“‘Marley was dead to begin with. There was no doubt about that whatsoever.’
The words start our play, but why?” Librettist and stage director Brittany Goodwin contemplates the significances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as we discuss the new chamber adaptation of it commissioned by Gramercy Opera. The opera, with music by Felix Jarrar and libretto by Goodwin, will have its premiere December 1-3 at the Montauk Club, a gorgeous brownstone landmark in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. With its stunning Venetian Gothic exterior and Mahogany and stained-glass interiors, one can understand how the location easily sets the scene for the Victorian classic. Maria Torffield’s production design will no doubt serve the evening well, with costumes hailing from the Pearl Theater, an off-broadway company of critical-acclaim, sadly closed of recent.
It’s interesting that Gramercy Opera set its sights on commissioning this work for their 2017-2018 season. Gramercy Opera, a relatively new company in the New York opera scene, had great success last season with its unique production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen, staged outdoors at the Mt. Vernon Hotel Garden. They have committed themselves as a company that champions up-and-coming artists in chamber works that challenge the notions of traditional opera, bringing actor and audience into a more intimate line of communication. Chamber works are especially desirable for many reasons. The cost effectiveness of a chamber piece is ideal for a company working on a modest budget, employing a smaller group of artists and crew. If you are a company that works with young singers in mind, then a chamber work score featuring a handful of instruments creates a favorable sonic texture for lighter or younger instruments (though not all young singers have light instruments). Chamber opera also lends itself to creative means of staging for a more immersive theatrical experience. As Allison McAuley, co-founder of Gramercy Opera put it, “We want to directly connect the performers with the audience. People who have never had an operatic experience will hopefully feel free to laugh, enjoy a glass of wine and feel fully immersed in the experience. We hope to do this by producing shows in intimate spaces and, at times, even including the audience by breaking the fourth wall or having an audience member join the cast as an extra.” McAuley and I also discussed the importance of commissioning a version of Dickens’ tale. “Christmas is a family time and what we discovered is that there are very few operas with a Christmas theme-and so we thought, why not bring this classic to the opera stage? We are so thrilled to have collaborated with writing duo Felix Jarrar and Brittany Goodwin to create an opera experience that the whole family can enjoy.”
Writing duo Felix Jarrar and Brittany Goodwin have set the opera as a true ensemble piece. It features a cast of ten singers rotating to cover all the personalities in the Dickens’ masterpiece, save for bass-baritone Jeremy Hirsch, who will solely serve the role of Scrooge, the cantankerous main character of this didactic tale. It features musical elements inspired by counterpoint, Impressionism, Stravinsky, and Britten and is orchestrated for Pierrot ensemble, which consists of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, and Irish fiddle as auxiliary instrument. The opera also features a very prominent children’s chorus who act as narrator and Greek Chorus threaded throughout. Jarrar, a talented young composer whose works are popping up all over the New York classical music scene, spoke to me of his take on Dickens’ holiday story, “While it is the third proper opera in my output, it is the first that I designate as a ‘ballad opera.’ Form-wise, the work is heavily influenced by that tradition of ballad operas such as The Beggar’s Opera, and modern revisitations of it, such as The Threepenny Opera of Weill. I love the genre of ballad opera because it allows the words of straight plays and dramatic music to interweave into an operatic form that can be loosely considered the English equivalent of German Singspiel.”
He also told me “I approached this story as someone who grew up loving Dickens. My mom would read the book to me as a kid.” But Jarrar has concerned himself more with the darker thematic material of the tale, rather than highlight the holiday whimsy with which it is traditionally regarded. “I see it as a psychology study of his (Scrooge’s) personality through the lens of the other characters in very significant ways. I see the characters around him as mirrors that allow him to look at himself, and his actions, at various points in time. In my adaptation, I emphasized the darker qualities of the themes of death, which I think are a major part of the story that no one talks about. Scrooge’s greedy and miserly ways alienate him from the people he loves. In the end, he learns to appreciate characters such as Tiny Tim, even though he is sickly and will eventually die. People should be happy for the time they spend with their loved ones, however brief their time on this earth may be.” And just to drive the point home, he’s peppered the score with the Dies Irae sequence.
The job of creating a working libretto from the original text that Jarrar could set to music has been the responsibility of Brittany Goodwin. She’ll also stage direct. Goodwin is a dancer and classically-trained actress and stage director, and a recent member of the Dramatist Guild. I recently had the pleasure of working under her direction in Cavalli’s La Calisto during dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s Summer Share residence at La MaMa Experimental Theater. Brittany is an inspired director and performer, not to mention a real force in rehearsals who brings quality work to life in a variety of settings and genres. I asked her some thoughts to share on the work and what interests her about setting A Christmas Carol as a chamber opera, a topic that has also interested librettist Simon Callow, and composers Thea Musgrave, Iain Bell, John Dean, and Ján Cikker: “The Dickens nut I have wanted to take a crack at it.” Illuminating the opening question to this blog, “Dickens’ story is a morality tale nested in an enjoyable package. This tale of introspection begins with the death of Marley and the legacy he left behind. Scrooge, guided by three spirits, is forced to look inside while guided through the past that has hardened him, the present that rattles him, and lastly the inevitable path he could forge to his demise.”
