Photo: Christian Steiner


 Thea Musgrave


A Christmas Carol
(1978-79) - An Opera in Two Acts
Duration: 170'
Minimum cast 7 singers, dancer, actor, 3 children,
6 supers & optional children's chorus
1121/1000/2perc/pf.hp/str [or]
Libretto by the composer based on the story by Charles Dickens
Commissioned by the Virginia Opera Association with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

World Premiere:  16 December 1981, Norfolk Center Theater, Norfolk, Virginia
Virginia Opera Association
Peter Mark, conductor
David Farrar, director

First UK performance: Royal Opera House production, Sadler's Wells, 1981
First Australian performance: State Opera of South Australia, 1981

Publisher:  Chester Music Ltd

Critical Acclaim:

(U.S. Premiere)
...Musgrave's new opera is a most distinguished work...The music is tense and challenging and it never loses its way...the elements were all in marvellous balance...
— Alan Rich, New York Magazine

Many of her words are Dickens', and they come brilliantly alive again, like decorations that emerge sparkling from dusty boxes every year without fail...It is a show — one for adults of all ages...
— Leighton Kerner, The Village Voice

...In A Christmas Carol, Musgrave has worked within her strengths, and those strengths are many and notable. The challenge she set herself — to turn Dicken's tale into an effective, workable chamber opera, stimulating to perform, enjoyable and affecting to hear, has been ably met...
— Andrew Porter, The New Yorker

(London Premiere)
...Each of the two acts is skilfully assembled, so as to provide elbow room for reflection and lyrical passages as well as scope for dramatic action.

The same sureness of touch is apparent in the music. The score comes to life from the first bar with a striking evocation of a foggy winter's evening and thereafter there are no hesitations or longueurs...
— Peter Heyworth, The Observer

...she has done it so well that no one will ever dare to do it again.....the beauty of the libretto is that the simplification process has kept all the essential story while leaving it to the music to illustrate emotions. So clear is the motivation, one hardly needs words.
— Edward Greenfield, The Guardian

Composer's Note:

The story follows the original Dickens very closely. One of the greatest challenges was to find a way to incorporate as many of the Dickens' characters as possible and yet to make this work a "practical" vehicle for an opera company. Here then is the cast list.

EBENEZER SCROOGE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

FAN & STARVING WOMAN  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
     *Caroller/*Liza Fezziwigg/*Belinda Cratchit/
     *Lucy, Rosie's younger sister

BELLE FEZZIWIGG & LAUNDRESS  . . . . . . . . . . .
      *Martha Cratchit/*Rosie, Fred's wife

MRS CRATCHIT & CHARWOMAN . . . . . . . . . . . . .
      *Caroller/*Mrs Fezziwigg/*Aunt Louise,
      companion to Great-Aunt Ermintrude
      *Mr Dorrit
FRED, Scrooge's nephew & MAN with the red face .
      *Ben, Scrooge as a young man
PORTLY GENTLEMAN & FAT MAN  . . . . . . . . . . . . 
      *Mr Fezziwigg/*Topper, a guest at Fred's party
bass-baritone or baritone
MARLEY'S GHOST & JOE, the rag and bone man .
      *Mr Gabriel Grub/*Great-Aunt Ermintrude

spoken role
PAPER BOY  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
     *Dick, Mr Fezziwigg's apprentice/
     *Peter Cratchit/*Bertie
boy of about 12 or 13
MOLLIE FEZZIWIGG . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
     *Caroller/*Harriet Cratchit/*Vickie, Rosie's
     younger sister
girl of about 11 or 12
TINY TIM  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
      *Caroller/*Scrooge as a young boy
boy 8-10

The minimum cast is thus twelve, with the roles doubled as indicated. However in some circumstances it may be appropriate to enlarge the cast, in which case the asterisked role can be played by separate performers, or they can be doubled to some extent.

There are also 6 optional supernumeraries and some additional children can play orphans, strays, carollers and party guests. The cast can also include a children's chorus for the finale. Since they do not come on stage they do not necessarily need to be in costume.


This most famous of Dicken's stories begins with Scrooge deriding the whole idea of Christmas. He is visited by the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that he has been granted one last chance to change his miserly and selfish ways. The Spirit of Christmas will appear to him in three guises - the Past, the Present and the Future. Scrooge must listen and learn.

