It's that time of year when we start hearing admonitions to think about the true meaning of the season. And composer and librettist Mark Adamo is down with that. Best known for his acclaimed operatic adaptations of Little Women and Lysistrata, his latest is Becoming Santa Claus, a family-friendly Christmas work produced by Dallas Opera.
This was Adamo's assignment: Create a Christmas piece with the wit of his Lysistrata, according to Keith Cerny, general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera. "I was also looking for a chamber opera that had the appeal of the best Pixar films," Cerny explains, "where at one level they're for children, but in fact they can be enjoyed by any of us whatever our stage of life."
The commission appealed to Adamo. Raised a Catholic, the composer had already been toying with a holiday piece. But he did not want to recreate perhaps the best-known Christmas opera, Giancarlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, "which is wonderful," Adamo says, "but is a folk tale and rather dolorous."
Adamo told an audience of opera fans before the premiere he wanted to tackle the season's commercialism while weaving in the original Christmas message.
"And I thought if you could do that in some way, you know, in a kind of mythic, glamorous way," Adamo explained, "somehow use the character of Santa Claus to talk about, you know, the problem of 'Oh, it's the season of love, max out your Visa card,' that would be a show that I would want to see."
So Young Prince Claus is getting ready for his 13th birthday. His mother, the Queen, orders the elves to prepare the party.
"This setting would be perfect, were it not for that spot," she sings. "That silver is immaculate; this goblet is not. Let's concentrate, only hours to go."
Queen Sophine is determined to throw a big bash for her little boy. Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera is herself a young mother. Adamo wrote the part for her.
"Mark is a really wonderful writer," Rivers says, "and I was sending him emails 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.'" And I was like, oh, he gets it. He understands this feeling that you have for your child, that you want the best for them and that you sometimes make the wrong decisions, and that those are the ones that you learn from as a family."
What the audience learns is that young Claus's father hasn't been around much. So Mom spoils him, says Adamo: "There was simply the idea of Santa Claus as the original grasping 'What did you get me?' Christmas brat.'"
Queen Sophine promises young Claus that his three favorite uncles will be at the party. But they can't make it, so they send toys instead. They're off to Jerusalem with gold, frankincense and myrrh for the birth of a mysterious boy.
Adamo says Claus decides to get back at them. He orders his elves to create gifts a child could actually enjoy.
"The whole middle act of the piece is given over to the elves drafting these toys," Adamo says, "and the prince saying, 'No, they've got to be better, they've got to be more, more exciting' ... so you get in a certain way the sense that you're kind of thinking about the thing, as opposed to the gesture that the thing is supposed to represent."
But when they get to Jerusalem, Claus and the elves are too late. The baby, Claus' uncles — all gone. Young Claus, sung by tenor Jonathan Blalock, has an epiphany.
"May the shining things we bring him give his spirits a lift," Blalock sings. "If we can't be always present, we at least can give the gift ... and not just this year, but every year hereafter, not for one, every child in the world — rich kids, poor kids."
Adamo's boy Claus has grown into the character we know.
Bill Burnett writes for Opera Warhorses. He says Becoming Santa Claus is a sophisticated piece that works — mostly.
"It's not really a children's opera, as perhaps The Little Prince or even Amahl and the Night Visitors," Burnett says. "But it is an opera that serious students of music will find important and filled with wondrous, sophisticated stuff."
Christmas is complicated, says Adamo. We all know it's supposed to be about giving, not receiving: "I didn't want it to be just 'Oh, gifts are bad,'" he says. "Because that's not the way we experience it. I mean, there is a delight, even for adults in the new Apple whatever."
Adamo says if Becoming Santa Claus is going to work for audiences of any age, the opera has to be honest.