012, Adamo and the Dallas Opera general director and CEO Keith Cerny chatted, and Cerny asked him if he had an idea for a new work.

“As a composer, you have a folder of ideas,” Adamo says. “I’ve had the idea for a long time.”

It would fall at the end of the calendar year 2015, a watershed year for the Dallas Opera, which has had three world premieres this year. Santa Claus follows Joby Talbot’s Everest (February) and Jake Heggie’s Great Scott (October).

The production stars mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as Queen Sophine, tenor Jonathan Blalock as Prince Claus and bass Matt Boehler as dual roles of Donkey/Messenger. The four elves are played by soprano Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, tenor Keith Jameson and bass Kevin Burdette. Dallas Opera music director Emmanuel Villaume conducts, and Paul Curran directs and choreographs.

“I think, essentially, Mark’s story is a modern story seen through the allegory of a king and queen in a fairy tale,” says Curran. “Mark’s is a response to those … and in our day and age, I think it’s a very interesting response to what does Christmas mean. It’s about what do we give of ourselves.”

Rivera, who was in the New York City Opera premieres of Little Women and Lysistrata, and for whom the role of the queen in Becoming Santa Claus was written, thinks this work has the potential to become that Christmas staple that the opera world has been searching for.

“I would be surprised if it didn’t,” she says. “It’s funny, it’s poignant, it makes you laugh and makes you cry, and it’s light enough that families can enjoy it. It’s like a Pixar movie in that it’s written for adults, but can also be available to children. Those stories appeal to kids because they’re not being talked down to.”

Becoming Santa Claus

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