Ballet has “The Nutcracker” as its time-tested Christmas classic, and what yuletide season would be complete without the theater world’s productions of “A Christmas Carol”? But the opera world has never had such a reliable holiday staple.
Sure, there is Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” but it receives only occasional performances. And some companies stage Engelbert Humperdinck’s 19th-century adaption of “Hansel and Gretel,” though how appropriate its grim story line is for such a festive time is open to question.
Indeed, the need for another option popped into composer Mark Adamo’s head while he was watching a rehearsal of “Hansel and Gretel” in 2006 while in residence at the New York City Opera. He wrote in his notebook two words: “Christmas opera,” an idea he returned to in earnest in 2013 in conjunction with the Dallas Opera.
The Chicago Opera Theater will become just the second company to present the resulting 2015 family opera, “Becoming Santa Claus,” with performances Dec. 11, 17 and 19 at the Studebaker Theater in the downtown Fine Arts Building.
“I felt I can’t really do a children’s piece,” Adamo said. “What I can do is something that is pretty close in tone to, say, a Pixar film, in which there are levels that only children will get but there are also levels that adults will get.”
“Becoming Santa Claus” is the fourth opera that Adamo has composed. (He also wrote the libretto based on his own original story.) His most famous work, a 1998 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, “Little Women,” is one of the most frequently staged operas of the past couple of decades.
Put simply, this latest creation, which runs 85 minutes and incorporates a cast of seven, explains how Santa Claus became Santa Claus. In Adamo’s telling, the future St. Nicholas is a selfish, recalcitrant teenage elfin prince who discovers the joy and meaning of gift-giving.
“It has a big twist at the end,” said tenor Martin Bakari, who is making his Chicago Opera Theater debut. “It’s like ‘The Sixth Sense’ but not nearly as weird or eerie or scary.”
Bakari never imagined himself portraying Santa Claus before he got an offer to sing the central role. “I started looking in the mirror: Have I gained weight?” he said with a chuckle. But, as a 34-year-old, he portrays not the portly, chimney-jumping icon but a much younger version of the character — no small challenge.
“I’d like to think there is some charm in being able to see a person such as myself portraying a 13-year-old,” he said.
“Becoming Santa Claus” touches on such timeless themes as family, love and forgiveness. “There are things,” Bakari said, “that will not only make us laugh but also move us and resonate with us beyond the end of the show, these universal concepts of humanity that we like to highlight and embrace around Christmas.”
Lidiya Yankovskaya, Chicago Opera Theater’s music director, has long admired Adamo, whom she called a “brilliant composer and librettist.” She believes his work has not been featured enough in Chicago, and she saw the fun and touching “Becoming Santa Claus” as an ideal way to help fix that oversight.
“This piece in particular I love, because the orchestrations are just spectacular and the writing is very clever,” said Yankovskaya, who will conduct the production. “Kids will love it. Adults will love it. It’s for anyone from the opera novice to the biggest connoisseur.”
She praised Adamo’s rich, tonally based musical language that incorporates trappings of baroque music as well as such solidly contemporary elements as bitonality, including a pair of pianos, one tuned a quarter-step below the other.
Indeed, Adamo sought to incorporate as wide a stylistic range as possible. That meant writing the role of Queen Sophine, Claus’ mother, in a coloratura or ornamented 18th-century Handelian style, and adding a number during a quartet for the four elves that the composer described as “something between ‘The Music Man’ and ‘Hamilton,’ except in an elfin key.”
So, can “Becoming Santa Claus” become a holiday opera perennial? Director Kyle Lang believes the answer is yes, because the work can appeal to audiences no matter their ages or backgrounds.
“It offers something new for people to see at Christmastime,” Lang said. “I love ‘The Nutcracker’ but I’ve seen a lot of ‘Nutcrackers.’ We find a good, common ground with this piece. It’s truly wonderful.”