1998 – Birthday – ABOUT


Commissioned by W11 Opera in 1982 and revived in 1998, published by Eaton Music. Also performed by other opera companies; please see its entry on the Revivals page.

Synopsis: A story about gang warfare in Bethlehem in the year 0 with the nativity quietly going on in the background.

Composer George Fenton
Librettist Timothy Kraemer
Music Director Dominic McGonigal
Soloists Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar, Angels (3), Mary, Joseph, Ben, Matt, Sarah, Jerry, John, Adam, Newsreader, Simon, Josh
Groups Spiffs, Fanz, Herod’s Men, Sycofanz, Wailing Mothers, Shepherds, Sheep
Orchestra Clarinet, Bass, Alto & Tenor Saxophone, Bassoon, Piano, Keyboard, Harp, Violin, Cello, Percussion

Notes on Production: West Side Story meets the Nativity in this hugely successful Christmas show. Birthday is on one level a Mystery play and on another a fable about gang warfare which may particularly appeal to younger teenagers.

The modern, upbeat score has interesting harmonies full of contrasts reflecting the storyline. It is scored for larger and smaller musical accompaniment.

Production notes: the rival gangs should be visually distinct. There is broad scope for individual characterisation within the groups. Original cast size 81.

Score available from composer.

Running time 70 minutes.


Birthday invites us to imagine a world where children rule and the rarely-seen grownups are treated with suspicion. The Spiffs are a gang of boys led by Ben and his sidekick Matt, who love a good fight. The Fanz and the Sycofanz (the Groupies) are followers of the Spiffs even though they find the boys noisy and annoying, as they tell us in their song Boys will be boys.

The Spiffs’ arch-rivals are the peace-loving Shepherds, led by Simon and his sidekick Josh. They are generally accompanied by the Sheep, a group who observe the action with bemused interest and a nifty line in harmonies.

There is tension between the Spiffs and the Shepherds because Simon has secretly been going out with Ben’s sister Sarah. She runs the Inn, the Spiffs headquarters, and demonstrates her independence in the song I work at the Inn. Encouraged by the sheep, Simon wants to win Sarah’s love but Ben wants to stop him.

One night at the Inn, the Spiffs are alarmed when two grownups suddenly appear: a man and a woman with a donkey. The woman is expecting a child and they beg to be allowed to stay. Although they are suspicious of grownups, the Spiffs and the Groupies agree to let them sleep in the nearby stable, to Ben’s fury.

While the Spiffs and the Groupies are celebrating Sarah’s birthday that night, Simon and the Shepherds try to deliver Sarah’s present. They are rumbled by the Spiffs but Simon is left behind to witness an amazing sight inside the stable. As the Angels sing Glory to God Simon shares what he has seen with Sarah and then with all the children. Only Ben refuses to join in, but when Herod’s terrifying soldiers arrive he is convinced he must do something to save the new-born child.

The mysterious grownups are destined to change the children’s world forever. Sarah’s birthday becomes the greatest birthday of all time; Ben discovers that grownups aren’t so bad after all, and the Spiffs decide it is better to settle a dispute with a game of billiards that with a fight.