• Iain Bell
  • A Christmas Carol (2013)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera Association, Inc.

A chamber opera in five staves for dramatic tenor and chamber ensemble

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  • Dramatic tenor (narrator)
  • 1 hr 40 min
  • Simon Callow
  • English

Programme Note

It was with tremendous enthusiasm that I embarked upon composing A Christmas Carol in early-2013, relishing the opportunity to set one of my most treasured stories to music; a story scaling our deepest mortal fears and highest hopes, told by the most wonderfully sketched characters all of whom I have held in the greatest of affection since my childhood. To be doing so in the one-man form as performed by Dickens himself was also a thrilling voyage in the operatically unchartered waters of a one-man-show.

Before starting work on the piece, I knew I had to be clear in my own mind about the story I wanted to tell. Rather than a cheery Christmas fairytale steeped in mistletoe and holly as it is often portrayed, I was far keener to explore the idea of Scrooge fighting for the redemption of his very soul and the fearful elements of his visitations from all four spectres. It would be through the plummeting of these chilling depths that his ultimate salvation could truly be appreciated and that the joy of a Merry Christmas could be honestly felt.

As a composer, I adore working closely with singers. This piece has enabled me to take this further than ever before, exploring all the nuances of the tenor voice both in characterisation and mood-setting. To be able to work so intensely with Jay Hunter Morris, a singer whose talent I have long admired from afar is an inspiring proposition. I cannot wait to see how he colours each and every character within the piece with his peerless voice and dramatic instinct.

Scoring for single voice also encouraged me into fully explore the coloristic opportunities offered by the chamber orchestra to ensure an atmospheric immediacy and intimacy that a work such as this cries out for, via varied extended avant-garde instrumental techniques, unusual parings and other means. The instruments were specifically chosen to enhance the tinta I sought to evoke, be it the tarnished silver of antique victoriana, the sepia melancholy of the childhood which caused Ebenezer to become the bitter man we know or the iridescent wisps of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Then came the joy of being able to create my own yule-tide sound-world; a delight in itself along with such ravishing moments as the slow-approaching dragging of Marley’s chains and the ominous, all-pervading yet soundless foreboding of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come.

To compose this work under the directorial auspices of a theatrical mastermind such as Simon Callow has been a veritable lesson in stage-craft. Knowing the one-man version of the work as well as he does, he was generous enough to share hugely valuable insights regarding pacing, relevant cuts to be made vs. parts of the text to 'marinate in' etc., and I was delighted that we were united in our ideas about the story we wished to impart.

This is a piece I am so excited to have had the chance to breathe life into and I wish you and yours the merriest of Christmases!

— I.B.

London, 1843
Stave One: Marley's Ghost
Ebenezer Scrooge, a callous old miser, works in his counting-house on a freezing Christmas Eve. His clerk, Bob Cratchit, shivers in his office because Scrooge refuses to spend money on coals. Scrooge's nephew, Fred, pays his uncle a visit and invites him to his annual Christmas party. A portly gentleman appears, asking Scrooge for a charitable contribution. Scrooge reacts to both visitors with seething venom, spitting out "Bah! Humbug!" bitterly in response.
After returning to his dark, cold apartment that night, Scrooge is visited upon by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. As punishment for his grasping, selfish deeds in life, Marley has been damned to wander the Earth burdened with heavy chains. Marley seeks to save Scrooge from the same end, informing him that he will be visited by three Spirits over the coming three nights. After the spectre vanishes, Scrooge collapses into a deep sleep.

Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits
Scrooge awakens, seconds before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past; an otherworldly, childlike apparition with a brightly glowing head and shimmering body. Scrooge is taken on a journey to Christmases of his youth. Unseen by those he observes, Scrooge re-lives his boarding-school days, his apprenticeship with the jovial merchant Fezziwig and his engagement to Belle, who later leaves Scrooge when his desire for wealth overshadows his love for others. Profoundly shaken, Scrooge weeps tears of regret before the Ghost returns him to his bed.
Stave Three: The Second of the Three Spirits
Scrooge is woken by the Ghost of Christmas Present, a regal giant clothed in a green fur robe, who leads him through the streets of London to unveil the year's coming Christmas. Alighting at a modest home in Camden Town, Scrooge watches the Cratchits joyfully prepare their meagre Christmas dinner. He notices Bob Cratchit's crippled son, Tiny Tim,
a courageous child whose kindness and humility warms his heart. Scrooge is then witness to his nephew Fred's Christmas party. He finds the gathering wonderful and begs to stay until the end of festivities. As their time together passes, the Spirit visibly ages. It shows Scrooge two starved children — Ignorance and Want — living under its coat, before vanishing.

Stave Four: The Last of the Spirits
Scrooge spies a shadowy, hooded figure approaching; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It conducts Scrooge to the home of the Cratchits who are mourning the tragic death of Tiny Tim. It then shows Scrooge a series of scenes pertaining to an unnamed man's recent death. Scrooge is desperate to know the identity of the dead man. He finds himself in a churchyard and the Spirit points to a grave. Scrooge peers at the headstone and is stunned to read his own name. He frantically entreaties the spirit to alter his destiny, vowing to relinquish his uncaring, materialistic ways and to honour Christmas in his heart all year round.

Stave Five: The End of It
Scrooge swiftly finds himself back in his own bed. Overcome with happiness at this second chance — and overjoyed that it is yet Christmas Day — he leaps out onto the streets to impart his new-found Christmas spirit. He has a giant Christmas turkey delivered to the Cratchits' and attends Fred's party, to the wonderful surprise of all the guests. As the years go by, Scrooge keeps his promise to honour Christmas with all his heart, acting as a second father to Tiny Tim, and is celebrated all London-round for his compassion, generosity and kindliness.

— I.B.


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