IT WAS A WILDLY improbable crowd standing at intermission in the lobby of the Norfolk Center Theater: The music director of the State Opera of Australia chatting with a counterpart from Minnesota, a Parisian socialite, a London music publisher and critics representing dozens of publications, ranging from England to California.
"I came especially to hear 'A Christmas Carol,'" Eva Jolis of Paris told a reporter."I want to be the first at Paris dinner parties to say I've seen it."
She had to move fast. It may take it a while to reach Paris, but in the English-speaking world Thea Musgrave's new opera about Scrooge looks like the hottest Christmas musical event since "Amahl and the Night Visitors." It will undoubtedly become a standard repertory item. Its world premiere happened in Norfolk, Va. because of a woman as remarkable as the opera company she heads.
And today, nine days after the premiere, Norfolk begins to share its opera with the world. At 2:30 this afternoon, most of America will be able to hear "A Christmans Carol" on National Public Radio stations (including WETA-FM in Washington and Wbjc-fm in Baltimore). Seeing it will come a bit later; the production is being videotaped, but broadcast plans have not yet been announced.
Norfolk has one of the best harbors on the east coast, a major naval base and a substantial shipbuilding industry -- but a significant opera company? Five years after the birth of the Virginia Opera Association, people are still trying to get used to the idea. Norfolk has become an opera-happy town the way some places are football-happy -- perhaps in part because the favorite football team of many citizens resides far away in Annapolis.
Behind most flourishing musical enterprises in this country you can find a woman of high aspirations, high artistic standards and high energy.In Norfolk her name is Edythe Harrison and she is the association's founder and president. Her style is not particularly southern -- like many Norfolkers, she is an immigrant (from Detroit), but she talks modestly, with a southern kind of charm that is nowhere near sufficient to explain her accomplishments.
With a little help form her friends, she has wrung support form local businesses, changed a city ordinance to legitmize her use of the Center Theater (the first few opera productions in the city-owned, WPA-built house were technically illegal), captured international attention with innovative programming and the discovery of new singing talent, and raised a $1 million-a-year budget on which (the most amazing feat of all) the opera company operates without a deficit. Each of her productions plays to sold-out houses for every performance in the 1750-seat theater, at ticket prices ranging from $7.50 to $17. "One thing that makes me happy is that the inexpensive seats sold first," she says. "this is a grassroots development in an area where 90 percent of the people had not seen an opera five years ago."
In her spare time this year she won a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. "It was the opera vote that did it," she claims, though her opponent, Dawson Mills (who is also involved in the Opera Association) thinks it was a bit more complicated than that.
Last year, Edythe Harrison went to the state assembly to have her association officially designated the state's opera company. People in Richmond had little inclination to confer that kind of honor on Norfolk, and the proposal went to a study committee. "I told them, I'll be back."" Harrison recalls with a hint of a smile. "Now, I'm going back."
Part of Harrison's success lies in her timing. She started her enterprise at a point when America was just developing a mass interest in opera, and she began where much of the interesting action has been recently -- in a relatively small company off the beaten path.
The thorny economics of opera production, the sheer inertia of the major international companies, the star system (with stars who see no reason to learn a new role when they can pick up thousands of dollars for a single performance as Gilda or Mimi) and the traditional tastes of traditional audiences all make it more likely that a major world premiere like that of "A Christmas Carol" will happen in an out-of-the-way place like Norfolk. Or, for that matter, Prince George's County, where two one-act operas will have their world premieres at the end of this monthe -- in Bladensburg, of all places.
Musgrave's "A Christmas Carol" should give a significant push to American operamania. It is carefully designed so that it can be produced by a small company, with a richly textured orchestra part that can be performed by as few as 15 players, and with some singers filling three or four roles. Sung in English (which audiences outside of the big houses perversely seen to like), closely based on a beloved classic and crafted with exquisite dramatic and musical skill (Musgrave does not own librettos, and she does her own librettos, and she does them like a pro), "A Christmas Carol" has all the marks of a winner. If she had tempered the music's taut, modern idiom with a few more Big Tunes, it might run on Broadway and make Musgrave a millionaire; but she has settled for a slightly more modest success on her own terms.
Returning to the Dickens story in memory, we tend to recall a few spooky episodes rapidly drowned out by plum pudding and "God bless us, every one." Musgrave includes these elements -- carols are sung by offstage voices, and onstage whenever it is dramatically appropiate, as in party scenes. Beloved old melodies are woven into the orchestral score -- not only carols, but traditional dance tunes, and the "Alphabet Song" in the scene depicting Scrooge as a schoolboy. And at the end, a children's chorus marches down the aisles singing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." There is an exquisite Christmas round, "All the Bells of London Town," lustily sung in the final party scene, and a show-stopping aria, "When the Cold Winter Comes," sung by a soprano at an earlier party. But the festive scenes are carefully balanced by Musgrave's fidelity to the dark side of Dicken's vision.
Take away the tinsel and "A Christmas Carol is the story of a bitter old man having an identity crisis, looking back to see where he went wrong and peering anxiously ahead at a future both bleak and brief. Musgrave conveys all this without compromise or sentimentality and with enormous dramatic impact.
Much of the opera is a series of monologues sung by Ebenezer Scrooge, venting his bitterness, agonizing over his mistakes, seeking excuses: "Why should I be blamed for all the evil in the world?" In many scenes, Scrooge is the invisible spectator. He makes a futile, impassioned plea to his younger self (who is known as Ben): "Why don't you listen?/Learn from me/ What the future will bring!" He stands by, a helpless wraith, while Mrs. Cratchit breaks up her family's meager festivities with a diatribe: "Mr. Scrooge!/ No!/ I will not drink to the health of Mr. Scrooge!" And he watches mutely, a visitor to the future, while harridans quarrel over the clothes stripped from his corpse.
Musgrave's sinewy vocal lines amplify the power of her text and place tremendous demands on the leading baritone, as an actor no less than as a singer. On the premiere night in Norfolk, Frederick Burchinall set a standard for this role that many others will have to work hard to match. At times, he almost made it seem a one-man show, but he was supported by a very able, superbly rehearsed cast -- most notably Kathryn Montgomery in the role of Belle Fezziwig, Jerold Norman as Bob Cratchit and Claudette Peterson in a variety of roles.
Those who hear today's live broadcast will have to imagine the atmospheric scenery and costumes and the mercurial presence of dancer Bob Besserer ass the mute Spirit of Christmas (past, present and future), but they will be helped considerably by the music, conducted with loving care by the VOA's music dirrector, Peter Mark.