Jarrar’s respect for the other half of this promising writing duo is pretty evident: “My music supports Brittany’s text, whether it is spoken or sung, and allows the straight theatrical nature of her prose to intermingle with thematic ideas, instrumental colors, and the dramatic direction of the piece.” He added, “A Christmas Carol is a highpoint of Victorian literature-Dickens’ characters have so much built-in personality that sometimes music can interfere with it. In this opera, my main priority was to make sure the music only enhanced these characteristics.”
Young Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are the personalities I get to play in this production. From a character standpoint and an acting étude, I am interpreting personalities who are really polarized in terms of expressivity and emotion. The Ghost of Christmas Present is joyful, open, untethered; he’s neither bound to the woes of the past or the fears of the future. He embodies ‘living in the moment,’ and there is an effervescence to that. I’d like that to read in how his voice rises and falls, in the fluidity of his gestures. Juxtaposing him, Younger Scrooge is haunted by a painful past-he’s so much heavier and everything he does is guarded and reserved, his physical vocabulary would be more “corseted.” A traumatic childhood created a young man who has difficulty expressing hiself. This heightens his fear of the future. His obsession with money consumes him as he begins burying his pain underneath riches which in turn severs him from those he loves. He’s an injured child wrapped in layers of trauma and shame, and throughout the tale, the layers are unravelled one after the other until that vulnerable, tender part of Ebenezer is exposed, and his humanity is restored.
The narrative of the everyday man is so prominent in A Christmas Carol. I think we need literature that tells our stories, the stories of people that live what you might call “common lives,” people who do their best to make ends-meet, who are faced with the trials of the workaday world, who labor in jobs that lie outside their passions, who find meaning in life through traditions, whether religious or not, that bring a lot of happiness to the mundane, and who struggle with sadness, illness, and of course, death. The struggles of Bob Cratchit and the members of his family prove wealth cannot buy happiness, even in the face of hardship and illness. The illness of Tiny Tim, though as relevant now as was then, was probably particularly poignant to society at that time, considering the health perils of Victorian England and a lack of adequate medical care for the poor. Scrooge famously remarks to the ghost of Jacob Marley, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Turns out, there’s a lot of truth to that statement. According to this BBC article, nineteenth-century food was riddled with poisons, from bread laced with alum and plaster of Paris to make it whiter and heavier, to milk contaminated with bovine TB, or laden with boracic acid to help “freshen” it once spoiled. If you weren’t born with a congenital disease, then your breakfast literally could have been the death of you. Luckily for Scrooge, his wealth would have easily paid for quality medical care, and one hopes that in the end, he affords the same attention upon sickly Tim Cratchit.
I can understand why the popularity of Dickens’ story has endured. Dickens was a masterful storyteller, and that’s really paramount. But his themes speak to all people: the fragility and brevity of life, the sweetness and purity of childhood, the danger of greed, man’s inability to be vulnerable and to connect with the ones he loves, existential crises, Divine intervention, salvation through love, and the triumph of the human spirit over its own shadow-self. And I’m sure the popularity of Dickens’ work during his time is also quite understandable thanks to Queen Victoria and the German traditions of her court as the Victorians were very fond of Christmas. They are one of the reasons we have many of the traditions we celebrate today-as is Dickens. Coupled with a fascination with the paranormal and occult that prevailed during this time period, you have a hit in the Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol. Apparently such a hit it was, it was released on December 19, 1843, and all first-editions copies sold out by Christmas Eve.
There’s much left to be discussed, of course; a multitude of fascinating characters who serve different purposes within Dickens’ classic just waiting to be brought to life by a talented cast of young actors and musicians. But this is a mere blog, not a novella, and you’ll just have to trek over to Park Slope and watch the morality tale unfold for yourself-that is, if it hasn’t sold out by then. And what better way than to kick off the holiday season by raising some spirits, literarily speaking. As Goodwin writes to me now via Facebook messenger, “When I think of the holidays, I think of Handel and Dickens, and I think our audiences will be warmed to hear homages to the Christmas cheer that tucks us in late December nights.” I hope you come warm up with our production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that is assuming we’ll have a winter this holiday season, but then again, that’s a different kind of warming subject that gets treated as fiction, but I’ll save all that for a future post…
For information on crew, cast, showtimes, and and how to purchase tickets, please click here.