Three wise women meet the baby King in Stanford production

What if when the Magi went off to Bethlehem to meet the prophesied King, three wise women stayed behind and ended up meeting the baby King in a shared dream vision? This is the premise of Conrad Susa’s one-act opera The Wise Women: A Christmas Mystery Fable, presented by the Department of Music and the Office for Religious Life on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1-2, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $10 to $25. A free preview performance for SUID holders will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30.

The Wise Women poster
The Wise Women

Susa’s unconventional fable, presented at Memorial Church and funded by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, is a retelling of the Christmas story that breaks down the patriarchal nature of the biblical narrative of the Magi by inventing wise women who meet Christ in their own way.

Music Associate Professor HEATHER HADLOCK’s program notes expand on the updated fable: “It features the familiar angels, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the three ‘wise men.’ In Christmas lore, these are known as the Magi, or the Three Kings, but here they appear as the Youth, the Husband and the Elder. Unlike an ordinary pageant, these wise men have female counterparts: the Maiden, the Goodwife and the Beldam. A living Star, sung by a trio of sopranos, presides over the action.”

During the 45-minute opera, children will be invited up to the altar and the audience will be invited to sing Christmas hymns. Texts and music are printed in the program and MARIE-LOUISE CATSALIS, the musical director and a Stanford lecturer in music, will give a quick singing rehearsal before the performance so that everyone can join in.

Conrad Susa (1935-2013) was an American composer and long-time professor of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He handed his friend WENDY HILLHOUSE, Stanford lecturer in voice and director of the opera, the Wise Women score about 10 years ago and she has dreamed of staging the opera in Memorial Church ever since. “The place is so incredibly beautiful, and doing this piece in that setting is thrilling,” she said.

Part of Hillhouse’s dream staging includes the church’s mosaic angels, the grand organ and the dramatic light and mysterious shadows of MemChu. The unusual staging of the opera includes a host of angels singing from the east transept, sheep and shepherds wandering the aisles, the Star processing ceremonially throughout the church, and the audience recessing to the vestibule at the end of the performance.

Students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends and families make up the cast, crew and ensemble of 45. Catsalis and Hillhouse consider the diverse ensemble to be one of the great achievements of this production. Students majoring in music perform alongside graduate and undergraduate students from across disciplines. JIM CAMPBELL, professor of history; GRANT PARKER, associate professor of classics; and KRISTIN BLACK, academic advising director, are shepherds, and local children play the sheep.

The reason it is possible to include such an array of people in the production, including the audience, says Catsalis, is that the score has something for everyone. “Familiar church hymns are sung alongside and even combined with more complex evocative writing that is challenging for a classically trained singer. Then there are sections of beautiful close harmony that is reminiscent of the music you hear at a cappella concerts. All is held together by the chamber ensemble of a haunting flute, small and grand organ, harpsichord and percussion.”