Operas Set at Christmas

Is there any better way to capture the wonder of Christmas than through the magic of opera? Here are some of the best operas set at Christmas, full of love, faith, friendship and jubilation. 

Frank Capra’s classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, has been brought to the operatic stage, thanks to American composer, Jake Heggie. Although set at Christmas, the protagonist George Bailey is not having the merriest of times, and in fact is contemplating whether life is worth living at all. However, a guardian angel arrives to show him that the world would be a better place with him in it, and restores his hope that it will work out in the end.

With dramatic themes of life, death, hope and anguish, It’s a Wonderful Life lends itself perfectly to the opera genre. Fans of Capra’s masterpiece will enjoy seeing the trials and tribulations of George Bailey brought to life and set to a beautiful score.

Everyone knows the story of Puccini’s La bohéme, but how many people know that it was set at Christmas time? Often we get lost in the timeless love story of Mimi and Rodolfo that we don’t pay attention to when it’s set. But the cold Christmas Eve night in scene 1 actually plays an important role…

We are immediately introduced to the bohemian lifestyle of the characters as Rodolfo tries to warm himself up by throwing his own play into the fire. This highlights the struggles of the characters and how the poorer residents have to get creative in order to cope with the harsh winters. Therefore, the audience is thrusted into this world of poverty and hardships, which sets them up for the tragic story ahead. 


El Niño (Little Boy) is a fascinating reimagining of the nativity story from the female perspective. The first half of the opera focuses solely on Mary’s story, with opera songs like ‘I Sing of a Maiden’ and ‘Hail, Mary, Gracious!’ recognising her significance. The second half is much more dramatic, focusing on the brutality of King Herod and his prosecution of the baby Jesus. 

Those familiar with the nativity story will recognise key themes in Adams composition, like ‘The Christmas Star’ and ‘The Three Kings’. El Niño is one of the most famous examples of an opera-oratorio – a large musical composition made up of a choir, soloists and instrumental ensemble. Adams uses this large orchestration to bring biblical texts to life, as well as weaving in works from Hispanic poets.

Britten’s operetta, Paul Bunyan, is based on a legendary figure in North American folklore. He is a giant, mythical lumberjack that travels the world with his famous companion, Babe the Blue Ox, and uses his superhuman gifts to build a better world. In Britten’s retelling, Paul is put on this earth to clear the forests and make way for civilisation. He recruits a team of fellow lumberjacks (although none near the height of him) and sets about doing exactly that.

Act 2, scene 2 is titled, ‘The Christmas Party’. This is the final act of the opera where the logging industry has seen success, and Babe suggests to Paul that it’s time for them to move on. As the festivities are underway the characters prepare for their next adventure. Some are getting married, others have been offered new jobs, and Paul’s faint remains unknown, as he waits to see who needs him next.


Das Christ-Elflein or The Little Elf of Christ is a two act opera by German composer, Hans Pfitzner. It follows the style of a traditional German fairytale and tells the beautiful story of a young elf, an old tree spirit and the Christ child, weaving both traditional religions and folklore into one heartwarming tale. 

Elflein is a little forest elf who is curious about humans and their Christmas traditions. However, his friends are not in the mood to answer his questions due to becoming resentful of humans and God, especially due to their beloved friend Trautchen falling ill. With a sprinkle of Christmas magic the Christ child appears himself. He brings Trautchen a Christmas tree, but also announces he’s here to take her to heaven. Taking pity on her, Elflein offers to take her place, for which he is awarded the name of Christ’s Elf. Trautchen is cured which restores everyone’s faith once again, ending in a big Christmas celebration. 

Although centered around mythical creatures, The Little Elf of Christ depicts the complicated relationship humans have with religion, especially in times of hardship. But the happy ending reminds us that Christmas is a time when miracles can happen, with a kind gesture like Elfein sacrificing himself, making a huge difference to someone else’s life.