Guest Blog: Paul Hopper on THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE - The Path to a World Premiere
All new operas start somewhere, and the journey to Houston Grand Opera's latest commission from composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek, The House without a Christmas Tree, started nearly 40 years ago in rural Indiana.
Based on the beloved 1970s movie-turned-novel by Gail Rock, the opera tells the story of the young Addie Mills, whose father refuses to have a Christmas tree in the house after the death of his wife just after Addie's birth. Set in the fictional town of Clear River, Nebraska, the story resonated with HGO Artistic Director Patrick Summers, who grew up in Loogootee, Indiana.
In 2014, HGO premiered Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt, another touching story of small town America, and inspiration struck. The following season HGO was to embark on a new initiative rooted in commissioning family-friendly holiday operas to add to the repertoire. When Summers was sitting in the auditorium on opening night, he remembered Gail Rock's work and wondered if Gordon might be the right composer to bring the story to the operatic stage. He quickly introduced Gordon to the novel.
The story immediately resonated with Gordon, who lost his partner to AIDS, then his mother, father, and two sisters soon thereafter. "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 for a Christmas tree, what she's really asking for is love," says Gordon.
Gordon brought the story to librettist Royce Vavrek, with whom he had recently collaborated on an opera about the life of Gertrude Stein, 27, and the story struck a chord. Vavrek grew up in a small farming town in Alberta, Canada, and lost his father to suicide at a young age. Vavrek crafted a libretto that delicately explores how the holiday season can simultaneously be a time of joyful celebration and painful memories of lost loved ones.<
At the apex of the story is a sacrifice that Addie makes when she realizes she has the opportunity to bring the spirit of Christmas to a less fortunate family, allowing her father to see his late wife in his young daughter. It was a logical choice to include The House without a Christmas Tree in Seeking the Human Spirit, HGO's new initiative that explores the universal spiritual themes in opera. Each year explores a different theme and this year's theme of sacrifice-examined also in this season's productions of Verdi's La traviata and Bellini's Norma-takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of the holidays.
The opera sprang to life in early December 2016 at the piano/vocal workshop in Houston. As HGO was opening another world premiere holiday opera-Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's It's a Wonderful Life-the company was already turning its focus to 2017. It's a unique joy to be in the room when a group of singers first reads through the score of a new opera, and this was no exception. Over the course of five days the score transformed. Words changed, melodies expanded, and Gordon would enter the room each morning proudly presenting new material that was just a few hours old.
It's now one year later, and The House without a Christmas Tree is ready to be unwrapped. While this season has found Houston Grand Opera to be an opera company without an opera house, we are grateful to have the opportunity to present this touching new work to a community in need of healing through the holiday spirit.
The House without a Christmas Tree continues through December 17 at George R. Brown Convention Center. The production spans 1 hour and 12 minutes and does not include an intermission. For more information, visit houstongrandopera.org/the-house-without-a-christmas-tree.