Christmas operas are operas which are thematically based on either the Nativity of Jesus or secular Christmas stories. The earliest Christmas operas appeared in the early 17th century, not long after the creation of the art form. Because of the ban on secular theatrical works during the season of Advent, these early Christmas operas, while elaborately staged, were based on religious themes relating to the Nativity. By the mid 19th century the ban on secular operas during Advent had ceased, and operas based on a wider array of Christmas themes, such as Santa Claus and King Wenceslaus, emerged. Several operas have been inspired by Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, including works by composers Bernard Herrmann and Thea Musgrave. The story of the Magi has also been the basis of several operas, including Gian Carlo Menotti's 1951 opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Initially written for television performance, Menotti's opera has become the only modern Christmas opera to earn an enduring place in the live opera performance repertoire. In the 21st century, composer Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2011) achieved critical success and won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012.
The first Christmas operas, dating from the early 17th century, had librettos based on the Nativity of Jesus and were privately performed. At various times well into the 19th century, public theatres in Italy and other Catholic countries were closed during the season of Advent, the four weeks up to and including Christmas Eve. The opera season customarily recommenced on St. Stephen's Day, 26 December. Numerous world premieres have taken place in Italy on that day, although all were on secular subjects and unrelated to Christmas.[a] The prohibition of secular theatrical performances during Advent was to some extent circumvented by the performance of azioni sacre, operas on religious themes, often with elaborate staging. One of the earliest Christmas operas of this type was Giovanni Battista da Gagliano and Jacopo Peri's Il gran natale di Christo salvator nostro (The Great Nativity of Christ, Our Saviour), first performed on Christmas Day 1622.
On Christmas Eve 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was premiered by the NBC Opera Theater as the inaugural presentation made by the newly created Hallmark Hall of Fame. The first opera written specifically for television, it was immensely popular at its premiere and was dubbed by Life magazine as a Christmas Classic in 1952. Menotti never intended for the work to remain solely confined to the medium of television, and Amahl and the Night Visitors has since been the only Christmas themed opera to become an enduring part of the live opera performance repertory; particularly with smaller opera companies and at colleges and music conservatories. While predominately overlooked by larger opera houses, Amahl has been performed and recorded by The Royal Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The success of Menotti's opera is also credited with inspiring the future investment in Christmas specials on American television which resulted in the creation of more than 50 Christmas operas and musicals for that medium.
While not based on Christmas themes, some operas based on fairy tales or nursery rhymes such as Massenet's Cendrillon,[b] Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, and Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland have been traditionally performed during the Christmas season. Hansel and Gretel, which premiered in Germany on 23 December 1893, has been a Christmas staple at the Metropolitan Opera since 1905. On Christmas Day 1931 it became the first opera to be transmitted live on the radio from the Met. Puccini's La bohème, whose first two acts take place on Christmas Eve, is also frequently presented at some point during the Christmas season, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, London's Royal Opera House, and Opera Australia.
List of Christmas operas
The following is a chronological, but not exhaustive, list of operas with librettos explicitly based on Christmas themes.
17th and 18th centuries
Il gran natale di Christo salvator nostro (The Great Nativity of Christ, Our Saviour), composed by Giovanni Battista da Gagliano[c] and Jacopo Peri to a libretto by Jacopo Cicognini,[d] was first performed on 25 December 1622 in the oratory of the Compagnia dell' Arcangelo Raffaello, Florence. The story is set in the fields outside Bethlehem with a prologue sung by Lucifer. The remaining characters are the shepherd boys Carino and Rosildo; the older shepherd, Licida; the archangels Gabriel and Raphael; and the personifications of Human Nature, Death, Sin, Despair, and Hope. There are two choruses, one of angels and one of shepherds. The work was an expansion of Cigognini's earlier Christmas entertainment for the Compagnia dell' Arcangelo Raffaello, La rappresentazione di pastori (The Representation of the Shepherds) which had been performed on Christmas Day 1617 and again in 1619 and included choruses of angels, some of whom were sitting on clouds as they brought the Star of Bethlehem over a richly decorated nativity scene. Although the music is lost, a copy of the libretto published in 1625 and dedicated to Prince Ladislaus of Poland has survived.
