Commissioned by The Dallas Opera, Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO, Emmanuel Villaume, Music Director
The following arias for voices(s) and piano are sold by Classical on Demand: "Turn!" • "Toys!" • "Stretch!" • "The Child" • "And So We Shall" • "Moon-White Bird" • "Make Them Dance" • "Higher! Brighter" • "Sisters of the Night!" • "This Star in the West" • "Everything’s in Readiness"
QUEEN SOPHINE: Lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano
PRINCE CLAUS: Tenor leggiero.
DONKEY-MESSENGER: Basso cantante
YAN: High lyric soprano
YAB: Lyric tenor
OB: Lyric baritone
SATB Chorus; Dancers
While the Elves must perform as traditional opera singers, casting should favor singers with other vocal skills such as jazz improvisation, rap, and/or quasi-percussive choral utterance, as their principal sequence, the toy quartet, will extend as far outside traditional operatic technique as taste and ability will permit.
Becoming Santa Claus is performable without chorus. But if a chorus is available, those sequences which will benefit from SATB enrichment will be indicated in the score. Similarly, those segments — particularly the toymaking sequence — which can welcome, but do not require, development through dance will also be marked in the music.
Christmas is coming! Heard as a teen, the phrase filled me with dread. Joy, too: still, dread. ‘T’is the season of love! the culture shouted. So: buy things! (I mean here the voice of secular Christmas, the insistent voice: Christian Christmas invites, but doesn’t force, your attention.) I loved—still love—the glittering windows, the rushing, crushing crowds—and those generosities, personal and social, that the holiday both fêtes and fosters. But do those beribboned boxes express love? Or merely mime it? It’s the thought that counts, the cliché promises: just to be there is the gift. But don’t those January VISA bills ask how often we prize presents over presence?
My model is the oyster; out of what itches, make art. But art needs characters, process. I had only idea. Well, an idea and a sound: I’d long wanted to score characters in florid, neo-Baroque vocal lines, but I’d found few opportunities in my first three scores. Into the “Christmas Opera?” notebook I scrawled one line: “Elf coloratura?” Then, another line: “tween Santa Claus—Elf-Prince—as the original what-did-you-get-me brat?” I liked both thoughts. They led nowhere. Later, this: “first instance of Christmas gift-giving: Magi, Matthew 2?” That I really liked. Could I make up a world in which both Santa Claus and the Three Kings held passports? Could I invent a secular Nativity scene—the birth of a persona, rather than a person— and bounce it off the sacred one?
April, 2013. Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano nonpareil, is preparing to sing the heroine of my newest opera in San Francisco in June, but she has just opened The Aspern Papers in the Winspear. Can I fly to Dallas to coach her? Fort Worth Opera had championed both Little Women and Lysistrata—it was at that latter opening, in 2012, that I first met Keith Cerny—but I’d never visited this city, though of the company I was hearing brilliant things. I check in at the Ritz. The Aspern Papers triumphs; what a company! What a theatre! The next morning, Keith and I, energized, are mulling collaboration. I have only this “Christmas Opera?” notebook…
Keith’s intrigued. I dig in. The Elf-Prince trusts things, not people; if he had a good reason, what would it be? Who are the Magi to him, or he to them? History doesn’t help. Santa Claus’s mythic models are either ancient and sinister (Odin winging ‘round the globe on eight-legged Sleipnir, leaving kids only lumps of coal;) dignified but non sequitur, as in the case of the traditional Turkish bishop (in a secular fable? Why?), or the plump Victorian angel of generosity into whom my prince has to grow. I’ll have to dream it up. What if the Prince’s father used to send his child gifts instead of showing up—but for good reason? What if his mother responded by exiling the King—for what she hopes is good reason? What if the Magi are actually Elves, the Prince’s uncles (don’t Wiki it; it’s not in Matthew 2) and break their promise to attend his 13th birthday—for what they believe is good reason? And what if the Prince, stung—for good reason?—decides to make his own, splashier gifts and follow the Kings to wherever their star leads?
I began to see it: a drama of people who ache to have, or be, perfect parents, and can’t; who use precious objects both to show love when they feel it and to feign it when they don’t. But I wanted to give those objects their due; just because they’re not everything doesn’t make them nothing. What’s a good reason to love a thing? The second scene of the piece answers that question more completely than I can here, but I’ll hint only that there’s a reason art is the first syllable of both artisan and artifice.
None of this would matter if I couldn’t hear it sing. Now I could. Both Queen and Prince, brittle and aristocratic, thrived in those rococo vocal filigrees I’d longed to write. Four worker Elves sing syllabically through most of the score, but in two key Toy Quartets (a nod to the central dances in The Nutcracker) they sing on the edge—high, low, precisely pitched or smearily in-between, steady and rich or at maniacal speed. (They were delicious to compose.) I always write my libretti in song form; I love the terseness, tension, symmetry, and surprise of verse, and I find it can release melody within a score as prose rarely can. Apart from melodic logic, the music needed a high sheen, a glitter verging on the uncanny. I chose two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart, to give me an eerie but controlled path in and out of exact pitch. They sounded just right for those moments when elfin emotions surged beyond control. (There may also be a surprise in the orchestration, but if there is, why would I spoil it here?)
