Selfless Act Melts A Heart In New Christmas Opera

Adelaide Mills (Heidi Stober, left) recalls a childhood Christmas when her younger self (Lauren Snouffer, in red sweater) had to persuade her grief-stricken father (Daniel Belcher) to set up a tree. (Photos: Lynn Lane)
By William Albright

HOUSTON – Over four centuries, a good many operas have been written based on the Christmas story or performed as a family-friendly yuletide offering (I’m looking at you, Hansel and Gretel), but new-work-loving Houston Grand Opera wasn’t about to rely on archives to fill a December slot.

The company is creating a series of holiday-related or otherwise feel-good works, the latest of which, Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s The House Without a Christmas Tree, debuted Nov. 30, a year after the unveiling of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s operatic version of the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.

In a flashback, young Addie’s father (Daniel Belcher) and late mother (Heidi Stober).

A 1972 made-for-TV movie was the basis for HGO’s 64th world premiere. Inspired by a story by Gail Rock, the picture won an Emmy and triggered three more small-screen flicks and a quartet of children’s books, all exploring how the same characters deal with the emotions tangled up with Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Valentine’s Day.

In Gordon’s 70-minute one-act opera, the adult Adelaide Mills is a New York-based writer looking back on a pivotal Christmas in the 1950s in her idyllic hometown of Clear River, Neb. (population: 1,500). A pig-tailed and imaginative 10-year-old full of dreams, Addie lives with her grandmother and father, who refuses to put up a tree. His beloved wife Helen died around Christmastime right after their daughter was born, and the presence of a tree makes his still-devastating grief flare up. But when Addie wins a free tree, she gives it to a poor classmate, and her selflessness melts Dad’s heart. (Gordon’s opera is also part of HGO’s “Seeking the Human Spirit” initiative, which this year focuses on sacrifice.)

Carla Mae (Megan Mikailovna, left) helps Addie (Lauren Snouffer) move a Christmas tree..

Christmas stories can be sentimental, but Gordon’s brittle score and James Robinson’s nimble staging soft-pedal the emotion. Led by HGO associate music director Bradley Moore, the 18-member beside-the-playing-area chamber orchestra – augmented with a piano that provides some solo scene-changing noodling – mostly chatters and gurgles under recitative-like vocal lines that only occasionally relax into lyricism.

There is a tender aria in which Addie begs her father for a tree. In a flashback, Addie’s parents waltz lovingly in front of their last Christmas tree, then join Addie and Grandma in a wistful quartet. But Gordon’s new setting of the traditional carol “Gather ’round the Christmas tree,” which appears as a kind of motive throughout the opera, lost some gravitas to my ears because the first line sounded to me just like the start of “The Muffin Man.”  

Without a Christmas Tree is being presented in Resilience Theater, the Brown Convention Center exhibit hall that HGO turned into a temporary performing space because its home-base Wortham Theater Center is undergoing repairs until September due to massive Hurricane Harvey damage last August.

Allen Moyer’s set evokes small-town Nebraska in the 1950s.

Allen Moyer’s attractive set is a revolving platform that shows the Mills house’s kitchen and parlor on one side, two bedrooms on the other, and Clear River houses in silhouette in the background. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind provided splashes of holiday cheer starting with a diorama of a street of lit-up stores. James Schuette’s costumes range from frumpy prairie utilitarian (housedresses and heavy winter coats) to charmingly whimsical (the animals in the school nativity pageant).

With members of HGO’s Juvenile Chorus playing schoolkids, the seven-member cast, all miked, featured four HGO Studio alumni. Sopranos predominated. Heidi Stober, Cleopatra in HGO’s Julius Caesar in October, served triple-duty as the adult Adelaide, her late mother, and Addie’s teacher with lush tone. Lauren Snouffer brought a bright voice and perky manner to the central role of Addie, and Patricia Schuman supplied mellifluous comfort as her wise and sympathetic grandmother.

Baritone Daniel Belcher sang incisively and unleashed daunting anger as the stubbornly and grieving paterfamilias, and Megan Mikailovna Samarin, Sextus in Julius Caesar, deployed a handsome mezzo-soprano as Addie’s gushy classmate and friend. Completing the cast were Maximillian Macias and Elisabeth Leone from HGO’s High School Voice Studio as the boy who has a crush on Addie and the girl to whom she gives the heart-changing evergreen conifer that has spawned a veritable cottage industry of uplifting movies and books—and now an opera.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles TimesChristian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications. 

Grandma Mills (Patricia Schuman) and Addie (Lauren Snouffer) join a quartet across the years with Addie’s father (Daniel Belcher) and late mother (Heidi Stober).