In the midst of all this season’s holiday concerts, Nutcrackers, and A Christmas Carol adaptations, the theatre world is going to find something special under its tree: a complete new holiday opera, The House Without a Christmas Tree, with a full original score by Ricky Ian Gordon, prolific composer of Dream True, Only Heaven, 27, The Grapes of Wrath, and Morning Star, all of which walk the line between musicals and operas.
Based on Gail Rock’s children’s book and the popular 1972 television movie of the same name, The House Without a Christmas Tree is set to have its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera’s Resilience Theater in Houston, Texas, November 30 through December 10. It tells the story of 10-year-old Addie, who is growing up in Nebraska with her widowed father who is embittered because he lost his wife in childbirth with the girl at Christmastime. The father allows no tree in the house—until one day, when Addie is old enough, she makes a simple gesture that wakes her father’s heart again.
Gordon told Playbill that the story has unusual resonance for him and for librettist Royce Vavrek, a frequent collaborator of his.
“Royce grew up on a farm in Alberta, Canada. His dad committed suicide. Now, that doesn't happen in the book but the story still resonates with him because it’s about the embodiment of grief in the psyche and how it affects families," Gordon says. "Royce personalized the story in his own way. It's about how the father’s grief affects his relationship with his little girl, who is growing into a woman. She is an agonizing reminder of her mother’s death, and the death of Christmas for him.”
The reason such a seemingly dark story has become a perennial favorite is because it charts how the family emerges from that place. “It’s a coming-of-age story. The girl learns empathy for her father, which is part of her growing up. Up until the time of the story, all she sees is his supposed hatred of her. Her grandmother helps her get a glimpse of his pain. Once she sees it she takes action that changes all their lives. Her father feels her empathy, they all change. It seemed like a beautiful story to me.”
Gordon said all these thoughts were swirling in his head as he composed the music. “Christmas is about birth, but for the father, it’s about death. And the end of The House Without a Christmas Tree, it becomes about birth again: ‘My little girl isn’t who I thought she was.‘ That moment when she walks in and the father flips a switch and there is an exquisite tree in the living room, and the music goes up to a B-natural, it's just exquisitely beautiful. Just talking about it, I’m chilled.”
Picking not just the right music, but the right tone to the music was a challenge, especially with so many other Christmas stories around. “A lot of times when people write for families the material is either too mature for kids or too silly for parents. I was very conscious of that, but I tried to strike just the right balance. We have 12 kids in the cast, so I needed to give a real sense of kids and their culture. The score is orchestrated for 18 pieces, and I tried to get a very clingy and transparent and evanescent feeling. I have to say, there is a really good feeling in the room when we’re rehearsing.”
The story didn't just have a personal resonance for Vavrek. Gordon said, ”Grief is very near to me. I lost my partner to AIDS, then lost my mother, my father, and two sisters, one after another. So the idea that almost everything in the world could conceivably be a painful reminder of what was is very palpable to me. When that little girl is asking her father for a Christmas tree, what she's really asking for is love. And the father finally realizes that.”
The cast for the Houston premiere features Lauren Snouffer as the daughter, Addie Mills; Daniel Belcher as James "Dad" Addison Mills III; Patricia Schuman as Grandma Mills; and Heidi Stober as Miss Thompson / Helen Mills / Adelaide Mills. James Robinson directs and Brad Moore conducts. The production features the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Juvenile Chorus.
Tickets can be ordered online by clicking here, or by calling (713) 228-6737. The Houston Grand Opera is performing at Resilience Theater, which has been carved out of Exhibit Hall A3 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, while repairs are underway at HGO’s hurricane-damaged mainstage.