On This Day: Opera Premieres On Christmas Day

By John Vandevert
(Photo Credit: Christian Dageförde)

Dating as far back as the 17th century, vocal works about Christmas and themes about the Holy Nativity (i.e., the birth of Jesus Christ) and the events surrounding the pilgrimage of the shepherds, angels, and wise men have been created in quick succession. Everyone from Italian composer Carlo Francesco Cesarini, Russian composer P. I. Tchaikovsky, German composer  Sigwart zu Eulenburg, French composer Xavier Leroux, and American composer John Adams have tried their hand at dramatizing the famed birth of the Christian savior.

Originally, only sacred works could be performed during Advent (3 to 4 weeks before Christmas), the invention of azioni sacre (sacred actions – works on religious themes) created to skirt the rules. Later (i.e., by the mid-19th century), the rules would relax as opera became less about elite enjoyment and more about public entertainment. Operas would routinely foreground national takes on Christmas’ second leading figure:  Father Christmas, Knecht Ruprecht, and King Wenceslaus for a taste. 

Composers like Rimsky-Korsakov (“The Night Before Christmas”) would compose seminal works, although innovation extended the world round, Francisco Asenjo Barbieri composing his zarzuela, “El pavo de Navidad,” while French composer Paul Vidal creating his own, “Noël ou Le mystère de la nativité.” In the 20th century, Christmas-themed operas would explode in public appeal thanks to the well known Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera,”Amahl and The Night Visitors,” coupled with the popular “Messiah” oratorio (premiered in 1742) by German-turned-British composer George Friedrich Handel.

Of course, MANY others made their mark including lesser-known ones like Das Christ-Elflein (Hans Pfitzner, 1906), A Christmas Carol (Bernard Herrmann, 1954), The Long Christmas Dinner (Paul Hindemith, 1962), and Gift of the Magi (David Conte, 1997). While the canon of “Christmas operas” has stabilized over time, many contemporary works have premiered recently, in the last decade several developing the field significantly (El Nino, Silent Night, and Becoming Santa Claus just three examples)!

As Opera Wire prepares to enter a new year, here are four operas that had their historical premieres Christmas day!

Die Weihnacht (1900)

Composed by Italian musicologist and composer Alberto Gentili, with a libretto by playwright Ferdinando Fontana (responsible with creating the librettos for Giacomo Puccini’s first two operas, Le Villi and Edgar), the opera premiered at the Königliches Hof und Nationaltheater in Germany. Although no recording exists of the opera, it is known that the libretto was based upon Italian writer Carlo Righetti’s 1876 play “On Di De Natal” (one of the founders of the Scapigliatura movement, or proto-realism). The opera loosely takes place in Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean sea. 

In Knecht Ruprecht’s Workshop (1907)

Perhaps one of the more enigmatic operas on the list, the opera was composed by lesser-known Austrian composer Wilhelm Kienzl, a former student of Austrian aesthetician Eduard Hanslick, Franz Liszt (he was even present for the premiere of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1876 at the inaugural Bayreuth Festival). The libretto was prepared by German writer Hildegard Volgt (author of a small but archived body of work), the story based on the unknown German folk character and companion of St. Nicholas Knecht Ruprecht. The opera had its formal premiere at the Opernhaus Graz.

And Tomorrow Christmas (1940)

The only zarzuela present here (includes non-musical spoken dialogue much like an operetta), the work was composed by the Spanish composer Manuel Villacañas Sastre with a libretto by Fernández Cuesta, although little information is known about these two artists. Written for children, this work was first premiered at the Teatro Alcalá in Madrid (built in 1903 and only dedicated to cultural activities in the 90s after having served as a multipurpose venue for decades). As of 2022, the opera has yet to be revived or contemporarily performed on the stage. 

The First Christmas (1969)

Perhaps the most interesting on the list, the opera was written not for operatic audiences but the airwaves. The work was first commissioned by the New South Wales government, the job given to Australian composer John Henry Antill (a singer and former railway worker, most famous for his ballet Corroboree). The work’s libretto was created by Pat Flowers, information on her unavailable. The work premiered live on an ABC televised feed, and has seemingly not been revived since. Antill’s vocal works are relatively unknown outside Australia (opera The Music Critic, and oratorio The Song of Hagar to Abraham the Patriarch). 


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