Short story writer O. Henry’s name is synonymous with surprise endings. All of his many tales finish with a twist — a skill so perfected by the author that, despite the century that’s passed since he last penned a narrative, his works are still pertinent, and still catch us off guard.
The former Asheville resident secured his fame with such stories as “The Ransom of Red Chief,” “Let Me Feel Your Pulse” (written while he lived here) and, perhaps most famously, “The Gift of the Magi,” which the Asheville Lyric Opera will stage for its annual holiday production. This last story, a sketch of true Christmas spirit, captured the imagination of composer David Conte.
The story goes, in brief: Two penniless newlyweds, Jim and Della Young, face the arrival of the holiday with no means to buy presents for one another. However, each has one prized possession — Jim is never without his grandfather’s gold watch, and Della sports a head of long, luxurious hair. Both realize, in secret, that by hawking their treasures they’ll be able to purchase a gift for their spouse. The surprise, of course, is what they buy.
But, more importantly, the story offers up the better-to-give-than-to-receive moral with the kind of charming melancholy that time can’t tarnish. And Conte’s adaptation of the tale into a one-act opera musically enhances the emotion implicit in that maxim.
“Adding the musical component brings different layers to this timely message of the true meaning of Christmas,” explains David Craig Starkey, director of the Asheville Lyric Opera, which will present the professional premiere of Gift of the Magi, along with its holiday staple, Amahl and the Night Visitors, at Diana Wortham Theatre.
“We wanted to do this because of O. Henry’s connection to Asheville,” Starkey explains.
The famed short-story writer, born William Sidney Porter in 1862, grew up in Greensboro. As a young man, he moved to Texas and lived with family friends while trying a number of different professions. Rumor claims that while living with the Joseph Horrell family in Austin, he often chided the resident cat, calling, “Oh, Henry!” — a nickname that somehow followed the man instead of the feline.
Misfortune followed O. Henry, too. He was, as the story goes, framed for embezzling money from a bank where he worked — a charge he ran from, for a while. The illness and later death of his wife brought him out of hiding, and he served five years in prison for the crime. While incarcerated, O. Henry started crafting short stories, using his pen name to shield his identity. By the time he regained his freedom, he was well on his way to international acclaim, and moved to New York City, where he wrote the bulk of his work — some 300 stories — in 10 years.
O. Henry loved the Big Apple, but was drawn south again by his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Lindsay Coleman, who lived in Weaverville. The two married in 1907, but she refused to head north. They spent some time in Asheville together during 1909, but O. Henry’s heart remained in New York. He passed away in his beloved city in 1910 — but, in a twist worthy of his own creation, he died destitute, and was brought to Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery to be buried.
Remaining true to O. Henry’s vision, Conte set the opera in New York in a cramped, rundown apartment. The music follows the story closely, Starkey notes.
“The [score's] composer wrote it in a very American style, but it reminds me of Italian composers from the 18th century,” he adds. “It’s a very romantic, very simple and supportive musical composition for the story.”
Starkey goes on to compare O. Henry’s work to that of Asheville’s native son, Thomas Wolfe. “The success of both writers was based on a simple yet poignant perspective on human nature,” Starkey maintains. “Look Homeward Angel was made into a play, but like The Gift of the Magi, the original piece stands alone.
“However, adding singers and an orchestra, it’s amazing how many layers are found in this work,” he concludes.
The second half of the opera company’s performance, Amahl and the Night Visitors, is also a one-act opera, this one based on a modest fable. A poor, crippled shepherd boy finds his life transformed when three kings, searching for the Christ child, appear at his door.
“From a musical standpoint, these two pieces work well together,” Starkey explains.
“Because of the layers brought out by the music, I think the audience will really come to enjoy and understand much more about these stories.”
This is the third year Amahl has been part of the Asheville Lyric Opera’s annual Christmas production. Nathaniel Humphries returns in the title role and newcomer Simone Vigilante, a recent transplant to Asheville, sings the part of Amahl’s mother.
The Magi features Tara Stafford and Swannanoa native Bryan Franklin as Della and Jim. Both are resident artists with the opera company.
The holidays are a time for small miracles — a lesson O. Henry imparted in the surprisingly few pages of his famous tale. And while the legend of Amahl brings to life a Christmas story that happened in distant lands, there’s something equally exotic about The Magi — perhaps because, with brilliant simplicity, O. Henry brings Christmas home to us.