Mark Adamo: Becoming Santa Claus is my fourth opera, and my first to an entirely original libretto. It imagines Price Claus, scion of an elfin realm, as the original “what-did-you-get-me?” Christmas brat and traces his growth into the angel of generosity we’d like to think he is today. The Three Magi of Christmas legend materializes as well; I like to think of the piece as a secular Nativity scene bouncing off the sacred one…with Elves. The Dallas Opera, which commissioned the piece, launched it in style December 2015: Emmanuel Villaume conducted, Paul Curran directed, Gary McCann designed, and Jonathan Blalock, Jennifer Rivera, Matthew Boehler, Hila Plitmann (queen of the high E’s) Lucy Schaufer, Keith Jameson and twerkmeister Kevin Burdette sang and danced like the champions they are. It was a delicious experience, the reviews were terrific, and I’m delighted to report that a fantastically well-recorded film was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in September of 2017.
Synopsis of Becoming Santa Claus:
Evening at the palace of the royal family of Nifland, an Elven realm in the very, very Far North. Mere hours before the extravagant gala planned for the thirteenth birthday of Prince Claus, 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 and Ib is worried it will not all get done. Yan appears, eager to help, but more inquisitive than experienced. 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 who 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 they instead they sent the Prince 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. This made the formerly openhearted boy brittle and grasping. Desperate to restore her family, the Queen decided to cast a spell to exile his father for three years. Prince Claus returns, demanding to learn from the Kings’ letter what gifts his uncles have prepared for this mysterious child. Upon learning the gifts are symbolic medicines and ointments like myrrh and frankincense—hardly the stuff of a child’s dreams– Prince Claus proposes the Elves devise a sleighful of the most spectacular toys ever made. 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 at 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. He decides none of them are special enough. “They need to be new!” he urges. The elves go back to working on new toys. The toys improve, but 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 with 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 what happened when the Kings arrived at the manger. As 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.