I have had, largely, a brilliant time in opera, but already—as I write this, we begin rehearsals in two weeks—working with this company has been, in a word, heaven. I hope you like the show; I love it here. But—while a list of people to thank could span the state—I must single out the Shea family. Their support of this piece has been extraordinary. It’s a great privilege to dedicate Becoming Santa Claus to the memory of Chloe Simone Shea.
In this original story, Claus is a prince of an Elven realm in the far north, son of a conflicted Queen sorceress and a King vanished under mysterious circumstances. No one expects Claus’s father at the boy’s glittering 13th birthday, but his uncles (the Three Kings of Christmas legend) are hoped for; when, called to the crib of a mysterious Child, they send, instead, regrets and gifts. The stung Claus recruits his quartet of hapless Elves to make the most spectacular toys ever created to dazzle the Child and exact a rejected nephew’s revenge. It doesn’t quite turn out that way.
Scene One: Evening: mere hours before the extravagant gala planned for the thirteenth birthday of Prince Claus. In the palace of the royal family of Nifland, an Elven realm in the very, very Far North, Ib, the no-nonsense leader of the palace staff, summons her staff: time to prepare the party! But only nervous Yab and rebellious Ob appear; various disasters have beset the other scheduled servants. Ib despairs---so much remains to be done—when Yan appears; more inquisitive than experienced, true, but eager to help. Ib explains that Queen Sophine, regent, sorceress, and mother of Claus, has been planning this event so obsessively that she hasn’t permitted Ib or her team a much-desired day off for over three years. When Yan asks the obvious questions: why is this so important? And where is the King, vanished years ago under mysterious circumstances?—Ib stonewalls, until she is interrupted by the entrance of Queen Sophine herself, who inquires after the Prince. None has seen him.
Alone, Queen Sophine tries to lure her recalcitrant son to the party; he balks until she reveals that his three treasured uncles (who happen to be Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the three kings of Christmas legend) have confirmed attending. Prince Claus joins the Queen in awaiting them, but uncle after uncle fails to show up, until at last a Donkey-Messenger arrives to read a letter explaining all three Kings’ absence; a star in the west has summoned them to attend the birth of a mysterious child, so to the Prince they have sent, instead, regrets and gifts. Claus, clearly stung, storms out. Yan, still full of questions, plies the Queen with Champagne until she explains the Prince’s current temperament. His father the King, like his uncles just now, had too often sent the boy presents as substitutes for the father’s presence, until the formerly open-hearted boy turned brittle and grasping; desperate to restore her family, the Queen decided to exile his father for three years, and did so by casting a spell which…did what? Yan doesn’t learn. Prince Claus returns, demanding to learn from the Kings’ letter what gifts his uncles have prepared for this mysterious child; when learning the gifts are symbolic medicines and ointments like myrrh and frankincense—hardly the stuff of a child’s dreams-- Prince Claus proposes that the Elves devise, instead, a sleighful of the most spectacular toys ever made, and then he and the Elves will join his uncles at the Child’s crib to pay tribute their way. The Elves are skeptical: but, lured by the renewed promise of time off, agree.
Scene Two: Midmorning the next day: the Elves’ Toyshop, deep in the bowels of the royal palace. Prince Claus demands a review of the gifts each of the four Elves have drafted during the previous night: to his eye, none of them are special enough. “They need to be new!” he urges (threatens?) Back they go to work: the toys improve, but the time is slipping away. Ib warns the Prince that at their current pace, they will never finish the presents in time to reach the child by the predicted time of his birth; Claus brags that he can persuade his mother to use her magic to solve that problem, but Ib isn’t so sure. Prince Claus wheedles his mother to attend the unveiling of the now-completed toys, confident that their glamour will persuade her to step in. The Elves give the presentation their all, but the Queen remains unconvinced of the Prince’s good faith: she decides she won’t stand in his way, but she won’t help, either. Stung, but undeterred, the Prince sets off.
Scene Three: Twilight, half the world away: a stable outside of a small, poor town in the desert. Prince Claus and the Elves appear, a trove of wonders in tow. The Elves ask the drowsing Donkey they find (the messenger from the party) to announce the Prince’s arrival. But the Donkey informs them they’re too late: the child and his mother left three days ago. Yan asks them to tell them what happened when the Kings arrived at the manger. Moving as the Donkey’s response is, it doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with a sleigh full of these toys when there’s no one to give them to. The Prince’s solution changes everything.