Per la notte del Santissimo Natale (For the Night of the Most Holy Nativity), composed by Carlo Francesco Cesarini to a libretto by Cambise Bonfranci, was first performed on Christmas 1696 at the Apostolic Palace in Rome. The work has four characters, Lucifer and three allegorical figures: Divine Love, Innocence, and Peace.
Il genere umano consolato (Humanity Consoled), composed by Quirino Colombani to a libretto by Pompeo Figari, was first performed on Christmas 1704 at the Apostolic Palace in Rome. The work has five characters, all of them allegorical: Mankind, Prophecy, Hope, Time, and Piety.
Per la festività del Santo Natale (For the Celebration of the Holy Nativity), composed by Giovanni Battista Costanzi to a libretto by Metastasio, was first performed on 2 January 1727 in the private theatre of Cardinal Ottoboni at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. It was performed for a gathering of the Accademia degli Arcadi and had elaborate sets which included a cloud machine. The work has four characters, a Celestial Spirit who sings the prologue, and three allegorical figures: Faith, Hope, and Divine Love. Metastasio's libretto was subsequently set by several other composers.
Die Weihnacht auf dem Lande (Christmas in the Country), a comic Singspiel in three acts composed by Johann Baptist Schenk to a libretto by Peter Wiest, premiered on 14 December 1786 at the Leopoldstädter Theater in Vienna.
La nuit de Noël, ou L'anniversaire (Christmas Night, or The Anniversary), a comic opera in three acts composed by Henri Reber to a libretto by Eugène Scribe, premiered on 9 February 1848 at the Théâtre Favart della Comédie-Italienne in Paris. The plot revolves around a gamekeeper and his young wife who constantly quarrel and the machinations of the local baron who seeks to take advantage of the situation. The uproar in the village is resolved by the Lutheran pastor who takes advantage of the local superstition that anyone encountering another on the chapel's steps on Christmas Eve will die in the coming year. He contrives to have the baron locked in the chapel and for the quarreling couple to meet outside. Their fear of impending death leads them to reconcile.
El pavo de Navidad (The Christmas Turkey), a zarzuela in one act composed by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri to a libretto by Ricardo Puente y Brañas premiered on 24 December 1866 at the Teatro de Variedades in Madrid.
Noël ou Le mystère de la nativité (Christmas, or The Mystery of the Nativity) four tableaux with music by Paul Vidal and text in verse by Maurice Bouchor was first performed on 25 November 1890 at the Petit-Théâtre des Marionettes de la Galerie Vivienne in Paris/
Christmas Eve, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who also wrote the libretto, premiered on 10 December 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. Like Vakula the Smith, its libretto is based on Gogol's short story "Christmas Eve".
La cena de nochebuena o A caza del gordo (The Christmas Eve Dinner, or In Search of the Fat Man), a sainete in one act composed by Rafael Calleja Gómez to a libretto by Ángel Caamaño Izquierdo premiered on 24 December 1896 at the Teatro Martín in Madrid.
A Christmas Tale, composed by Eleanor Everest Freer to a libretto by Barrett H. Clark premiered on 27 December 1927 in Houston, Texas. Clark's libretto was based on Maurice Bouchor's 1895 French play Conte de Noël.
...Y mañana Navidad (...And Tomorrow Christmas), a children's zarzuela in one act composed by Manuel Villacañas Sastre to a libretto by Fernández Cuesta, premiered on 25 December 1940 at the Teatro Alcalá in Madrid. The title echoes a recurring phrase in traditional Spanish Christmas carols: "Esta noche es Nochebuena Y mañana Navidad" (Tonight is Christmas Eve and tomorrow Christmas).
