List of Christmas operas

The Metropolitan Opera at Christmas time with a large poster for Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel displayed in the window

Christmas operas are operas which are thematically based on either the Nativity of Jesus or secular Christmas stories. The earliest Christmas operas appeared in the early 17th century, not long after the creation of the art form. Because of the ban on secular theatrical works during the season of Advent, these early Christmas operas, while elaborately staged, were based on religious themes relating to the Nativity. By the mid 19th century the ban on secular operas during Advent had ceased, and operas based on a wider array of Christmas themes, such as Santa Claus and King Wenceslaus, emerged. Several operas have been inspired by Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, including works by composers Bernard Herrmann and Thea Musgrave. The story of the Magi has also been the basis of several operas, including Gian Carlo Menotti's 1951 opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Initially written for television performance, Menotti's opera has become the only modern Christmas opera to earn an enduring place in the live opera performance repertoire. In the 21st century, composer Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2011) achieved critical success and won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012.


Mr. Fezziwig's Ball, from the first edition of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the inspiration for numerous Christmas operas

The first Christmas operas, dating from the early 17th century, had librettos based on the Nativity of Jesus and were privately performed. At various times well into the 19th century, public theatres in Italy and other Catholic countries were closed during the season of Advent, the four weeks up to and including Christmas Eve. The opera season customarily recommenced on St. Stephen's Day, 26 December.[1] Numerous world premieres have taken place in Italy on that day, although all were on secular subjects and unrelated to Christmas.[a] The prohibition of secular theatrical performances during Advent was to some extent circumvented by the performance of azioni sacre, operas on religious themes, often with elaborate staging. One of the earliest Christmas operas of this type was Giovanni Battista da Gagliano and Jacopo Peri's Il gran natale di Christo salvator nostro (The Great Nativity of Christ, Our Saviour), first performed on Christmas Day 1622.

The second half of the 19th century, when the Advent restrictions were no longer in place, saw new operas on a variety of Christmas themes and usually premiering during the Christmas season, a practice which has continued into the 21st century. Some have been directly based on the Nativity itself or figures closely connected to it such as the Three Magi, while others have focused on Christmas celebrations or traditional figures such as Father Christmas, Knecht Ruprecht, or King Wenceslaus. Nikolai Gogol's short story Christmas Eve has been the inspiration of three Russian language operas: Tchaikovsky's Vakula the Smith (1876) and its revised version Cherevichki (1887), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve (1895). At least nine Christmas operas have been based on Charles Dickens's novella, A Christmas Carol, including one in German and one in Italian.[2]

On Christmas Eve 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was premiered by the NBC Opera Theater as the inaugural presentation made by the newly created Hallmark Hall of Fame.[3] The first opera written specifically for television, it was immensely popular at its premiere and was dubbed by Life magazine as a Christmas Classic in 1952.[4] Menotti never intended for the work to remain solely confined to the medium of television, and Amahl and the Night Visitors has since been the only Christmas themed opera to become an enduring part of the live opera performance repertory; particularly with smaller opera companies and at colleges and music conservatories.[5] While predominately overlooked by larger opera houses, Amahl has been performed and recorded by The Royal Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The success of Menotti's opera is also credited with inspiring the future investment in Christmas specials on American television which resulted in the creation of more than 50 Christmas operas and musicals for that medium.[6]

Although Amahl and the Night Visitors has enjoyed a measure of success, no Christmas opera to date has been able to achieve the same wide popularity as Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker or Handel's Messiah.[7] Several 21st century composers have attempted to create a popular Christmas work for the opera medium, including Mark Adamo whose Becoming Santa Claus was well received at the Dallas Opera in December 2015.[7][8][9] Also successful is John Adams' Christmas opera-oratorio El Niño (2000) which has been semi-staged by several opera companies and orchestras internationally. Of further importance is Kevin Puts' Pulitzer Prize winning opera Silent Night (2011) which has been staged by several American opera companies and by the Wexford Festival Opera in 2014.[10][11][12] The original 2011 production of that work by the Minnesota Opera was filmed for the PBS program Great Performances.[13]

While not based on Christmas themes, some operas based on fairy tales or nursery rhymes such as Massenet's Cendrillon,[b] Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, and Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland have been traditionally performed during the Christmas season. Hansel and Gretel, which premiered in Germany on 23 December 1893, has been a Christmas staple at the Metropolitan Opera since 1905. On Christmas Day 1931 it became the first opera to be transmitted live on the radio from the Met.[15] Puccini's La bohème, whose first two acts take place on Christmas Eve, is also frequently presented at some point during the Christmas season, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, London's Royal Opera House, and Opera Australia.[16][17][18]

List of Christmas operas

Stage setting for the Prologue of Per la festività del Santo Natale in its first performance (Rome, 1727)

The following is a chronological, but not exhaustive, list of operas with librettos explicitly based on Christmas themes.

