In its perennial odyssey to find the perfect seasonal cash-cow equivalent to rival Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker and Alley Theatre's A Christmas Carol, Houston Grand Opera has come up with another ugly sweater.
Why is it that opera seems incapable of creating an original, contemporary, family-friendly holiday musical?
It's not HGO's fault there are none out there. Only Gian Carlo Mennoti's radiant fable Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) is the perfect Christmas opera. Maybe its Christian message is too blunt for today's diversity crowd. Too bad.
Last season, HGO commissioned It's a Wonderful Life from opera's most prolific and successful composer, Jake Heggie (Moby Dick, Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair). Sadly, Heggie's opera misfired with its utterly bland retelling of the beloved Frank Capra classic movie. In 2015, HGO revived its 2003 world premiere of Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright's Little Prince. Twee and undistinguished, it was no crowd-pleaser, although its desert setting and fantastic costumes overshadowed the derivative film-score music. In 2014, HGO premiered Iain Bell and Simon Callow's painful one-man A Christmas Carol, which drove the little ones screaming out of the opera house, never to return, swiftly followed by the adults.
This Christmas's attempt to woo the kiddies and their parents back to the “Opera Holiday Series” is Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek's The House Without a Christmas Tree.
This astringent, non-melodic adaptation of Gail Rock's TV movie (1972) elicits no warm-hearted nostalgic smiles, no snow-encrusted bursts of holiday cheer, not even a smirk of Hallmark card sentiment. We hardly respond at all. We sit in a stupor, hoping the work might eventually catch fire, while we glance at our watches waiting for the show to end.
Didn't anyone at HGO hear this work in progress? Or by then was it too late to cancel the commission? Who thought this was a good kid opera? Allen Moyer's revolving set is handsome Norman Rockwell redux, although it seems that the Motion Picture Production Code butted in and removed the toilet from the family's bathroom. The set revolves, the score stays in place.
No self-respecting kid would admire anything about this opera except its brevity; although at 80 minutes, it's still too long. Believe me, sitting in the Resilience Theater, House seems longer than Gotterdammerung, and I adore Gotterdammerung.
This is heresy I know, but can't composer Gordon (The Grapes of Wrath, A Coffin in Egypt) give us a melody that stays with us, something we can whistle when the show's over? Something, however brief, to remember the show by? Is it so reactionary to expect a hit tune?
Gordon gives us a faux carol to hang our ears on, but everything else is spiky, disjointed, or dull. Where's the music of the late '40s when this story is set? Where's the Big Band sound to set the mood, to riff and play against? Instead, we get high tessitura for teen Addie (soprano Lauren Snouffer) and jagged musical lines for everyone else. Gordon doesn't differentiate. Every character sounds alike.
Precocious Addie lives with her Dad (Daniel Belcher) and Grandma (Patricia Schuman). Quick to anger, he won't allow any vestige of Christmas in the house, especially a tree. You see, his wife died during the holidays after giving birth to Addie, and the scar has left him emotionally paralyzed. Why this has never been told to Addie is a mystery the opera does not divulge. When she wins her class tree in a lottery and brings it into the house, Dad blows a gasket. Addie drags the tree over to poor girl Gloria's house and gives it to her. This selfless gesture awakens Dad's inner child, and he buys Addie a tree of her own.
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Librettist Vavrek pads the plot with classmates, teacher (Heidi Stober, tripling roles of ghost Mom and adult Addie), best friend Clara Mae (Megan Mikailovna Samarin), and puppy crush Billy (Maximilian Maclas). It's all for naught, for these everyday scenes drag on the opera as if an anchor's been thrown.
Listen, I want kids to go to the opera – just like I want them to go to the theater. They must experience the exultant glories of Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Wagner; yes, even Gordon, if only he'd allow it. But he won't budge. He refuses to be accessible.
If the Holiday Family Series is truly meant for children (and children of all ages), HGO should get its act together. No matter how professionally produced – and every one of the company's holiday premieres has been marvelously staged – who wants to be turned off by the music? Eager and wide-eyed, we anxiously wait under the tree to open that musical present. This season we get coal again.
The House Without a Christmas Tree. Through December 17 at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Friday, Saturday and Wednesday; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 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.