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A Kid-Friendly Holiday Opera? Dallas Opera Premieres 'Becoming Santa Claus'

Karen Almond
The Dallas Opera
A scene of a young Claus and elves from Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus permiering tonight at the Winspear Opera House

The Dallas Opera has never before commissioned three new operas for a single season. It’s also never before commissioned a kid-friendly holiday opera. Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” makes its world premiere tonight at the Winspear Opera House.

The request from the Dallas Opera of composer-librettist Mark Adamo: Create a Christmas piece with Pixar appeal, meaning it should work  for kids and adults.

Make it witty and accessible, like his often-performed “Little Women.”

And keep it small enough so most companies can afford it. Adamo didn’t want to recreate what may be the best known Christmas opera, Giancarlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

“Which is wonderful, but it’s a folk tale and rather dolorous," Adamo says.

Adamo tackles the season’s glitzy 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 says. "Somehow use the character of Santa Claus to talk about the problem of 'oh, it’s the season of love, max out your Visa card,' that would be a show I would want to see.”

Credit Martin Gram
Mark Adamo

Young Prince Claus’ 13th birthday is approaching. His mother, the Queen - also a sorceress - orders the elves to prepare the party.

Her character sings: “Let’s concentrate, only hours to go, and we’ll have a party, a party."

Queen Sophine is determined her son attend the big blowout, despite his reluctance. She tells him his favorite three uncles will be there. Mezzo Soprano Jennifer Rivera is herself a mother of a youngster. Adamo wrote this part for her.

“I was sending him an email saying I don’t know how you understand the mind of a mother so well since you’re not one, but you do,” Rivera said. “And he was always saying ‘well, I have one.’ He gets it. He understands this feeling you have for your child that you want the best for them and you sometimes make the wrong decisions and those are the ones you learn from as a family.”

Adamo writes Claus, at first, as a stereotypically rich kid.

“There was simply the idea of Santa Claus as the original, grasping ‘what did you get me?’ Christmas brat,” Adamo says.

We soon learn why. His father’s been missing for years. Those uncles can’t make the party and send toys instead. These three are off to Jerusalem with gold, frankincense and myrrh for the birth of a mysterious boy. Claus then tells the elves to fill a sleigh with toys for the child.

You might see where this is going.

Paul Curran, the stage director, says it works because these characters are believable.

“If we don’t embody what these characters are it really is what I call Helen Keller opera,” Curran says, “because it’s out there for somebody that can’t see or hear it. It has to be something that’s three-dimensional.”   

Adamo says early in his career, as an actor in front of kids, he learned a valuable lesson. It was an educational skit teaching 9-year-olds what was appropriate touching from adults, and what wasn’t. He worried they would reject it.

“If we went that dark, that real, I thought the kids would shy away,” Adamo recalls. “No! The kids shy away if for one second they sense you are dishonest,  if they sense it’s false. Because they’re not civilized like us, they’ll talk amongst themselves. You just need to tell the truth.”

Adamo says that’s what he did, using musical styles borrowed from Handel, from this century, and with a dose of percussion and holiday bells mixed in. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.