Becoming Santa Claus — Critical Acclaim

DVD-Blu-Ray, December 2017

Visually and aurally stunning. Becoming Santa Claus subtly ties together the Nativity story and the invention of Santa Claus. As his own librettist, Adamo renders the story in witty and sometimes fast-paced rhymes — a hybrid, if you will, of Lewis Carroll and Edith Sitwell—and the words are decorated with vivid vocalism and a wealth of orchestral color… A Christmas-themed opera for today.”

— SCOTT CANTRELL, Dallas Morning News

An important premiere: a landmark performance… “I long ago resigned myself to the fact that I won’t witness firsthand every important premiere, every landmark performance, every great production that lands within traveling distance. That’s one reason why I so strongly welcome The Dallas Opera’s publication of the Dec. 6, 2015, performance of Becoming Santa Claus.)

I was absolutely unprepared for how much I like the opera: it’s anything but forced, and it’s only a pastiche in theory. Adamo is remarkably skillful in the way he takes practically every aspect of the modern American celebration of Christmas—toys, the birth of Jesus, parties, toys, “the day off,” toys, and a lot more—and weaves them into a story that is coherent, engaging, thought-provoking, and fun. We should also credit the composer/librettist for his refreshingly deep scrutiny of one custom in particular, and it’s an examination of which Marcel Mauss would be proud: without undue moralizing, Adamo manages to throw light on disconcerting aspects of the practice of gift-giving, and he does so without resorting to the phrase “true meaning of Christmas…” I’m reluctant to use the word “singlehandedly” in this case, because there are so many hands that went into making this DVD, from the singers (Jonathan Blalock and Hila Plitmann stand out, particularly) to the WFAA production staff; and I mustn’t leave out the handbell ringers, who provided one of the most enduring emotional punches of the performance. Nevertheless, here goes: Singlehandedly this DVD may have cured me of my tendency to shut my mind to anything new that takes aim at the true meaning of Christmas.”

— ARTHUR ANDERSON, Theatre Jones

A great Christmas present…From the start of the overture, Mark makes clear that, while this is a “family opera,” he refuses to talk down to child audiences. This is sophisticated musical writing, intriguingly scored — and in that respect it’s no different from Mark’s other work. He never lets the listener grow complacent; he always has a surprise up his sleeve. For all the score’s ambition, however, it remains accessible and, like Mark’s other operas, designed to permit extraordinary performances from its cast. It’s also great fun. When you recall that some children in the audience probably never heard an opera before, you have to believe that surprise and delight ran rampant when the kids heard the range of things the human voice can do… Now that the DVD  has been released, I’ll have the opportunity to hear it and see it often — and I expect that I’ll want to. (I’ll also want to see a live performance in a theater one of these days. Opera companies, take note.)

WILLIAM V. MADISON, Billevesées

Open-hearted amazement… Like Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, in which there are themes far darker than those explored in many productions, Becoming Santa Claus is not a pièce d’occasion to be performed only when the jingling of sleigh bells perforates the air. No: without eschewing the Technicolor pageantry of the season, Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus tells a very straightforward story—a boy destined to become a man of worldwide prominence must first grow into a man capable of understanding why the part that he plays is relevant—and Adamo produced a score in which the quest for individual purpose that is the soul of the story forms the foundation of the music’s structure; the development of thematic material in the music complements the interplay of ideas in the text, the musicality of the composer’s libretto meticulously matched with the poetry of his music… Both the vocal writing and the orchestrations in Becoming Santa Claus exude ingenuity, but the score’s complexities never mask the opera’s inherent simplicity. The operas of too few contemporary composers exhibit genuine affinity for writing for voices, and one of the greatest accomplishments of Becoming Santa Claus is the adroitness of Adamo’s vocal craftsmanship. Even when dizzyingly difficult, the angular vocal lines are singable and memorable—the hallmarks of effective opera whether composed by Mozart, Verdi, Gounod, Wagner, or Adamo… The Dallas Opera’s production of Becoming Santa Claus movingly affirms that, even for the most famous bringer of holiday joy, it is indeed a gift to be simple.”

— JOSEPH NEWSOME, Voix des Artes 

2015 World Première

A superbly conceived and crafted opera….Clearly intended to take a spot in the repertoire as a holiday piece in the tradition of Hansel and Gretel or Amahl, Becoming Santa Claus is an impressive literary and musical accomplishment. In its score, Becoming Santa Claus offers dizzying complexity but produces constantly engaging, striking musical effects; and Adamo pulls off a remarkable literary trick in managing to absorb the Christian nativity narrative into a broadly universal (and post-Christian) fable, while opening yet another pathway on his remarkable exploration of what an opera and an opera libretto can be.

— Wayne Lee Gay, American Record Guide

A wild Christmas gift… a delightfully inventive and over-the-top holiday show that explores Santa’s backstory with wit and whimsy. Becoming Santa Claus is entirely the product of Adamo’s vivid imagination: the plot of the opera was his idea, he penned the opulent, rhyming lyrics, and he imagined the wild musical score that drifts from Broadway to rap to Handelian bel canto to twentieth-century atonality and back again.

