A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory is one of Truman Capote’s most famous and beloved stories, a tender, delicate tale of great lyric beauty. It was sensitively adapted for television by Eleanor Perry, and the resulting screenplay, directed by Frank Perry and starring Geraldine Page, was first broadcast by ABC Television in December, 1966, winning the Peabody Award for the best program of the year as well as many other awards.

A Christmas Memory is the story of a young boy and his child-minded, elderly cousin, both of whom form a passionate alliance against the household in which they live, an alliance through which they relate to the rest of the world. As Eleanor Perry says, it is actually a love story between two unlikely human beings, and it expresses the yearning, the need to be understood, to be protected—indeed, to be needed—and the pain at having to separate from such a special person that practically all of us have experienced.

The first time I read the story I was overcome with emotion and knew I had to set this story to music. The opera began to write itself (the opening canon, representing the two inseparable friends and their kites, spun itself out immediately in my mind), but I stopped myself before I composed more in order to obtain the rights to the story. Capote guarded this autobiographical story jealously; it had taken the Perrys several years and finally a personal meeting to obtain his permission for the screenplay. It took the same for me, and I still have vivid memories of the interesting conversation we had about the story and how it could be transformed into music drama.

In fashioning the script for her teleplay, Eleanor Perry used the device of a narrator throughout. I have retained the part of the narrator in the opera with a role called the Author, which is limited mostly to a prologue and epilogue and to providing musical “dissolves” to new scenes. In the opera the music itself provides much of the emotional tone lent by the narration and by the rich pictorial detail of the film production.

With regard to the stage setting, in a discussion I had with him before his death Mr. Capote expressed the opinion (which I share) that the opera should go in the opposite direction from the film. That is, instead of literality and accuracy of visual image, the opera setting should be impressionistic, sparsely delineated, suggesting rather than showing. The set should be dominated by the hearth, from the warmth of which Buddy and the Woman can venture forth to stage right and left to pick pecans, to go to the General Store and Ha Ha’s Cafe, to fly their kites in the meadow. A few carefully chosen props will stimulate the imagination of the audience, and the openness of the set will allow the freedom of movement necessary to the story line.

This opera is equally effective in stage or concert versions. It can be performed without pause, or it can be divided into two smaller acts to accommodate an intermission, in which case it easily comprises the full program.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones