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'The Long Christmas Dinner': An opera for before, not during, your feast

Program for the performance of
Program for the performance of "The Long Christmas Dinner" that appears on the new Bridge Records CD of the Hindemith/Wilder opera.
American Symphony Orchestra

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Bridge Records is an independent record label that, along with the usual classical repertoire, focuses on classical music from the 1900s and 2000s. The label has just put out the first recording in English of “The Long Christmas Dinner,” a short opera written in the 1960s. It's a collaboration between two titans. Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele says it is the perfect recording to provide some perspective on your holiday gatherings.

It’s the big Bayard family holiday and nine people sit at the long Christmas dinner table. The table is decked with holly. There are doors stage left and right. One door is surrounded by birds and flowers, another by black crepe.

We soon realize that this meal is not a finite event. As matters proceed, we understand that this 49-minute opera contains 90 years of family history — multiple generations who will repeat the same banal phrases about the food, the weather and the holiday church service.

Eventually most of the diners walk through the black door of death. Others emerge from the door of birth. A baby is wheeled right out of the bright door and across the stage to the dark one. The holiday camaraderie gradually gives way to conflict, and estrangement disperses all the Bayards from the old family home.

The story has been told and the music stops. The dinner is over and so are the Bayards. The audience is shaken. Merry Christmas to all.

Christmas card drawn by Paul Hindemith on the theme of
Christmas card drawn by Paul Hindemith on the theme of "The Long Christmas Dinner"
Hindemith Foundation/Blonay, Switzerland

“The Long Christmas Dinner” is a collaboration between two of the most extraordinary creators of the 20th century: German-born composer Paul Hindemith and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder wrote “Our Town” and “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which inspired the musical “Hello Dolly!”

It is hard to categorize Hindemith’s overall musical style. "Music, despite its tendency toward abstraction, is basically a means of communication," Hindemith said. "Composers and performers have a social responsibility to be comprehensible."

“The Long Christmas Dinner” is comprehensible in part because Wilder is able to say a great deal in very few words. As in all great Greek drama, Wilder’s big events happen offstage — as in the death of Emily in “Our Town.” The characters’ reaction is the story, which is taut, surprising, scary and deeply affecting. It could almost be an episode of "The Twilight Zone."

Hindemith’s music is lyrical and gently foreboding. The optimism of the words of the men’s holiday trio — “Here’s to the Health and Here’s to the Wealth” — is belied by a creepy, minor-key accompaniment from the orchestra. In just a moment, the Bayard family patriarch will exit death’s door — as would Hindemith himself, nine months after the opera’s premiere.

Gradually, the others disperse. “There are no more children,” says one diner. Finally, a distant cousin is left alone by what Wilder called “the great mill-wheel of life and death.” Before she too fades, she is consoled by a letter from Bayard descendants who have moved far, far away.

As much as I like this opera, I’m not suggesting you use the score as dinner music at your holiday table. Instead, pay attention to the family and friends around you — some of them may not be at the table next year.

The opera was first performed in English in 1963. It was revived last December in sold-out, widely-applauded performances at New York’s Alice Tully Hall by Leon Botstein, the polymath Bard University president who also conducts the American Symphony Orchestra. This is the fine performance Bridge Records has released on CD.


I asked CSU Bakersfield music professor and Hindemith enthusiast Joel Haney if "The Long Christmas Dinner" might work well on one of L.A. Opera's short-opera double bills, like in last year’s  program of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas’’ and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Haney, who wrote the notes for the Bridge Records "Dinner” recording, responded: "An L.A. Opera performance would be great! I don't have any immediate thoughts for what might go on the other half.’’ Neither do I, but I’d prefer that it not be "Cavalleria Rusticana" or "Pagliacci.”