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A 21st Century Sleigh Ride

The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny offers insight into the company's third world premiere of 2015, Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus.



published Tuesday, December 8, 2015

 

Dallas — This past Friday, The Dallas Opera presented the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s sparkling, witty, and heartwarming new opera Becoming Santa Claus, to a very enthusiastic audience reaction. In my last posting on TheaterJones.com, I raised the rhetorical question of why should Broadway have all of the fun. As I noted in my article, opera companies often project some sense of guilt, or at the very least, concerns that the company may be perceived as lacking sufficient “gravitas” if they indulge too deeply in comedy. After all, this is opera!

Fortunately for us all, the composer Mark Adamo, who wrote both the music and the libretto for Becoming Santa Claus, has skillfully skated between the comic and more serious themes of this unique opera. When I first approached Mark about the idea of a Christmas opera, I had three primary goals. First, I encouraged him to write a work with consciously broad appeal, building on the enormous worldwide popularity of his first opera, Little Women. This meant, too, keeping the size of the orchestra relatively modest (fewer than 30 players), and a limited number of principals (7, in the end). Second, I asked him to focus on a libretto that captured the unique wit and wordplay of his opera Lysistrata (very capably performed by Fort Worth Opera a few seasons ago). Third, I asked him to write a work that appealed to adults and children alike, as the most successful Pixar films do. I still relish talking with a composer of such experience and erudition about one of my favorite Pixar animated films, Monsters, Inc.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Becoming Santa Claus at the Dallas Opera

Continuing the Pixar comparison, Monsters, Inc. works well for me because it takes a somewhat ludicrous “jumping off point”—i.e. there is an alternative universe where monsters of all shapes and sizes harvest children’s screams from nightmares as the source of electricity to run their cities—and creates a realistic world on its own terms that is faithful to that premise. So, for example, there is a factory floor in the film where the monsters are able to enter children’s bedrooms to scare them. There is also a “leaderboard” of scream harvesters (no doubt used for “monster of the month” awards), and an elaborate rail system that suspends the doors and transports them to the factory floor so that they can be used for scream harvesting (not unlike the rail system used by many dry cleaners). This rail system also creates the opportunity for a chase sequence unlike any other in film. In the right hands, a bold but unconventional premise such as this allows the writer to explore practical details of his or her new imagined world—a kind of exaggerated verismo.

Employing a parallel creative process, Mark Adamo has imagined a world where young Santa Claus lives with his mother, Queen Sophine, in an exquisite and elegant art nouveau palace staffed by elves (sets and costumes magnificently designed by Gary McCann). The palace is located in Nifland, an Elven realm in the very, very Far North. Scene I of the opera opens with the elves preparing for an elaborate 13th birthday party for Prince Claus. As it turns out, he is expecting his three uncles (who happen to be Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the three Kings), but they are all no-shows at his grandiose party; something more important has commanded their attention, and they send presents to Claus instead. Young Claus learns of the upcoming birth of a miraculous baby from a mysterious Donkey/Messenger (Matthew Boehler), and vows to “one up” his uncles by presenting more elaborate gifts than they can provide to the child.

From these three strands—a young prince and his mother (as well as an absentee father), three Kings who also happen to be elves, and an expected miraculous birth, Adamo weaves his Christmas magic. Just as in the case of Monsters, Inc., we accept an unconventional premise and the resulting alternate world. In the case of Adamo’s opera, we easily embrace the nearly 1,900 year time difference between the birth of our Savior, and the art nouveau movement reflected in the design of the royal palace (not to mention the elaborate palace uniforms of the elves and reindeer forced to comply with contemporary TSA flight regulations). It is a credit to Mark’s intelligence and wit that he makes this fantasy world with all of its juxtapositions, so convincing and thoroughly entertaining.

When asked to describe Becoming Santa Claus in shorthand, I often say: imagine if Noël Coward had written a prequel to the Santa Claus legend. As befits the Coward-esque style, Adamo’s opera opens with frantic preparations for an elaborate party by the four elves (played by the superb comic singing actors Hila Plitmann, Lucy Schaufer, Keith Jameson, and Kevin Burdette). As it turns out, they are one elf short initially to finish the party preparations, and the most senior elf, Ib (Lucy Schaufer) asks the new recruit, Yan (Hila Plitmann), “Have you ever worked the palace?” She sensibly replies, “I learn fast,” even as some of her new colleagues fret about a “looming disaster.” As the newcomer, Yan plays a vital role over the course of the opera by asking questions and helping the audience to uncover the story (and the mystery of the absent King).

Early in Scene 1, having heard from her fellow elves about Prince Claus (Jonathan Blalock) and Queen Sophine (Jennifer Rivera), Yan asks “What about the King?” Ib, Yab and Ob reply together, in a panic, “What King?” Yan remarks “When there’s a queen and a prince, there’s often a King.” Ib ducks the question, saying “Well; shock! Look at the clock/The time is slipping away.” There are many comic moments in Scene 1, as the elves complete the preparations for the party. The Director and Choreographer Paul Curran adds to the sparkling dialogue by tightly directed, and often fully choreographed, moments. His use of stylish and often synchronized gesture also adds to the comic aspects of the four elves.

Adamo also incorporates Lewis Carroll-style use of language. Scene 2 is set in Santa’s workshop, where Claus is cajoling the elves to build ever more elaborate toys for the Child (and running ever farther behind on his goal of being present in Bethlehem for the eagerly anticipated birth). As the elves present one of the “draft” new toys, the elf Ob sings a rap-like song:

 

“A drawing room, decked with roses…

…a poodle eating strudel while a duchess dozes.

A dachshund on the davenport, looking bored…

…while a Weimaraner warbles at the harpsichord.”

 

Giza! Shadow of the Sphinx,

two crows and a crocodile quarrel over drinks.

The crocodile wins the point!  But even so,

the crocodile ends up (don’t ya know) eating crow.”

 

Between the second and third scenes of the opera there is an orchestral interlude incorporating video, designed by Driscoll Otto. For the purposes of the story, it turns out that the reason that Young Claus is even later to the Manger is that his sled with the magic reindeer takes a very circuitous route to the Holy Land. In fact, the magic sled passes on its journey through every city in the world named Bethlehem (presumably thereby gaining experience in rapid circumnavigation of the globe for its future role each year). The projection designer has shown Young Claus’s route using “Indiana Jones” styled maps with red lines on a globe. (It is probably no accident that the crisscrossing red lines on a globe resemble a Christmas tree ornament). Further slowing the progress of the sled in this video sequence is the need for the reindeer and bag of presents to go through airport security, complete with scanning machines, as each reindeer is scanned in turn by the TSA—an “inside joke” that any holiday traveler can appreciate. At the end of the sequence, the sled crash lands near Bethlehem, scattering its precious cargo of presents in the desert.

Despite the more serious conclusion of the work in the third and final scene, Adamo engages in wordplay and puns that keep adult audiences engaged and amused. When Prince Claus and the Elves finally arrive at the Manger, they hope to see the holy mother, her child, and the three Kings, but, sadly, they find only the Donkey / Messenger sleeping. The elves look about, hopefully:

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Becoming Santa Claus at the Dallas Opera

 

Ib: Cherished Mother…

Yan: Cherished Child…

Yab: All three distinguished Majesties,

Ib: Ovine,

Ob: Bovine,

Elves: …and most asinine…

Donkey / Messenger: Watch it

Elves: …of friends

 

Adamo has used the correct (and neutral) adjectives ovine and bovine, leading up to the correct use of asinine for the Donkey, which the Donkey understandably takes as an insult. And, in a subsequent exchange, the Donkey cynically asks “Heavy traffic around the Equator?” to understand Claus’s late arrival—another magic moment blending the past and the present.

As with Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s opera, Great Scott, premiered by The Dallas Opera earlier this season, it would be rash to call Becoming Santa Claus a comedy. However, as in the case of Great Scott, the opening of Mark Adamo’s opera pulls the audience into the action, and fully engages them, thereby setting the stage for more serious themes. By the end of Adamo’s opera, the audience realizes that the crux of Becoming Santa Claus is not the comedy, but the bumpy journey of self-discovery. Young Claus, understandably bitter—to a point—at the beginning of the opera because of his absent father, whom he perceives as uncaring, learns almost too late that the purpose of gift-giving is not to “one up” another person, but to share something of oneself. His self-discovery in the final scene is the catalyst for the reunion of his immediate family:

 

“This wasn’t giving. Only getting even.

This wasn’t giving. It was only spite.”

 

The initial comic moments of the opera bring the final more thoughtful moments into relief, and prepare the audience to connect with the real meaning of Christmas.

Working with this superbly talented artistic team has definitely been one of the highlights of the season for me. The rich creativity of Mark’s work; the outstanding ensemble cast, ably conducted by TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume; the innovative directing and choreography of Paul Curran; sumptuous sets and costumes by Gary McCann; vivid lighting design by Paul Hackenmueller; and clever animated projections by Driscoll Otto have all made a lasting and positive impression.

I hope that you and yours will be able to join us for one of the final performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9, or 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12 at the Winspear Opera House. 

 

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:

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A 21st Century Sleigh Ride
The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny offers insight into the company's third world premiere of 2015, Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus.
by Keith Cerny

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