New family opera for Christmas from Washington National Opera

Folks convinced there's a "war on Christmas" should hurry to the Kennedy Center and catch a new opera that is as Christmas as all get out. We're talking Mary, Joseph and a no vacancy sign at the inn. We're talking a watchful angel and a bright star.

OK, so there's a unicorn, too. And a lion. And some occasionally cheeky contemporary humor. But, hey, the bottom line is still faith, hope and love, and you can't argue with that.


Washington National Opera, where cool things seem to happen more often since Francesca Zambello became artistic director, is presenting the world premiere of "The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me" this holiday season.

The family-friendly, donkey-centric work, with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on Jeanette Winterson's children's book, provides an engaging perspective on the Nativity story. It gets a nice lift from the attractive, vibrantly orchestrated score by Jeanine Tesori, whose style is part neo-romantic opera, bigger part Broadway (her credits include "Shrek the Musical" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie").


Whether the new piece will take its place alongside the long-reigning Christmas opera, Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," remains to be seen. The super-religious may be put off by some of the funny business; the super-cynical may squirm uncontrollably at everything else. But people in between ought to have a pretty good time with it.

WNO's production, cutely directed by Zambello, certainly gives the piece an effective launch. The company has assembled a charming cast that bounds nimbly around Michael Yeargan's low-key set, while conductor Kimberly Grigsby provides clear, sensitive guidance.

Kids in the audience when I attended seemed to stay engaged throughout the two-act, 90-minute opera, enjoying the jokes (a lot of the punchlines, thankfully, are for the adults, too) and the visual flair of Erik Teague's costumes.

Henry Wager, an 11-year-old boy soprano, reveals a natural stage presence and a sweet (lightly amplified) voice as the Angel, who has to find just the right animal to bear Mary to Bethlehem. The Donkey, of course, gets the prized assignment, and John Orduna shines in this role, using his warm baritone to communicate humor and tenderness in equal measure.

Vivid contributions come from soprano Jacqueline Echols, as the ethereal-voiced Unicorn (Tesori cleverly gives this character an other-worldly soundscape); and bass Soloman Howard, as the pushy Lion.

The rest of the ensemble, which includes members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and the WNO Children's Chorus, gets into the spirit of things persuasively. The dynamic orchestra is another plus in this clever vehicle for delivering some fresh Christmas spirit.