17th and 18th centuries

  • Il gran natale di Christo salvator nostro (The Great Nativity of Christ, Our Saviour), composed by Giovanni Battista da Gagliano[c] and Jacopo Peri to a libretto by Jacopo Cicognini,[d] was first performed on 25 December 1622 in the oratory of the Compagnia dell' Arcangelo Raffaello, Florence.[21] The story is set in the fields outside Bethlehem with a prologue sung by Lucifer. The remaining characters are the shepherd boys Carino and Rosildo; the older shepherd, Licida; the archangels Gabriel and Raphael; and the personifications of Human Nature, Death, Sin, Despair, and Hope. There are two choruses, one of angels and one of shepherds. The work was an expansion of Cigognini's earlier Christmas entertainment for the Compagnia dell' Arcangelo Raffaello, La rappresentazione di pastori (The Representation of the Shepherds) which had been performed on Christmas Day 1617 and again in 1619 and included choruses of angels, some of whom were sitting on clouds as they brought the Star of Bethlehem over a richly decorated nativity scene. Although the music is lost, a copy of the libretto published in 1625 and dedicated to Prince Ladislaus of Poland has survived.[20][22]
  • Per la notte del Santissimo Natale (For the Night of the Most Holy Nativity), composed by Carlo Francesco Cesarini to a libretto by Cambise Bonfranci, was first performed on Christmas 1696 at the Apostolic Palace in Rome. The work has four characters, Lucifer and three allegorical figures: Divine Love, Innocence, and Peace.[23]
  • Il genere umano consolato (Humanity Consoled), composed by Quirino Colombani to a libretto by Pompeo Figari, was first performed on Christmas 1704 at the Apostolic Palace in Rome. The work has five characters, all of them allegorical: Mankind, Prophecy, Hope, Time, and Piety.[24]
  • Per la festività del Santo Natale (For the Celebration of the Holy Nativity), composed by Giovanni Battista Costanzi to a libretto by Metastasio, was first performed on 2 January 1727 in the private theatre of Cardinal Ottoboni at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. It was performed for a gathering of the Accademia degli Arcadi and had elaborate sets which included a cloud machine. The work has four characters, a Celestial Spirit who sings the prologue, and three allegorical figures: Faith, Hope, and Divine Love. Metastasio's libretto was subsequently set by several other composers.[25]
  • The Christmas Tale, composed by Charles Dibdin to a libretto by David Garrick, premiered on 27 December 1773 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.[2]
  • Die Weihnacht auf dem Lande (Christmas in the Country), a comic Singspiel in three acts composed by Johann Baptist Schenk to a libretto by Peter Wiest, premiered on 14 December 1786 at the Leopoldstädter Theater in Vienna.[26]

19th century

Oleg Videman as Vakula in a 2005 performance of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki at La Scala, Milan
  • El turrón de Nochebuena (The Turrón of Christmas Eve), a zarzuela in one act composed by Cristóbal Oudrid to a libretto by José María Gutiérrez de Alba premiered on 24 December 1847 at the Teatro Variedades in Madrid.[27]
  • La nuit de Noël, ou L'anniversaire (Christmas Night, or The Anniversary), a comic opera in three acts composed by Henri Reber to a libretto by Eugène Scribe, premiered on 9 February 1848 at the Théâtre Favart della Comédie-Italienne in Paris. The plot revolves around a gamekeeper and his young wife who constantly quarrel and the machinations of the local baron who seeks to take advantage of the situation. The uproar in the village is resolved by the Lutheran pastor who takes advantage of the local superstition that anyone encountering another on the chapel's steps on Christmas Eve will die in the coming year. He contrives to have the baron locked in the chapel and for the quarreling couple to meet outside. Their fear of impending death leads them to reconcile.[28]
  • El pavo de Navidad (The Christmas Turkey), a zarzuela in one act composed by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri to a libretto by Ricardo Puente y Brañas premiered on 24 December 1866 at the Teatro de Variedades in Madrid.[29]
  • Vakula the Smith, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by Yakov Polonsky, premiered on 6 December 1876 at the Mariinsky Theatre. Its libretto is based on Gogol's short story "Christmas Eve".[30]
  • Cherevichki (also known as The Tsarina's Slippers) is Tchaikovsky's revised version of his earlier Vakula the Smith, using the libretto by Yakov Polonsky. It premiered on 9 January 1887 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.[30]
  • Noël ou Le mystère de la nativité (Christmas, or The Mystery of the Nativity) four tableaux with music by Paul Vidal and text in verse by Maurice Bouchor was first performed on 25 November 1890 at the Petit-Théâtre des Marionettes de la Galerie Vivienne in Paris/[31]
  • Christmas Eve, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who also wrote the libretto, premiered on 10 December 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. Like Vakula the Smith, its libretto is based on Gogol's short story "Christmas Eve".[32]
  • La cena de nochebuena o A caza del gordo (The Christmas Eve Dinner, or In Search of the Fat Man), a sainete in one act composed by Rafael Calleja Gómez to a libretto by Ángel Caamaño Izquierdo premiered on 24 December 1896 at the Teatro Martín in Madrid.[33]

