Out composer Mark Adamo, on the creation of a myth with his world premiere opera ‘Becoming Santa Claus’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
It is the night before Thanksgiving, and Mark Adamo is running around Target, trying to gather the last bits of supplies for orphans’ dinner for 15 colleagues that he just found out he’s hosting.
“I’m looking for a spring-form pan because I am making a cauliflower tart,” he says. “Most of us are from out of town, and given that it’s the worst travel day of the year, [we put together our own]. It’s kind of a lovely confluence of people. Holidays are what we make of them.”
Adamo’s real-life experience almost perfectly reflects the themes of his newest world, the world premiere opera Becoming Santa Claus, which opens Friday at the Winspear Opera House. Following on the heals of Everest and Great Scott, this is the third world premiere by the Dallas Opera this year alone, and the second not based on pre-existing material … unless you count that Bible and several hundred years of cultural myths. But the story is all Adamo:
Prince Claus is nearing his bar mitzvah (well, he’s about to turn 13), and his helicopter mom, Queen Sophine, has spent years planning his party … so obsessively, in fact, that she hasn’t taken into account that her elves are exhausted. And where has her husband, the King, been all this time? Claus’ uncles (the Magi) are supposed to show up, but they are summoned away — some message from the North Star over Bethlehem. Instead of their presence, and his father’s presence, Prince Claus is offered presents. Claus takes this as an opportunity to do something nice himself, by taking a sleigh-ful of elaborate toys to the little unnamed Israeli newborn.
Santa, mangers, elves, toy factories, wise men, tinsel … they all cross-pollinate in a story of redemption and family, and the true meaning of holidays.
So how, exactly, did Adamo — the acclaimed opera composer (he also serves as his own librettist) responsible for Little Women, Lysistrata or The Nude Goddess and The Gospel of Mary Magdelene — stumble upon the idea to “create” Santa?
“Every opera I’ve ever done could be called Becoming something,” he ponders. “Little Women is about Jo becoming a woman, for instance. That sense of process is more interesting to me than the static exposition of a personality.”
The exact process, though, he admits “was really quite random.” Christmas tradition doesn’t play a huge role in his life anymore. “Half the time I’m not home [during the holiday]; and [my partner John Corigliano’s] father is Catholic, but his mother’s side is both Jewish and secular; I observe it from a greater distance, but not a hostile one. I think it’s more interesting to see how the rest of the culture enters the Christmas season. The show started out as such an idea thing — “let’s do something on Christmas” — and it ended up being such a personal show.”
The overriding theme that drove it? “The impossibility of being a perfect parent,” he says. “But I did not want to do something with a contemporary kid on the upper west side of Manhattan with two divorced parents. Precisely because there’s an opportunity to do this in a mythic fairy tale way, we can explore how objects aren’t feelings, they are symbols. They are what you send instead of being truly generous.”
The consumerism element needled at him. “I was imagining Santa as a greedy brat obsessed with presents and wondered, how did he become that way? Then I realized the first instance of gift-giving in [Western] tradition is the Magi — gold, frankincense, myrrh. And I thought about what it was like backstage at the nativity: Could the Santa Claus process be in the same place? I didn’t want to blend them — the real subject is secular Christmas, as that’s the ubiquitous one in society; the sacred is one you believe or your don’t. But in terms of myth structures, it mirrors my last piece about Mary Magdelene: Looking at these frequently conflicting versions of the same thing” and coming up with a synthesis.
As beautiful as his music is, and as driven by glamour as spectacle as he can be, Adamo is clearly a thinking artist as much as a feeling one, someone who looks for cross-connections. Though suggesting it’s set 2,000 year ago, it’s also a fantasy piece, and simultaneously one that lives within the Zeitgeist of the contemporary world. Divorce, “daddy issues,” kids spoiled by fancy parties: It could very well be a thread on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “We, are as Madonna tells us, living in the material world, and we don’t have the option of not living in it,” Adamo says.
That’s how Adamo came up with the idea for his piece, at least; bringing it to fruition in a world premiere is another story itself.
Adamo says his process typically follows three stages. The first is “an essay to myself — what do I want to see? How would I want to address it,” he explains. Then he constructs two outlines: In the first is, he imagines the piece as a silent film or a dance, and wonders, “how could I describe it just by explaining the movement of the characters in space and the relationship?” “I don’t use any language — what they are doing, never what they are saying. You can troubleshoot a lot that way. It also gives you a sense of a motif structure because of actions that repeat,” he says. Then he does a second outline “as if I am listening to a CD in a language I don’t understand — still not getting the words, but listening to the vocal textures and contours. What is the contrast between characters in one world and another? By the time I do that, I have so much information without ever having written a word or a note, the first draft of the libretto is also the first draft of the score. You can always knock the corners off if it’s too square.”
By that point, he says, the actual composition just flows, though there’s much left to do.
“I will frequently adjust once it gets to composition, but the way I try to avoid that is to outline the piece very carefully before starting. There are only three low notes in the show and I knew they would be at the end. You associate ideas or characteristics with sound. And then suddenly once and once only he’s at the lowest E-flat a tenor can hit, it means something. The controls of those contrasts are your strongest tools.”
Even with the outline, Adamo admits he hadn’t finished the score until about six weeks before rehearsal, “which is a little late contractually but not practically,” he laughs.
At that point, though, the opera is still just notes on a page, images in his head. Bringing a piece to life is the collaborative process that can go well or poorly. According to Adamo, the rehearsals for Becoming Santa Claus have amazed him at their fluidity.
“It has gone extremely well — it has gone better and easier than I imagined,” he says. “It’s strange — usually there’s a personal learning curve, but we all showed up and knew exactly what the piece was. The first reading just came off the page. This never happens! It’s unnerving, like a revival — I have never had to second-guess anyone in my entire artistic life. [Conductor] Emmanuel [Villaume] will make a suggestion and I’ll be thinking the exact same thing … before I ever get a chance to give my notes, everyone’s always on top of it.”
A world premiere has the benefit and burden of having no specific reputation to stand up to.
“The singers are unencumbered by prior productions, but also unguided,” he says. “It really does feel as if they are creating these roles because they came out of nowhere but my little pointed head. They don’t have the shadow of other performers.”
For himself, Adamo feels Becoming Santa Claus has been a discovery for himself.
“What has surprised me [listening to it come together] is the range of it — I just haven’t done anything quite this various before,” he says. “The family story is emotionally stark with a tender family dynamic, and then there’s this elf comic vocal ballet that is so surreal. Kevin Burdette is just doing splendidly well — very, very stylish. Then another character sings, and you feel like you’re in a different opera.”
Of course, as a gay man, Adamo likes a little spectacle with his message.
“I love the idea that there’s this gala,” he says. “I wanted the whole elf quartet to be a glittering celebration of the season, even though it’s asking really serious questions. You should come out happy then see Nordstrom’s windows and do a double-take. The show has an ending that’s emotional true but also ambivalent. That’s exactly what I want.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 4, 2015.