What’s Christmas without Scrooge?
It seems the holidays just wouldn’t be the holidays without a buzz-kill raining down gloom and doom. For some of us, that’s a relative. For others it’s the green-eyed monster the Grinch, but Ebenezer Scrooge was the original kill-joy, born in 1843 in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere of A Christmas Carol, a one-man chamber work with music by Iain Bell and a libretto by Simon Callow, inaugurates the company’s new holiday opera series by raising Scroogery to operatic heights. The work features a single character, a narrator, performed by Jay Hunter Morris and Kevin Ray, and runs from Friday through Dec. 21, 2014 at the Wortham Theater Center.
A Christmas Carol has benefited from extraordinary popularity leading to a multitude of adaptations for theater, musical theater and film. Cinematic Scrooges abound, including versions as early as 1938 and 1951, the latter featuring Albert Sims.
Musical theater versions seem to begin in the early 1970s, reaching an apex with A Christmas Carol: The Musical, a Broadway hit with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens that ran from its debut in 1994 through 2003 and featured, over the years, Tony Randall, Hal Linden, Roger Daltry, Tim Curry and F. Murray Abraham as Scrooge. A television version featured Kelsey Grammer:
A special subset of the Christmas Carol vogue has featured one-man performances. We might say Dickens himself sparked the trend, when, December 27, 1852, A Christmas Carol was the basis of his very first public reading, which took place at the Birmingham Town Hall to great acclaim. Over his lifetime he perfected a listening version of his popular novella.
Patrick Stewart's 1988 one-man Christmas Carol took London and New York by storm and brought Dickens to life with a handful of props and Stewart's zeal in rendering the tale's many characters. Stewart was followed by many including Irish actor Clive Francis:
Even the great-great-grandson of the author, Gerald Charles Dickens, got in on the action.
A Christmas Carol is both grand and familiar, its mettle tested by decades of adaptation. HGO’s production features up-and-coming vocal composer Iain Bell in his second operatic work, following hard upon his 2013 A Harlot’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous etchings of the same name. In an interview for Opera 21 magazine, Bell cites Britten, Ligeti and Berg as inspirations, which promises a sound both sweet and strange.
But the youth of Bell is paired with the talent of the venerable British actor, writer, and director Simon Callow, who also directs HGO's production and who has, himself, performed a one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
Dickens' classic tale stages a war between the past and the future. It asks us if we are defined by what we've done or what we've yet to do. We love the kill-joys in our lives, from Scrooges to Grinches, because they help us believe in the hope of the new and of renewal.
That goes for relatives as well as operas.