Composer Mark Adamo knows what you are thinking when you hear the words “Christmas opera” (he can see the sugar plum fairies dancing across your mind). “It’s an opera about Santa Claus as a young boy,” he says with a laugh. “People hear that and they start looking for their insulin shots.”
When Adamo and The Dallas Opera’s general director and CEO, Keith Cerny, first discussed the idea of creating a Christmas opera, Cerny knew he wanted something that would appeal to children. He also wanted a drama that was as musically and thematically sophisticated as it was entertaining — something with “Pixar-like qualities” was how he pitched it to the composer.
Adamo agreed. For him, a Christmas opera would “only be worth doing if it could be done artistically.” A composer with deep roots in the theater, Adamo is keenly aware that dramatic works are only as interesting as the stories they tell. “I did not want to write a piece that depends on you putting on ice skates and taking the kids. You have to want to see it not just because it’s Christmas, but because the play itself is interesting. Otherwise you end up with a high-culture version of Radio City. That’s fine, but I am not the writer for that.”
Adamo and Cerny first discussed a commission for a Christmas opera in 2013. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent and countless hours of work put into preparing for the world premiere of Becoming Santa Claus at The Dallas Opera on December 4.
Commissioning a new opera is a massive undertaking for an opera company. The cost is prohibitive and the risks great. It’s a lot easier (and safer) to produce another Tosca or Traviata. But commissioning and premiering new operas has been an important component of Cerny’s larger vision for The Dallas Opera since he joined the company in 2010. “My goal,” he explains, “was to take TDO’s brand and to really stretch it in multiple ways. If you look historically at The Dallas Opera, we’re not a company that has been known for new work. But new works challenge us in lots of ways. They help us build new audiences and get people talking about opera. That’s really why I wanted to have a big, bold year like this.”
If big and bold was the goal, then Cerny has certainly succeeded. Becoming Santa Claus is the third newly commissioned opera to receive its world premiere at TDO in 2015 and all three premieres have been major projects (read: expensive and nationally significant).
In January 2015, TDO premiered Gene Scheer and Joby Talbot’s Everest, a portrayal of life and death on the world’s highest mountain peak that featured memorable, emotionally poignant music and a highly innovative production. More recently, TDO opened its 2015/2016 season with the much-anticipated world premiere of Great Scott by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. Peter Gelb, the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, came to Dallas to see the final performance of Great Scott. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a big fan of Heggie’s) was in the audience on opening night.
Dallas is a little late to the new-American-opera game. In the early and mid-20th century, only a handful of new American operas were commissioned and premiered each year. By the late 1980s and 1990s, opera companies began to move away from the opera-as-museum-piece model and explore increasingly contemporary works. Adamo points to the invention of supertitles and transformative works by John Adams (Nixon in China, 1987) and John Corigliano (The Ghosts of Versailles, 1991) as catalysts for this renaissance. Cerny calls what has happened in the field since then a “sea change.”
In true Dallas fashion, TDO stuck to its guns in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, continuing to churn out very conservative, traditional programming season after season. Cerny says he wants TDO to continue to produce the classics alongside more contemporary works: “Every year we’re going to do at least two of the top 10 operas, but I think that for a long time [we] over-invested in [that kind of programming]. Now we’re seeing this birth of very dynamic operas by North American composers. It’s great for this generation of composers, directors and singers. And it’s great for audiences.”
Over the course of 2015, North American opera companies will premiere 38 new operas. By any calculation, the commission and production of three of these by just one opera company is a major feat. The accomplishment feels particularly significant for TDO. While their Texas counterparts in Fort Worth and Houston have made names for themselves as producers of exciting new operas over the last few decades (including several important productions of Adamo’s works at both Fort Worth Opera and Houston Grand Opera), Dallas has lagged. Cerny’s choices of composers and projects for this year’s premieres are also significant, making a statement that when it comes to new opera at TDO, quality is as important as quantity.
Cerny began the process of commissioning these three works over four years ago. It’s a process that for him often starts with fundraising. Almost more impressive than commissioning and producing these works is the fact that Cerny and The Dallas Opera have managed to do so while staying within their budget.
Everest, Great Scott and Becoming Santa Claus are, in many ways, highly personal reflections of Cerny’s aesthetic taste and values. When asked if he worried about the fact that, as a group, these three operas focus primarily on the struggles of the wealthy and the white, Cerny defended his artistic choices. “If I’m going to spend three to four years of my life working on fundraising and working with my team to prepare for a new opera,” he says, “I have to believe that the story, at its heart, has something to offer all of us, regardless of ethnic background or income level.”
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“I’m interested in pushing boundaries.” Cerny continues. “I think good art pushes on boundaries. But I think which boundaries get pushed on is very much, in my case, the decision of the general director.”
Adamo is certainly on board with pushing boundaries. The fairy-tale world he has created for Becoming Santa Claus involves a sorceress, a sleigh ride to the manger scene and a thoughtful critique of capitalism and the over-commercialization of the season. Musically, bells will certainly jingle, but Adamo’s orchestration also includes a piano tuned an eerie quarter-tone down. Your kids will have a blast watching this opera, but Adamo has made sure that there is plenty of what he calls the “deliciously weird” for the rest of us.
Cerny wanted a big, innovative year for The Dallas Opera, and with the premiere of Santa Claus he is completing an impressive trifecta. Cerny’s vision doesn’t stop here. He plans to use the momentum (and fundraising opportunities) this year’s premieres have generated to commission more new works. He is already in talks with several composers about future commissions (he hopes the next premiere will take place during the 2017/2018 season).
Becoming Santa Claus opens Friday, December 4. Tickets and more information at dallasopera.org.