The House Without a Christmas Tree: Wall Street Journal, 2017

Houston Grand Opera o!ers a charming, family-friendly piece, in an alternative performance space, that manages to be heartwarming without being sappy.

Houston Grand Opera’s latest world premiere, Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The House Without a Christmas Tree,” which opened on Thursday, is a holiday tale that celebrates the victory of the sweet over the bitter. The fact that it happened at all is a similar victory. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in August, the Wortham Theater Center, HGO’s home, was catastrophically flooded. To salvage the sevenopera season, Perryn Leech, HGO’s managing director, came up with a plan for an alternative performance space in the nearby George R. Brown Convention Center. Thus was born HGO’s Resilience Theater, built in two weeks in a raw space the size of two football fields, at a cost of about $500,000, just in time for the company’s first performance of “La Traviata” on Oct. 20.

With heavy curtains, rows of bleacher seats, and specialized lighting, HGO conjured something from nothing. There’s even a spacious lobby area with seating, food service, and portable toilets. The theater is not ideal; one key issue is acoustics, and both Handel’s “Julius Caesar” and “Christmas Tree” used amplification. The theater has no flying capability, so some scenery has had to be tweaked.

While the company’s subscribers have taken the new digs in stride, single-ticket purchases are down 40%. Including physical losses (the costume shop, for example, was destroyed) and other Harvey consequences, HGO estimates an overall impact of $12 million to $15 million. It expects to be back in the Wortham for 2018-19, but is already making some financially prudent adjustments to that season’s program.

“The House Without a Christmas Tree” is a charming, family-friendly piece that manages to be heartwarming without being sappy. Royce Vavrek’s skillful libretto, based on an original story by Gail Rock and the 1972 television movie of the same name, embraces its theme of how relentless holiday cheer can magnify the grief of loss. Preteen Addie, growing up in a small Nebraska town, cannot understand why her widowed father, James, won’t allow her to have a Christmas tree. Over the course of the well-structured, 72-minute opera, she learns that he associates that symbol with the only Christmas he had with her mother, Helen. When Addie wins a Christmas tree at school and brings it home, everyone is forced to confront the elephant in the room.

Mr. Gordon’s score employs accessible, Coplandesque tonality, which has its apex in Addie’s arias. Sung with appealing urgency by soprano Lauren Snouffer, they capture a young girl’s imagination and optimism. The darker side of the story, especially James’s seeming rejection of his daughter, is less clearly defined in the music. The text is clearly set, and well-crafted ensembles vary the texture, as do bigger choruses, most notably Mr. Gordon’s original carol, “Gather Round the Christmas Tree,” which also recurs as a motif in the orchestration.

Patricia Schuman sounded woolly but sincere as Grandma Mills; Daniel Belcher was a gloomy presence as James. The protean Heidi Stober brought distinctive characters to three roles: bright as Adelaide (the adult Addie); warm as Miss Thompson, Addie’s teacher; and sweet as the ghost of Helen, who appears to James and draws him into a waltz of memory. Megan Mikailovna Samarin displayed a rich mezzo as Addie’s best friend, Carla Mae (the two share a funny duet, in which they smash hard-boiled eggs that they pretend are boys), and two high-school students, Maximillian Macias and Elisabeth Leone, were capable as Billy and Gloria, Addie’s schoolmates. (One caveat: The fact that Billy bullies Addie because he actually likes her feels very creepy today.) The Juvenile Chorus of high-school students played the other children, and Bradley Moore ably led the chamber orchestra, which was positioned to the side of the stage. The amplification, with sound design by Andrew Harper, was subtle enough to bring out the transparency of the orchestration and preserve a balance with the singers.

James Robinson’s production—with sets by Allen Moyer, early 1960s costumes by James Schuette, and lighting by Christopher Akerlind —cleverly captured the smalltown feel of the show, with the Nebraska house rotating to reveal different rooms. For the schoolroom scenes, two simple panels were pulled in front of it. Like the opera, it was homespun and sophisticated at the same time.