The Spirit appears and shows Scrooge events from his past, the Cratchit house of the present and of the future where Tiny Tim dies of misery and poverty. Scrooge is also forced to confront his very own gravestone. He swears he will now honour the spirit of Christmas throughout the year. When dawn comes Scrooge wakens euphorically and joins his nephew and family to celebrate.


It is a cold, foggy Christmas Eve. Scrooge, the miser, berates his clerk, Bob Cratchit, for arriving at work late. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, enters and wishes his uncle a Merry Christmas. Scrooge loudly derides the whole idea of Christmas and refuses Fred’s invitation to dine with him the next day. A portly gentleman comes to solicit a donation for the poor, is met with a brusque retort, and hurriedly withdraws. Scrooge grudgingly allows Bob the next day off for Christmas.

Later that night the ghost of Scrooge's deceased partner, Jacob Marley, confronts him. Marley laments that he is forever doomed because of his narrow and selfish life. He warns of a worse fate awaiting Scrooge, though he has been granted one last chance. At one o'clock the Spirit of Christmas will appear in three guises - the Past, the Present, and the Future. Scrooge must listen and learn. Marley disappears and Scrooge dismisses the encounter as a mere dream. He goes to bed.

The clock strikes the hour and the Spirit of Christmas Past appears. It shows Scrooge a classroom where a young boy, whom Scrooge recognizes as himself, sits alone. A young girl, Fan, comes to tell him he may return home so they can spend a wonderful Christmas together. Scrooge remembers his sister Fan with pleasure and wishes she were still alive.

The scene changes to an office presided over by the jolly Mr Fezziwig. He, his family, friends and two apprentices (one of whom is a young Scrooge, then known as Ben) prepare for a Christmas party. As musicians play, Ben dances with the young and beautiful Belle Fezziwig. They are obviously in love. After a song by Belle, the Fezziwigs lead the final dance. The lights then fade and the cheerful voices disappear.

A year has passed and Belle remarks sadly to Ben that he clearly no longer loves her and is interested only in making money. Ben protests but she replies that she "waits in vain for a sign of affection, for a kiss or a smile of tenderness" and that "he has grown cold." He brusquely cuts her off saying she knows nothing of the world and the terrible poverty facing most people. She must be patient, and they must wait before they marry. Finally, in a desperate attempt to evoke a response, Belle accuses him of being a miser, incapable of love. The old Scrooge passionately exhorts Ben to go after her, but Ben is too proud to retract his angry words. He steels himself to face a lonely future - he has become Scrooge. The old Scrooge angrily accuses his younger self of making his present life a misery.


The jovial spirit of the Present wakes Scrooge and leads him to the Cratchit house. There, the family, including Tiny Tim, assembles for Christmas dinner. Despite their poverty there is an atmosphere of warmth and merriment. Scrooge asks about Tiny Tim's future. The Spirit turns on Scrooge and points to him accusingly. Scrooge is taken aback - "Here I stand accused, but why? How can I be blamed for the evil in the world?"

Suddenly; the menacing figure of the Spirit of the Future appears out of the gloom with several starving children, amongst them the Cratchits. Scrooge is frightened by their desperation as they cling to him. He violently pushes them down. Tiny Tim is crushed and falls dead. Scrooge is horrified. Bob and his wife are overwhelmed with grief at their loss as they draw close together to mourn Tiny Tim. "Together we shall find comfort." In the street outside, lights reveal several grotesque figures that join a passing funeral procession. Scrooge finds himself in a deserted graveyard facing his own tombstone and, in a shaking voice, reads the inscription: "Ebenezer Scrooge, miser; who lived unloved and alone." Scrooge, more and more terrified, declares that all of these happenings are merely a dream. He insists the future is not predestined, that he can change. He swears he is no longer the man he was and will henceforth honour the Spirit of Christmas throughout the year. He thus successfully confronts the grim and powerful Spirit of the Future. Dawn comes and Scrooge awakens euphorically, as he realizes he is still alive and can live his final years sharing his joy with others.

In the final scene, Scrooges nephew and his wife Rosie give a party to celebrate Christmas. A knock is heard at the door and, to everyone’s astonishment, Scrooge enters and joins the festivities. The Spirit of Christmas Present appears and his unseen presence brings joy and goodwill to all.


A Christmas Carol
Virginia Opera
Peter Mark, conductor
LP MMG 302

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