Tis the time of the year where many religions celebrate an array of holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanza. There is no denying that the season is dominated by Christmas. That said, this Christian holiday has been celebrated throughout the world for centuries. 2016 years to be exact. Our calendar is based on the life and birth of Jesus Christ and his birth, which signifies Christmas Day, has been celebrated with all types of art.
There are paintings, plays, movies, television shows, novels, ballets, and many other types of mixed medium tributes to Christmas. Today we would like to look at some operas that honor this Christian Holiday.
1. The Gift of the Magi
David Conte wrote the music to Nicholas Giardini’s libretto that tells the tale first made famous when written as a short story by O. Henry. The story is the same, Jim and Della are married but they are poor and neither has enough put away to get a Christmas present for the other. Della decides to sell her hair to buy Jim a new gold chain for his father’s pocket watch, which he carries around.
The love and sacrifice in their relationship is show when Della presents her husband with his gift and opening his gift to her, which was a set of combs for her hair. Della also learns that Jim bought the combs by selling his father’s watch. This opera premiered on the 7th and 8th of December in 1997 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
This story is a perfect portrayal of the feel-good sentiment synonymous with the holidays.
2. The Sorcerer
Falling under the title of “comic opera”, this Christmas piece was the third work by writing pair Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert. This opera was an adaptation of Gilbert’s short story An Elixir of Love, which is a Christmas tale. The story version was published in The Graphic, a weekly British newspaper that circulated in the late 1800s.
Alexis is the main character and he wants to prove his theory that love is more powerful than social standing. To do so he convinces a family of sorcerers to create a love potion and then gives it to the people in the village. The results are laughable lopsided couples. By the second act, the main character is given a tough choice and decides to sacrifice everything to do the right thing.
Opening in London at the Opera Comique on November 17, 1877, the positive reception of The Sorcerer pushed Gilbert and Sullivan to work on a fourth opera. The next production of their third opera was as a revival in 1884. The duo revised the show and the second version is the one that you would probably see in a contemporary setting.
An episode of Family Guy featured a song from this opera. “If you’ll marry me” from Act II is sung by characters in the episode titled Patriot Games.
3. Amahl and the Night Visitors
This next Christmas opera was created by Gian Carlo Menotti, a Pulitzer-Prize winning librettist and composer of Italian-American descent. The unique thing about this work is that it was the first opera to be composed to premiere on television. Peter Herman Adler, the director of operas on NBC, commissioned the work from Menotti.
Menotti needed a story and was moved when looking at the Bosch piece The Adoration of the Magi, which was on display in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This painting depicts the first Christmas when the Magi, or Kings, present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The composer pushed the limits of his deadline which caused the cast to rehearse in a flash. They didn’t even receive the final work until days before it was due to air.
Showtime was finally here and the stage was studio 8H in Rockefeller Center. The date was Christmas Eve 1951. Seen by nearly five million people in the United States, Amahl and the Night Visitors was shown on over thirty affiliates from New York to California. The audience that e Menotti thanked his conductor, Thomas Schippers, and director, Kirk Browning, on live television.
Although this is a rather obscure work Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first holiday special to be shown annually on network television. From its first performance in 1951, this yearly show included many of the cast and crew until 1963. NBC aired it every year until 1966 included with either The Alcoa Hour, an American anthology series, NBC Television Opera, or the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
4. Das Christ-Elflein
Our next Christmas opera did not find success initially. Written by Hans Pfitzner with Ilse von Stach contributing to the libretto, Das Christ-Elflein was first composed as secondary music for a Christmas tale written by von Stach, who he was romantically involved with at the time. This original edition premiered on December 11, 1906, and was deemed “ridiculous” by critics. They felt it was too childish.
Eleven years later Pfitzner reworked the piece and reset it as a comedic opera or spieloper in two acts. This version premiered on the same date in 1917 in Dresden at the Königlich-Sächsisches Hoftheater. Fritz Reiner led the orchestra and Grete Merrem-Nikisch starred. The critical response was mixed.
Yet, this opera is still reproduced primarily in countries that speak German as their first language. It was staged in Boston in 1954 by the New England Conservatory of Music at Jordan Hall. In 1955 Das Christ-Elflein was televised in Germany on NWDR.
5. El Niño
Falling under the category of opera-oratorio, which is a huge production with a choir, orchestra, and solo performers with the typical characters and arias in operas. John Adams, an American composer, premiered this work on December 15, 2000. It was performed by numerous groups including the London Voices, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Theatre of Voices, and soloists like Dawn Upshaw, Kent Nagano, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. It is reproduced regularly and was televised by the BBC.
Once again, the story revolves around the first Christmas. The first act centers on Mary and her feelings before giving birth to Jesus. The second focuses on the events following the delivery, primarily the carnage prompted by Herod. The works used to retell the story include the King James Bible, the Wakefield Mystery Plays, the Gospel of Luke, and texts from the Apocrypha.
It premiered in San Francisco at Davies Hall on January 11, 2001. The San Francisco Symphony and their Symphony Chorus along with the Piedmont Children’s Choir all performed. The next production was in 2013 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the same soloists from the first production alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In May of 2014 a unique production for not only this opera, but for any, was given by using puppets. It was staged for the Spoleto Festival USA and was directed by Joe Miller with the Westminster Choir.
PS: Cover photo is a shot from Verdi’s Falstaff. Even though it was not listed in this post – it is not even one of the Christmas operas -, you should watch it regardless!