Features

A Christmas Story

Houston Grand Opera presents the premiere of a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon.
by Joshua Rosenblum 

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An image for the prologue of HGO’s House without a Christmas Tree, designed by Allen Moyer
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera
“I felt like I could write tunes with abandon.”
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Costume designs by James Schuette for Addie in The House without a Christmas Tree
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera
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Costume designs by James Schuette for Addie in The House without a Christmas Tree
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera

“I'VE BEEN INVOLVED IN MANY COMMISSIONS,” says Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera, “but this is one of the few times in my life that I ever put forth the subject myself.” Summers is referring to The House without a Christmas Tree, a new opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek, which will have its world premiere at HGO with a run of eight performances beginning November 30. “I’m very much more inclined never to alter the process of a composer bringing me an idea. I think most great pieces have been written because the composer had the impetus to write them. But I was sitting in the auditorium for A Coffin in Egypt [the Gordon–Leonard Foglia opera that had its premiere at HGO in 2014], and I thought, ‘I really wish Ricky would read this book that I grew up with.’ It was as simple as that. So sometimes these things turn into very fortuitous pieces.”

Gail Rock’s book The House without a Christmas Tree was a 1974 novelization of the popular TV drama of the same name, which had a screenplay by Eleanor Perry and was broadcast for the first time in 1972. The plot centers on the relationship between ten-year-old Addie and her distant father, James, whose wife, Addie’s mother, died shortly after childbirth. The HGO production features Daniel Belcher as James, Lauren Snouffer as Addie, and Heidi Stober in the triple role of Addie’s mother, Addie as an adult, and Addie’s schoolteacher.

“It was a big part of my childhood,” Summers says of the book. “I read it every Christmas. And I knew that Ricky had to write this opera—it’s a very specific kind of Americana that he writes so wonderfully. He’s a composer who really has a balance between his emotions and his intellect. I think that’s what makes a great composer for the theater.”

Gordon and Vavrek first collaborated on “27,” their opera about the intertwined lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, which had its premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June 2014. “I liked the idea of doing [The House without a Christmas Tree] as a gift for Patrick,” says Gordon. “But then when I started seeing what Royce was doing, I started getting even more excited. I thought I could write a fun little piece—I didn’t have anything to prove.And I felt like I could write tunes with abandon.” This, as Gordon’s fans know, is something he tends to do anyway. “What I like about the way we’re telling it,” he adds, “is that it really is a coming-of-age story.”

The prolific Vavrek, who also wrote the libretto for composer Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music, had a strong, immediate response to the book. “I read it, and I was so unbelievably surprised at how similar the landscape was to my own childhood,” Vavrek says. “The piece takes place in a fictional town, Clear River, Nebraska, that has about fifteen hundred people. I grew up in this tiny little farming town called Sexsmith, in northern Alberta, Canada. It’s where I went to elementary school and spent my formative years. That’s where the granaries were, that my father and my uncle would deliver the grain to, and that’s where our church was. And when I read the book, I could really feel the setting—it just felt so familiar.”



 
 
 
 
 
In late September, HGO 
announced that, due to severe 
flooding damage at the Wortham 
Theater Center caused by 
Hurricane Harvey, The House 
without a Christmas Tree (and 
two other productions) would be 
presented at the George R. Brown 
Convention Center in downtown 
Houston, which will be transformed 
and pluckily renamed the HGO 
Resilience Theater while the
Wortham
  is closed for repairs. 

For the latest updates, go to
houstongrandopera.org  

Gordon sees The House without a Christmas Tree as an opera for audiences of all ages, but he was particularly mindful of the young audiences they hoped to attract. “For this one, I had to think differently in terms of the pacing, and how kids pay attention,” he says. “I think it goes from event to event quickly, it’s not long, it’s one act, and it’s a very colorful, delicious orchestration. It’s always sort of plucking and gurgling. I think it’ll be fun to listen to.”

“Mel Marvin taught me that when you’re doing a children’s musical, you have room for one ballad for the whole show,” says Vavrek, “And otherwise it has to move.” (Marvin, the composer of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, is a faculty member at the Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program, where Vavrek was a student.)

“I have three nephews and one niece now, all five or younger,” Vavrek continues, “and I was really excited about writing something for these kids in my life. It’s like a gift to the younger generation of my family. It talks about what it means to be family around the holidays, which are a particularly difficult time for some. It’s supposed to be a very joyous season, but for so many it reminds them of loss and promises that weren’t fulfilled. In the libretto, there’s a dream sequence where the father talks about promises he and his wife made before she passed away. So it’s all about how the holidays are a moment when we need to come together and check in with each other, because not everyone is as happy in these experiences as we are.” spacer 

Joshua Rosenblum, a composer, conductor and pianist, teaches Composing  for Musical Theater at Yale. 



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