By Fran Zell
There’s a kernel of materialistic meanness at the heart of Mark Adamo’s contemporary, English language opera, Becoming Santa Claus, that doesn’t allow it to quite transcend the spirit of our mean, materialistic times. That may not be a good or a bad thing. It just is. Giving toys to children (“rich kids, poor kids, shy kids, sure kids”) once a year is easier than changing the world. So, when a rich and troubled thirteen-year old Elf-Prince named Claus (tenor Martin Bakari) gets enraged at his three Magi uncles because they’re too busy preparing gifts for an expected new baby in Bethlehem to attend the prince’s birthday party, he vows to outshine them by producing more spectacular toys for the child than the uncles possibly could.
Or to paraphrase the young prince, “frankincense and myrrh? Bleh!”
Chicago Opera Theater has spun its Chicago premiere of Adamo’s elegant work into an imaginative, high tech spectacle, rich with non-materialistic gifts: Mesmerizing voices; colorful orchestrations; dazzling costumes, set and lighting; energetic choreography; and clever graphics projected onto a scrim. All these elements combine with Adamo’s engaging score and libretto to bring humor, pathos and love to the lessons the bratty young Claus must learn in order to evolve into none other than the world’s first Santa.
COT is offering three performances of this 90-minute opera, with two more remaining (Dec 17 and 19) at the Studebaker Theater. It’s billed as an opera for the whole family—“perfect for kids, opera newcomers and afficionados alike.” The staging is kid-friendly, though overall, it’s more sophisticated than most family holiday favorites.
Adamo, who was in the audience on opening night, first attracted national attention with his celebrated 1998 debut opera, Little Women, after the Alcott novel. Becoming Santa Claus, his fourth opera, was commissioned and introduced by Dallas Opera in December 2015, and released on DVD/Blu-Ray in 2017.
Prince Claus comes from a broken family in which adults offer material things in exchange for time and positive emotional connection. The embittered Queen Sophine (mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen), with Shakespearean-like sorcery, has banished the king from their far north Elven realm. None of the four overworked and underpaid elves who keep this cold and opulent world humming, dares risk her wrath by speaking of him.
Yoshida-Nelson and Bakari, both seasoned artists making their COT debuts, offer nothing less than perfection in their operatic interpretations of a tempestuous mother and sullen teenage son at loggerheads. Adamo describes queen and prince as brittle and aristocratic characters who thrive on the “rococo vocal filigrees” he especially enjoyed writing for them. And of course Bakari, a charismatic, golden tenor, and Yoshida-Nelson, a poignant, powerhouse of a mezzo, carry it off beautifully.
The English subtitles COT always includes with productions are located on a screen at the farthest upper reaches of the stage, and easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. It took me a while to find them anyway, so I got to listen to the queen’s parental harangues much the way most teenage sons hear them—not processing the words, but certainly internalizing the emotions.
All four elves deserve a shout-out, especially bass Matt Boehler as Ob, who stirs up all manner of attitude and expression at the lowest rungs of the scale; and coloratura soprano Amy Owen, whoplays the innocent newbie elf Yan with a gleaming vocal warmth that melts right through the frigid world of this opera.
COT’s mission has always been to expand the tradition of opera as a living art form, while producing high-quality works new to Chicago audiences and showcasing top-tier casts and creative talent at the beginning of grand operatic careers. With Becoming Santa Claus, COT has hit the mark with all these goals.
Becoming Santa Claus runs at 7:30 pm, December 17 and 3 pm December 19 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Avenue in the Fine Arts Building. Music and Libretto by Mark Adamo. The cast includes Martin Bakari, Nina Yoshida-Nelsen, Leah Dexter, Amy Owens, Justin Berkowitz, Matt Boehler, and David Salsberry Fry. The opera is conducted by Chicago Opera Theater Staley Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya, and directed and choregraphed by Kyle Lang in his COT debut. Other members of the creative team include scenic designer Steven C. Kemp, lighting and projection designer, Driscoll Otto and costume designer Brenda Winstead. Tickets range from $20 to $150 and Covid protocols are in place, though there is minimal space between seats. For more information visit www.chicagooperatheater.org.