A daughter can’t understand why her father won’t allow them to have a Christmas tree in their house. It is, of course, a symbol of the deeper problems that run through a family in which a widower doesn’t communicate with his child and holds on to his grief. It’s the world premiere of the opera The House Without a Christmas Tree commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera.
Ricky Ian Gordon (A Coffin in Egypt) wrote the music and Royce Vavrek (who collaborated with Gordon on the opera 27) wrote the book in an opera based upon a story by Gail Rock and a 1972 movie on television that starred Jason Robards and ran for several years during the holiday season.
“It’s a situation where this man’s wife died. He (Daniel Belcher) and his daughter Addie (Lauren Snouffer) move in with his mother. I help raise his daughter,” says soprano Patricia Schuman who sings the Grandmother Mills role.
“He’s a very closed off person since his wife died. He’s become very guarded and very shut off. Grandma Mills, my character, is a character. People say she’s kind of a nut job. She doesn’t care what people think and does things her own way and I love that character. She’s the advocate for her granddaughter Addie. Because she feels badly that he’s not warm to her and affectionate and he’s not giving her the things that little kids want.”
Schuman has been a longtime fan of Gordon’s. “I have been championing Ricky Gordan’s music since before he was published. I commissioned him to do a song cycle before he ever got published. I sang it on my New York recital debut when I was just a young starlet.”
She also has worked with Vavrek (who working with composer Du Yun won the Pulitzer Prize for Angel’s Bone in 2014) before. “Royce he saw [the TV movie] when he was a kid and it was really important to their family as sort of an uplifting Christmas story. So he really wanted to do it.”
Gordon has written some beautiful melodies for this opera which is a one act lasting about 70 minutes, she says. She went to a coaching session at his house before coming to Houston and he told her “I didn’t try to censor myself. I just wrote from the heart without any kind of self consciousness.”
“It’s a simple story but heartwarming. The acting is really great. We have a wonderful cast,” Schuman says. Heidi Stober who turned in such an impressive performance as Cleopatra in Julius Caesar will play the role of the adult Adelaide Mills, her mother Helen and Addie’s teacher Miss Thompson. .
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Schuman says after performing opera for 15 years she left the business for a decade to raise her twins. Her husband is also a singer and both of them were gone a lot. Someone needed to stay home “unless we never wanted to see our kids and I decided I would do it. I was happy to do it.”
She wasn’t planning to come back either but what happened was somebody who knew her had plans to do a new opera and just assumed that Schuman had been overseas doing opera. “She thought I was in Europe someplace.”
Following that performance she was hired again and then the Philadelphia Opera hired her to do Powder Her Face. "And before I knew it I was performing again. And I can’t tell you how delighted I am. I can really sink my teeth into something that’s interesting and fun.”
Performances are scheduled for November 30 through December 17 at at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Friday, Saturday and Wednesday and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Resilience Hall, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida De Las Americas. Sung in English with projected text. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25 - $102.