20th century

Vocal score for Leroux's opera Les cadeaux de Noël which premiered in Paris on Christmas Day 1915
Final scene of Pavel Helebrand's 1996 opera Jesličky svatého Františka (The Nativity Scene of Saint Francis) in one of its many performances in Ostrava
  • The Greenfield Christmas Tree, composed by Douglas Moore, premiered on 8 December 1962 in a performance by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and conductor Fritz Mahler at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.[53]
  • A Christmas Carol, composed by Edwin Coleman to a libretto by Margaret Burns Harris based on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered on 24 December 1962 as a broadcast on BBC Television which had commissioned the work. It was also broadcast in the United States in January 1963 on PBS Television. The critic from Variety described the score as "arid and spikey" and unlikely to appeal to general audiences.[54]
  • Das lange Weihnachtsmahl, composed by Paul Hindemith with a libretto based on Thornton Wilder's 1931 play The Long Christmas Dinner, premiered on 17 December 1962 in Mannheim, Germany. The English version titled The Long Christmas Dinner was first performed at the Juilliard School of Music in New York on 13 March 1963.[55]
  • Abend, Nacht und Morgen (Evening, Night and Morning), an opera in three acts composed by Ján Cikker to a libretto by Cikker, based on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered simultaneously on 5 October 1963 at the Neues Stadttheater am Friedrichsplatz in Kassel and the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava. It is sometimes known by the alternative title Mr. Scrooge.[56]
  • Il canto di Natale (The Christmas Carol), composed by Lino Liviabella to a libretto by Enzo Lucio Murolo based on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, received its first fully staged performance on 14 January 1966 at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in a double bill with Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel.[57]
  • The Magi, an opera in one act composed by John La Montaine who also wrote the libretto based on Biblical texts, premiered on 27 December 1967 at the Washington National Cathedral. On that occasion it was paired with La Montaine's The Shephardes Playe (Number 2 in his Christmas Trilogy) which had premiered there earlier that month.[58]
  • The First Christmas, an opera in one act by John Antill to a libretto by Pat Flowers, premiered in an ABC television broadcast from Sydney, Australia on 25 December 1969. A commission from the government of New South Wales, it was shown again in December 1970.[59]
  • The Business of Good Government, composed by Yale Marshall to a libretto adapted by Wesley Balk from John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy's 1960 Christmas play of the same name, premiered on 12 December 1970 at the Hennepin Ave. Methodist Church in Minneapolis. While telling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the play and the opera, focus on the problems in Herod's kingdom and his fear that the Three Magi are Persian spies preparing his overthrow. The premiere production was by Center Opera, the predecessor of Minnesota Opera, and combined the work with traditional medieval Christmas songs in a program entitled Christmas Mummeries and Good Government. The opera was performed again on its own the following season.[60][61]
  • A Christmas Carol, composed by Greg Sandow who also wrote the libretto based on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered on 21 December 1977 at the Eastern Opera Theater in Stratford, Connecticut.[2]
  • A Christmas Carol, composed by Norman Kay to libretto by John Morgan based on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered on 25 December 1978 as television broadcast by Harlech Television. The role of Ebenezer Scrooge was sung by Geraint Evans.[2]
  • A Christmas Carol, composed by Thea Musgrave to a libretto by Musgrave based on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, was premiered on 7 December 1979 by Virginia Opera in Norfolk, Virginia. Its first UK performance was on 14 December 1981 at the Royal Opera House with Frederick Burchinal as Ebenezer Scrooge and was later broadcast on Granada Television.[2]
Frederic Villiers' depiction of the 1914 Christmas truce, the setting for Kevin Puts' 2011 opera Silent Night

21st century

See also

  • Werther, Massenet's 1892 opera in which the protagonist commits suicide on Christmas Eve as children's voices are heard singing a Christmas carol.[71]
  • Gilbert and Sullivan's operas The Sorcerer and Thespis, which were originally staged as Christmas entertainments but whose plots have nothing to do with Christmas itself[72]
  • Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) which premiered on 10 December 1854 and is often performed at Christmas time. Although composed as an oratorio and intended for concert performance, its libretto contains many of the dramatic elements of an opera as well as stage directions. It has occasionally been given a fully staged performance, most notably in 1911 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.[73][74]


  1. ^ Among the operas which have premiered in Italy on St. Stephen's Day are Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, Bellini's Norma, and Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira.
  2. ^ Cendrillon is particularly popular in France for Christmas performances.[14]
  3. ^ Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594–1651) was the younger brother of Marco da Gagliano.[19]
  4. ^ Jacopo Cicognini (1577–1633) was the father of Giacinto Andrea Cicognini.[20]


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External links

  • Plotkin, Fred (23 December 2011). "Christmas at the Opera". WQXR
  • Complete libretto of Il gran Natale di Christo salvator nostro published in 1625 (in Italian)
  • Complete libretto of Per la festività del Santo Natale , published for its premiere performance in 1727 (in Italian)
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