A Holiday Special — Live! Program Notes

From holiday classics like “Silent Night”, and “Light One Candle” to new discoveries like “Christmas in Minneapolis”, learn more about the special music selections for A Holiday Special — Live from Joseph Li.

Minnesota Opera
8 min readDec 9, 2020


Let’s start by addressing the elephant wearing the Santa hat in the room: how do we celebrate this holiday season in a COVID-ravaged world?

I don’t even know how to answer that question for myself.

I do know that COVID cannot squash the essence of the traditions surrounding this holiday season. Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, and Kwanzaa are, in fact, celebrations: celebrations of each other in the now, celebrations of gratitude for those that came before, and celebrations of hope for those to come, among many other things.

In that spirit of celebration, we offer you this program of holiday music that is near and dear to so many of us. May it provide even the slimmest glimmer of joy, mirth, and hope for you in the shadow of this present darkness.

What better way to start off a celebration than with A Charlie Brown Christmas? I would argue that Vince Guaraldi and his trio created a soundscape of childlike wonder, hilarity, and anticipation in a way no group has since. The first time I heard The Drifters’ “White Christmas” was probably how many in my generation first heard it: watching the movie Home Alone. I still get the giggles from thinking about this song playing while Macaulay Culkin’s “Kevin” is putting on aftershave, yowling from the heat, and meanwhile his brother’s recently freed tarantula crawls across the bathroom floor.

“Little Girl Blue” is one of many tributes on this program to those among us who will find themselves spending the holidays alone. It proved to be the hit song from Rodgers and Hart’s musical Jumbo — it has been since performed by the likes of Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone — whose version you’ll hear performed by the inimitable Zoie Reams.

How Nina Simone connected the dots of hope-starved melancholy between “Good King Wenceslas” and “Little Girl Blue” I don’t know. I do know that marrying jazz with her classical tradition roots was one of her trademark practices, but I have never heard that carol played in such a way, and I can’t help but think of this song any time I hear the carol through the holidays. The way she takes her time at the end, pleading for someone to send “a tender little blue boy” and closing the song as one does a tender hymn — that’s an emotional space that only music can create.

Situated between the irreverent mirth of “12 Days of Christmas” and “Text Me Merry Christmas” we offer you “Por el valle de rosas”, sung by the eloquent Daniel Montenegro. For our Christian family, Christmas is a season of birth and the incarnate promise of redemption and renewal, and Miguel Bernal Jiménez brings to musical life a perfect picture of humanity’s power to love in the face of adversity — of Mary cradling a crying Jesus in her arms, rocking him to sleep even as she knows Herod’s men pursue them mercilessly.

My friend and cabaret partner in crime Kelli Estes introduced me to Straight No Chaser’s “Text Me Merry Christmas” several years ago for one of our holiday cabaret shows in Houston, Texas. It pokes some fun at how married we are to our phone screens, and its light fun is especially timely considering how so many of us will be apart from loved ones this season.

The holiday season can be especially difficult on single folks, and this particular season will prove harder than most. Norah Jones’ “Man of the Hour” is a tribute to those of us who may be spending this holiday season single — but maybe not quite alone.

Horace Silver and Pearl Bailey pushed the envelope of their respective fields, Black artists pioneering fearlessly in periods of American history particularly notable for racial hostility. Yet both of them created works of universal message and timeless sentiment — “Peace” for its vulnerable message of reconciliation, and “Five Pound Box of Money” for its unapologetic desire for money and being able to pay the rent on time. In Pearl Bailey’s world, money can’t buy happiness — money clearly is happiness.

Our first half of the program closes with my favorite number from the movie White Christmas. We may receive a different reception in Minneapolis than whenever I’ve performed Irving Berlin’s “Snow “— Phoenix, Houston, Birmingham. I realize snow in Minneapolis is more common than the novelty as seen by those previous cities, but the holiday enthusiasm that Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye, and Bing Crosby bring to this short and sweet number could likely melt even the iciest Minnesotan heart, if only just for a moment. For all its naughty and unapologetic sentiment, “Santa Baby” carries a multigenerational appeal and picks up where Pearl Bailey left us with “Five Pound Box of Money”. Eartha Kitt brought an uncontainable playfulness to balancing her character’s request for deeds, dough, and … a lot more.

