By Paul Horsley
Silent Night, the World War I opera that is taking the music world by storm, is not a history lesson, and it’s not a sermon. It’s an image of what can happen in wartime when men and women who have been told they are enemies sit down and talk, in defiance of commanders and political leaders. And it draws much of its force from the fact that it actually happened. On December 24th and 25th, 1914, German, Scottish and French soldiers on the Belgian front sat down and celebrated Christmas together, exchanging whisky and chocolates and stories and quite literally seeing the whites of each others’ eyes.
“We wanted to tell it because it was a good story, not to make a public service message,” said composer Kevin Puts of the piece, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Yet the principle behind this battlefield miracle, as told in a brilliant libretto by Mark Campbell (based on a 2005 French film Joyeux Noël), is unmistakable: “Ignorance and misunderstanding of other cultures is what leads to these conflicts,” Kevin said. “Once you really know your enemy, it’s really difficult to go back the next day and say, ‘Okay, we have to go back to war now.’ ”
Co-commissioned by Minnesota Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Silent Night was first performed in 2011 in Minneapolis and it appears February 21st through March 1st at the Kauffman Center, as the centerpiece of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s season. “Our piece is a fantasy,” Kevin said, “and the theme is a good theme, a noble theme.” (The Pulitzer committee described it as “a stirring opera … displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart.”) As the world commemorates the World War I centenary, an event that carries special gravity for Kansas City with its National World War I Museum, Silent Night has, fortuitously, become one of the most talked-about operas of our time.
The Lyric production features some of the original cast, most notably Liam Bonner (the Lyric’s magnificent Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus last spring), and it is directed by Octavio Cardenas, who was a part of the production since its inception at Minnesota Opera workshops and who directed it at Fort Worth Opera last spring. Scott Cantrell, a critic whose opinion I respect deeply, was notably enthusiastic about the traveling production: “If you can keep a dry eye … you’ve a stronger constitution than I,” he wrote in the Dallas Morning News. “Kevin Puts’ opera packs an emotional wallop in music both immediately engaging and sophisticated in ways and means.”
Amazingly, this was Kevin’s first opera. In fact until Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson approached him about Silent Night he was best known as an orchestral composer of considerable note, one whose music had been described as “exhilarating and compelling” by The New York Times. By his own admission, opera was terra incognita, and rarely has a case of beginner’s luck resulted in such a hit. “It has to be his training and his natural instinct,” said Liam, who praised Kevin’s natural feel for writing for voice. “He just seemed to understand what he was going for, what worked and what was needed.” Moreover Kevin’s orchestral chops lend the score an unbelievable richness that makes the orchestra seem like “another character” in the drama.
Kevin, not even 40 yet when first approached about the commission, was daunted by the task but gripped by the story and its possibilities. “I just loved that I was going to bring something to life that’s aurally engaging … but also telling a story through music, and visually.” The press and public reaction to Silent Night was something the opera world hasn’t seen in decades: “With this remarkable debut, Puts assumes a central place in the American opera firmament,” wrote no less than Opera News.
Silent Night is sung in French, German, English and Latin, not just for the sake of authenticity but also to convey to the audience the obstacles the soldiers themselves experienced. “This way it feels like there’s more of a hurdle to get over,” Kevin said. “There’s a lot of awkwardness that can arise from them misunderstanding each other, and translating for one another.” (The opera is presented here with English translations on the Kauffman Center’s Figaro titling system.)
What can an opera bring to this story that other means of storytelling cannot? In a word: song. “It’s easier to grasp the passion or the feelings of the characters through singing,” said Octavio, who trained as an actor and singer at UCLA before catching the opera-directing bug. “Music can transform you to a frame of mind in a second. … A simple chord on the piano, and immediately—that chord can be sad or can be happy—right away our imagination flies somewhere.”
Some might pause at the implausibility of a woman showing up on the front lines: The character of Anna Sørensen is a famous soprano who has been given official permission to visit her boyfriend, tenor Nikolaus Sprink, on the battlefield, and among other things her presence lends a welcome treble voice to the Billy Budd-like all-male cast. “But honestly in the grand scheme of things it works brilliantly,” Liam says. Yes, there is humor inherent in the situation, but what’s striking is the profundity of her impact, and of her singing of the Dona nobis pacem, on the lonely men.
“She represents something different to each of those guys,” Liam added, “whether it’s a mother, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a girlfriend. Someone that they haven’t seen, that they miss so terribly. It fills them with so much hope and happiness, in one of the most difficult times. We know how difficult it is to be away from family and friends around the holidays.”
As with all historical works of art, the question of accuracy arises, but Octavio said as long as a piece embodies the spirit of an event it can employ artistic license and, in this case, humor. “I can’t present the whole history in two hours. … But maybe I can make you curious to go find out more about it.” Indeed, there are historical reports that several events such as that represented in Joyeux Noël broke out along the front that night, and that the film may be a sort of conflation of several. So that “it’s not just about one person saying, Hey what are we doing here?” Liam said. “It was about a lot of people questioning why they were there.”
Nevertheless the fundamental truths around Christmas Eve 1914 remain: Once you’ve broken bread with your “enemy,” it becomes harder to believe the voices telling you he or she is evil: shill propagandistic cries being stirred by an aloof few who never witness the gruesome enormity of war. “The officers, the people in charge, were utterly oblivious to what was happening in the trenches,” Octavio said. “And finally the soldiers meet face to face that night, and they start drinking and talking and they’re like: This guy is just like me, so why am I fighting him?”
Silent Night, which runs from February 21st through March 1st at the Kauffman Center, also features Erin Wall as Anna, Sean Panikkar as Nikolaus Sprink, Craig Irvin as Horstmeyer, Craig Colclough as Gordon, Daniel Belcher as Father Palmer, and many others. 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org. For more information about the project see silentnightopera.com.
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