Notes on the opera Becoming Santa Claus, by MARK ADAMO
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.