From the pens of composer Clint Borzoni and librettist John de los Santos, “Wintery Sun” is a piece excerpted from their newest opera collaboration “The Christmas Spider”. The piece is based on Eastern European Christmas folklore — the story varies from tradition to tradition, but a common variant tells of how friendly spiders on Christmas Eve decorate a poor widow’s tree with webbing that turns to gold and silver on Christmas morning. For the piece we’re performing for you tonight, Clint Borzoni’s writes: “Wintery Sun is inspired by traditional Ukrainian carols, and by Christmas specials from the 50s. The music is meant to inspire a nostalgic holiday feeling, sleigh bells and all!”

When Zoie Reams suggested “Who Would Imagine a King” from the film The Preacher’s Wife, I melted. The entire film’s soundtrack features the Georgia Mass Choir and Whitney Houston giving voice to her gospel roots, marrying a kind of Christianity to the Christmas story that had previously been overwhelmingly neglected on screen, and which today in particular ought never be neglected again. I selfishly cannot make a reference to gospel music without singing its praise for a moment — it wrecked my soul the second I was introduced to Sam Cook and the Soul Stirrers. That doesn’t mean I play it well by any stretch of the imagination — and that’s the beauty of gospel. Doing it “well” means nothing. You must mean it. Every word, every note, missed or cracked. You could sing or play it with the smoothest tone, the most innovative ornamentation, and yet still — as one baritone I know succinctly put it — “Mm, the Lord ain’t in that.” Simply find a recording of Thomas Dorsey singing “Precious Lord” and you’ll understand what the longing for “good news” sounds like — and have some tissues nearby. Those of you familiar with Tom Lehrer’s music likely have a feeling of what direction “A Christmas Carol” is headed — as you would expect from a master wordsmith that skewers subjects far and wide, he takes aim here at the mass commercialization of Christmas and its reduction to an economic holiday in Western culture. This was a suggestion of baritone Thomas Glass, whose witty delivery brings this song to life for you tonight. For the next four songs, we explore the deeper, unfulfilled longings of our hearts, as only the holiday season can draw so sharply into focus for those of us going through some of life’s hardest times. For our family celebrating Hanukkah, we offer “Light One Candle”, originally written and performed by the group Peter, Paul & Mary. Its lyrics of hope and justice are understandably underscored by a dark and painful history we hope never to repeat, and calls us to remember our devotion to each other even in the darkest of times to come. The Christmas holiday in particular can be brutal on people with broken families and broken relationships — Joni Mitchell’s “River”, sung tonight by the versatile Liv Redpath (who has covered many Joni Mitchell tunes and was thrilled to sing this one for you), captures in both music and words a woman’s heartbreak over the dissolution of a romance, and her wish to escape all of it amidst a season where she’s surrounded completely by Christmas cheer. We dedicate “Silent Night” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to our family in uniform serving abroad for the safety and security of our nation.

The story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914 has provided the inspiration for so many compelling works — including Minnesota Opera’s Pulitzer Prize-winning commission of the opera “Silent Night” by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell — and serves tonight as our backdrop for “Silent Night/Stille Nacht”. On Christmas Eve, British soldiers caught the faint singing of “Stille Nacht” from the German trenches, applauded them, and returned the song with their own English version of the well-known carol. The following morning of Christmas Day, British and German soldiers on some battlefields emerged from the safety of their trenches — not to exchange gunfire, but to exchange handshakes, Christmas wishes, and gifts in a grassroots ceasefire not at all sanctioned by the high command of either army. While we know the awful history of the rest of that war, as well as the next, the lesson of two bitter enemies singing the words of Christmas peace together in “Silent Night” remains: we ought not lose sight of each other’s humanity, even in the very worst of circumstances.

While “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” became popular among families of US soldiers fighting in World War II, the BBC initially banned the song out of fear the ending lyrics “if only in my dreams” would be bad for the morale of British troops. I don’t know for sure what the cumulative effect of the song was on troops fighting in World War II, but I do know that it requires a deep breath and an open heart to both hear and perform.

Releasing us from this emotional path is “The Twelve Days After Christmas”, in which songwriter Frederick Silver skewers this well known traditional carol in quite a different manner than we did in the first half. We end our program on an anthem for the city you and much of our cast calls home. The initial Waterbury Studios release of “Christmas in Minneapolis” featured prominent singers with strong ties to Minneapolis — Claire De Lune, Sarah Morris, and Lizzo, and suggests we raise a glass — no matter what 2020 has thrown at us, Minnesotans will always find reason to eat and drink together, bleed purple together, and be ridiculously nice to each other.