At an opera in Italy a few years ago, I watched an audience unceremoniously boo a tenor off the stage. Unhappy Houston audiences are a little more passive-aggressive. Fifteen minutes into Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere of A Christmas Carol on Friday night, people were already sneaking out under the cover of darkness in the side aisles.
I saw three people who were sitting right behind the opera’s English composer, Iain Bell, noisily leave in the second wave of deserters. But that was nothing compared to the major evacuation during a lull when what looked like two whole rows in the back skittered out.
There’s a misconception that modern music is unpalatable. Bell lists Nico Muhly as one of his favorite composers. Muhly’s music is a prime example of contemporary work that’s actually quite beautiful—Mothertongue, released in 2008, comes most readily to mind. On the other hand, modern music that makes us uncomfortable can be brilliant, important work too. Audiences might struggle against it, but art reflects humanity, and humanity doesn’t always come up roses.
A Christmas Carol, with music by Bell and libretto by veteran British actor Simon Callow, only feeds the general misconception that modern music is unlistenable. It’s a one-man, one-act, 90-minute opera that chronicles Charles Dickens’s Christmas classic. Like Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention, tenor Jay Hunter Morris addressed variously sized empty chairs of imaginary scapegoats to slip from the character of Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit. The smallest chair was for Tiny Tim. Using a rotating staircase, Morris turned one direction as the Ghost of Christmas Past and another for the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was, as far as I could tell, represented by a green curtain lump, trimmed in something shiny, which bulged out at stage left.
It’s hard to say definitively why Morris’s performance was underwhelming. He has a fine voice that is not constricted like so many other tenors. His voice suggests breadth, although some of Morris’s higher notes early on left the air pinched. Perhaps in juggling so many characters, Morris lost his sense of acting clarity (it’s a problem Eastwood had with his chair—and he was only speaking to one other character). Also to blame might be the score, which doesn’t offer many moments for the tenor line to soar. At its best, the score drops long pauses for Morris to sink some lasting, albeit obvious lines like “Quiet, very quiet.”
Bell’s score in and of itself isn’t bad. Arching lyrical lines, rolling figures, parallel octaves off a half step, and string slides rang out cleanly from the pit, setting a tone of ghostly unrest. There were a few exquisite violin solos, and there were some nice moments when the percussion took over. But this score doesn’t support the vocal line. I picked out one motif associated with the phrase “It’s your Uncle Scrooge,” and sometimes the winds would echo a vocal phrase, but there’s more to good operatic writing than that. Without the vocal part, this music might be salvageable.
The libretto, by actor, director, musician, and author Simon Callow, didn’t help matters. One of the lines listed a string of gerunds—“Squeezing, wrenching, grasping”—which unintentionally offered a good self-description of the Callow’s writing. Sometimes the text was taken directly from Dickens. Other times, Callow stuck with straightforward and simple prose, like the motif-supported “It’s Your Uncle Scrooge.” The libretto is far superior to Meredith Oakes’s inanely rhyming couplets in Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest, but the failed nod to a great author is familiar all the same.
I commend HGO for supporting world premieres. It’s an essential thing for a company to do, and HGO regularly takes risks on new work. Meredith Monk’s Atlas, for example, an opera HGO premiered in 1991, stands as one of the most vital operas in the twentieth century even though it was misunderstood by its first audience here. And of course there’s John Adams’s Nixon in China, which premiered here in 1987. Last season’s world premiere of A Coffin in Egypt, with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Leonard Foglia, was hardly spectacular, but at least 68-year-old legendary soprano Frederica von Stade delivered an incredibly memorable performance. But there is nothing remarkable in this production of A Christmas Carol, which seems likely to disappear into obscurity. If the audience’s reaction on Friday night was any indication, its first performance will probably be its last.