If it sounds crazy, well, musically it most definitely is. In the orchestra pit there is a piano tuned a quarter tone down next to one that is not, a harpsichord plucking along with baroque intensity, and some massively complicated passagework for woodwinds and brass to navigate. It seems as if Adamo, aware of the sugary fluff that often characterizes holiday music, made a conscious decision to flex his compositional muscles here. This may be a Christmas opera, but you won’t find any carols or schmaltzy waltzes here.

Adamo’s wacky ideas for the score work more often than not. Claus’s magical childhood kingdom sparkles with mystery thanks to inventive orchestration. His mother, Queen Sophine, is all the more convincing a sorceress when her songs and spells are accompanied by unusual tunings; (and) Adamo uses soaring bel canto vocal lines to paint vivid emotional imagery…the result is an entirely unique sound-world.

The cast for this opera is small and consists of just three main characters (Claus, Queen Sophine and a Donkey/Messenger) and a chorus of four elves. While Claus and Queen Sophine are at the center of the plot and have the most memorable arias, the elves are the lifeblood of this work; and they were exquisitely tight both musically and dramatically. They are the comic relief, yes, but they are also the engines that drive the plot along and their relationship with Claus makes his character all the more believable. They’re also just a lot of fun to watch.

With a remarkably strong cast, visually stunning production, spectacular stage direction and fantastic conducting and playing from the pit, The Dallas Opera pulled off this very complex work. Because all of the details were so carefully rehearsed, the piece came off as entertaining and touching as it was meant to be. It’s merry, it’s bright, and, in the best possible, most imaginative ways, it is very, very Adamo.

— Catherine Womack, D Magazine

A Pixar-esque opera with an explosion of kaleidoscopic music… It is the day of Prince Claus’ 13th birthday party and his demanding mother, Queen Sophine (who is also a sorceress) is driving her servant elves to distraction in an effort to make everything perfect. His absent father never shows, so the Queen has invited her three brothers in hopes that seeing his uncles will cheer up her bratty and recalcitrant child. They, too, are no-shows because they are busy in another story. They are the three mysterious Magi from Matthew’s biblical version of the birth of Jesus, following a miraculous star to Bethlehem. However, at least they remember to send gifts to their disappointed, doubly disillusioned nephew.

The symbolism of their gifts to the child in Bethlehem of Gold (royalty), frankincense (holiness) and myrrh (foretelling his death) completely escapes the Prince and he decides to have his elves make some amazing toys, which he will personally deliver. He says it is to honor this newborn, but his true motivation is to show up his uncle’s paltry offerings. The effort takes time, and Claus and the elves are running late. The prince asks the queen for magical help getting to Bethlehem but she refuses and, instead, gives him a piece of her mind. “This is not giving, this is revenge,” she hurls at him. Being 13, a willful age, he goes ahead with his plan anyway. Of course, the child and family are already gone. Instead of throwing a fit, he realizes that his mother was right (aren’t they always?). You can probably guess what he comes up with for a solution as to what to do with all of the gifts and Adamo sets his admirable resolve with 10 minutes of the most beautiful and moving music in the opera.

The question on everyone’s mind afterwards was: will Becoming Santa Claus become a new holiday staple or be relegated to “Christmas Past”?  I consulted my favorite oracle, my Magic 8 Ball, and it said: “the conditions are favorable.”

— Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, Theater Jones

Enchanting and full of wonder…Mark Adamo’s charming Becoming Santa Claus is likely to become a seasonal favorite for opera companies across the country…It’s a rare gift to find a truly novel Christmas story that doesn’t feel like a Hallmark or Lifetime movie-of-the-week. But Adamo, who also wrote the music and libretto, has penned an original holiday tale that connects the Santa Claus legend with the Nativity story with such simplicity that it makes you wonder why it hasn’t been done before… A surprisingly fresh and welcome holiday treat.

— Drew Jackson, Dallas Edge

Becoming Santa Claus looks to be a holiday classic in the making…For theatergoers and fans of ballet and choral music, this time of year is synonymous with Christmas Carols, Nutcrackers and Messiahs, yet opera lovers are essentially left with only the dark and twisted fairy tale Hansel and Gretel or Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Adamo’s glittery new holiday opera fills that void, and its broad appeal stretches far beyond the nativity story and the lore surrounding Santa Claus. With a brilliant creative team and cast of performers, this poignant human drama should appeal to children and adults, queer and straight audiences alike.

— Ryan Lathan, Out Magazine

An ADHD explosion of music and verbiage… (The) libretto, much of it delivered allegro con brio, is strongly rhythmic and replete with witty rhymes. Musically, Adamo’s busily textured score bristles with invention. A multiplicity of basically tonal styles seems to happen all at once: singers sing patter, arias, arioso and even, at one point, rap. Anyone expecting Becoming Santa Claus to be an updated equivalent of Amahl and the Night Visitors would have had quite a surprise… A brilliant sensory onslaught.

— Scott Cantrell, Opera News

Becoming Santa Claus affords distinct pleasures…The libretto, sparkling and clever, is the work of a superior wordsmith. The music is appealing, inventive, and varied, drawing energy from assorted pop idioms while maintaining a consistent aesthetic. The bustling, sassy music for the elves regularly delights, as do the overture and intermezzi. The music for Prince Claus and Queen Sophine is more dramatic and sometimes more lyrical in character; the best lyrical moment is reserved for the Donkey, whose recollection of the manger scene is simple and moving… An opera of great depth and clear focus.

— Mike Greenberg, Classical Voice North America