Ceské jeslicky (A Czech Nativity Scene), an opera in three acts with prologue and epilogue composed by Jaroslav Křička to a libretto by Jan Porta and Bohuš Stejskal premiered on 15 January 1949 at the Prague State Opera. The libretto is based on Czech folk plays and traditional Christmas carols. Ceské jeslicky has been revived several times in the Czech republic, including a 2009 performance in Opava.
Christmas Trilogy, three pageant operas composed by John La Montaine who also wrote the librettos based on medieval Christmas plays, the Bible, and the Latin liturgy. They were a commission by the Washington National Cathedral and were all premiered there between 1961 and 1969.
A Christmas Carol(2), composed by Edwin Coleman to a libretto by Margaret Burns Harris based on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered on 24 December 1962 as a broadcast on BBC Television which had commissioned the work. It was also broadcast in the United States in January 1963 on PBS Television. The critic from Variety described the score as "arid and spikey" and unlikely to appeal to general audiences.
The Magi, an opera in one act composed by John La Montaine who also wrote the libretto based on Biblical texts, premiered on 27 December 1967 at the Washington National Cathedral. On that occasion it was paired with La Montaine's The Shephardes Playe (Number 2 in his Christmas Trilogy) which had premiered there earlier that month.
The First Christmas, an opera in one act by John Henry Antill to a libretto by Pat Flowers, premiered in an ABC television broadcast from Sydney, Australia on 25 December 1969. A commission from the government of New South Wales, it was shown again in December 1970.
The Business of Good Government, composed by Yale Marshall to a libretto adapted by Wesley Balk from John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy's 1960 Christmas play of the same name, premiered on 12 December 1970 at the Hennepin Ave. Methodist Church in Minneapolis. While telling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the play and the opera, focus on the problems in Herod's kingdom and his fear that the Three Magi are Persian spies preparing his overthrow. The premiere production was by Center Opera, the predecessor of Minnesota Opera, and combined the work with traditional medieval Christmas songs in a program entitled Christmas Mummeries and Good Government. The opera was performed again on its own the following season.
A Christmas Carol(3), composed by Greg Sandow who also wrote the libretto based on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered on 21 December 1977 at the Eastern Opera Theater in Stratford, Connecticut.
A Christmas Carol(5), composed by Thea Musgrave to a libretto by Musgrave based on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, was premiered on 7 December 1979 by Virginia Opera in Norfolk, Virginia. Its first UK performance was on 14 December 1981 at the Royal Opera House with Frederick Burchinal as Ebeneezer Scrooge and was later broadcast on Granada Television.
Jesličky svatého Františka (The Nativity Scene of Saint Francis), composed by Pavel Helebrand to a libretto by the composer based on the writings of Saint Francis and the poetry of traditional Czech folk theater, was first performed on 12 December 1996 at the Antonín Dvořák Theatre in Ostrava. Since that time, the work has been performed In Ostrava during the Christmas seasons of 2005, 2009, 2012, and 2015.
God Bless Us, Every One!, composed by Thomas Pasatieri to a libretto by Bill Van Horn and Michael Capasso premiered on 16 December 2010 at the Dicapo Opera Theatre in New York City. Its title comes from the final line of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The libretto takes Dickens's story as its starting point, but sets the action 20 years after the ending of the original story. The opera opens in the offices of Scrooge, Cratchit & Marley on the morning after Scrooge's death. Tiny Tim, now a healthy young man, eventually sails for America to fight on the side of the Union in the American Civil War.
Werther, Massenet's 1892 opera in which the protagonist commits suicide on Christmas Eve as children's voices are heard singing a Christmas carol.
Gilbert and Sullivan's operas The Sorcerer and Thespis, which were originally staged as Christmas entertainments but whose plots have nothing to do with Christmas itself
Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) which premiered on 10 December 1854 and is often performed at Christmas time. Although composed as an oratorio and intended for concert performance, its libretto contains many of the dramatic elements of an opera as well as stage directions. It has occasionally been given a fully staged performance, most notably in 1911 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.