The Holy Night: Surveying Trends in Christmas Operas Throughout History

By David Salazar

We all know the story.

The manger. The three wise men. Herod’s murder of innocent children. And of course, the birth.

Jesus Christ’s origins are a well-documented story for many and the source of great inspiration for artists for centuries.

Opera is no different with a plethora of works related to great story. A look back over the history of opera reveals a number of works by obscure composers that have been long-forgotten.

17th & 18 Centuries: Symbols And Italians

Major adaptations of the story in the 17th and 18th century include works by Giovanni Battista da Gagliano, Carlo Francesco Cesarini, Quirino Colombani, Giovanni Battista Costanzi, Charles Dibdin and Johann Baptist Schenk.

What is most fascinating about works from this period is how they employ allegorical symbols as characters. Cesarini’s “Per la note de Santissimo Natale” features Lucifer, Divine Love, Innocence and Peace as the main characters of the work while Colombani’s “Il genere umano” features Manking, Prophecy, Hope, Time and Piety as its protagonists. “Il gran natale di Christo salvator nostor” by Gagliano features human characters and even the archangels Gabriel and Raphael, but it also features Human Nature, Death, Sin, Despair, Hope and a prologue sung by Lucifer. We see a similar pattern reflected in “Per la festivita del Santo Natale” by Costanzi.

Also note that Italian composers are the most common throughout this period.

19th Century: Diversity of Story & Storytellers

The 19th century sees the Christmas Opera genre taken in a new direction with composers from around Europe taking on the genre. We see zarzuelas in Spain by Cristobal Oudrid and Francisco Asenjo Barbieri while also seeing works from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia and Paul Vidal and Henri Reber in France.

Themes and plots also vary with the stories relating events in and around Christmas time or day. Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky’s two Christmas operas are based on the same story by Nikolai Gogol. Reber’s “La nuit de Noel, ou L’anniversaire” takes place during a massive conflict on Christmas eve between a gamekeeper and his wife and the village’s reaction to it.

Other operas from this period that composed on Christmas Day from this period, though not including extensive Christmas “themes,” include Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Massenet’s “Werther.” Berlioz also composed the oratorio “L’enfance du Christ” which includes stage directions.

20th Century: The Most Famous Christmas Opera

There are more Christmas-related operas in the 20th century than one can account by some of the most prestigious composers of the era. Frank Bridge composed “The Christmas Rose” and noted cinema composer Bernard Herrmann composed and an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol (there have been around seven or eight adaptations of the work into an opera).” That version was broadcast on CBS on Dec. 23, 1954 and featured Marilyn Horne. A year later Hermann composed “A Child is Born” which was also broadcast on Dec. 23 and starred Nadine Conner and Theodor Uppman. Paul Hindemith also composed “Das Lange Welhnachtsmahl” during this century.

But of course the century belongs to Gian Carlo Menotti’s hugely popular “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” That work was commissioned for NBC’s Opera Theatre in 1951, a performance that remains hugely popular. The opera is performed regularly and takes place on Christmas Eve as the three Kings visit a handicapped boy and his mother in their humble abode. This opera is regularly performed throughout the holiday season by opera companies around the world.

21st Century: A New Classic Is Born?

The new century has seen more adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” and John Adams’ “El Nino,” an opera-oratorio that retells the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective as well as showcasing Herod’s Slaughter of Innocents.

But the opera that has been garnering the greatest popularity in the 21st Century is Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night.” That work retells the story of the World War I armies that set aside the conflict to enjoy Christmas Eve in peace. That worked premiered in 2011, won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012 and is slated for more performances in San Jose this February.


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