Sankara Harouna & Catherine Goode in The Gift of the Magi. Photo: Philip Groshong

The Gift of the Magi

Music by David Conte
Libretto by Nicholas Giardini
Based on the short story by O. Henry
Joseph Mechavich, conductor
Directed by Kelly Kitchens

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

For many of us growing up O. Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi was as much a part of our holiday traditions as twinkling lights and carols. Whether it was a reading by the fireside or attending a staged version of the beloved work at Actors Theatre, it was a story with a message.

Set in a simple apartment, married couple Jim (Sankara Harouna) and Della (Catherine Goode) prepare to celebrate Christmas as best they can with their meager means by decking their halls with found decorations and a promise that they need not exchange gifts. They each quietly and slyly resolve to break their promise and set out to purchase the perfect gift for their love.

As we know the story is both heartfelt and a bit cautionary in that it brings home the meaning behind this time of year. I had suspected that there was a musical version of the classic somewhere and how fortunate that it would be in a chamber operatic setting…. well at least this iteration. Composed by David Conte with Nicholas Giardini’s libretti, the story stays pretty darn close to the original. 

While the score is set with mostly recitatives, the couple of arias that are set forth, Della’s Aria and Jim’s Soliloquy, speak to love and sacrifice for each other. With the piece accompanied by a chamber orchestra, under the baton of Joseph Mechavich, the whole of the performance made for an intimate setting.

Under the direction of Kelly Kitchens, we begin the production with the three Wise Men (Tyler Carnes, Cameron Carnes, and Kyle King), bedecked in Dickensian garb, who introduces us to the lovers and serve as a sort of Greek chorus, giving us insight and reflection of the story. The three singers, for the most part, were rather solid in their harmonization, but at times the tenor did drown out the others.

Aside from the principal couple, their friends Henry (Jason Zacher) and Maggie (Georgia Jacobson) are also important. While Henry does not get to sing as much as Maggie, Zacher had full command of the time that he was on stage. As far as Ms. Jacobson’s Maggie, she had her hands full with a set of melismas that would rival Handel’s Messiah, which she handled pretty well.

I thoroughly enjoyed the energy between Sankara and Catherine. Their performance, both in acting and song, was fun and impassioned. Even though Sankara was drenched from the heat of the overhead lights, he pushed through as if there were no discomfort at all. 

As this was the first time I have heard this arrangement, I’ll need to revisit it again to reassure myself of some of the musical nuances that I’m sure were there. Recurring themes were obvious, but I want to say some borrowing of beloved holiday tunes was sampled within the piece.

As this was a debut production, it also seemed a perfect time to debut the new Kentucky Opera production space at the new offices on Magazine Street. With raised seating in a horseshoe configuration, the audience was very close to a stage bedecked with simple props such as a chaise and secretary and a cloth that served as the apartment’s flooring. 

While Jesse Alford’s lighting design was illuminating, there was an inconsistency in that Della received a spotlight during her aria, but Jim did not. He was rather dark during the entire aria.

Another inconsistency was the clothing. I know that typically the story is set at the beginning of the 20th Century and the ladies dressed accordingly, but the characters of Jim and Harry looked more modern. Wigs and make-up were enviable and very well done.

All in all, I appreciated the work and exploration of space that was put into place to present this piece and the message is one that we should all take heed of, not just at Christmastime, but all year long. It was nice to hear the message in an operatic way.

Wishing you and yours the Happiest of Holidays.

Bravi Tutti!

The Gift of the Magi

Thursday, December 15 @ 8 pm
Friday, December 16 @ 8 pm
Sunday, December 18 @ 2 pm
Tuesday, December 20 @ 8 pm
Thursday, December 22 @ 2 pm

Kentucky Opera
The Opera Center
708 Magazine Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.