On the night before Armistice Day – which, of course, gets swallowed up by Veterans Day in the United States – Washington National Opera presents an opera about one half-remembered moment during a war that ended with ringing church bells a full century ago this year.
Yet if composer Kevin Puts has his way, and if his Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night enjoys the success here it has with other companies large and small, for a few hours the distance and time between us and them will disappear. To Puts, the emotions of Belgium’s No Man’s Land circa 1914 could be felt in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else armies face each other today, fighting wars that refuse to end.
“I think people experience the piece as a human story rather than a contemporary or historic piece,” says the St. Louis native, who now teaches composition at the Peabody Institute and serves as director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute. “When a young man is fighting in the trenches and his wife is home giving birth to a child he may never meet, it’s heartbreaking, no matter the era.”
Thus the story of Silent Night, based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noel.
At a glance, both film and opera draw upon an unofficial truce declared by soldiers in the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914. That much is history, though of course having insufficient detail to make an engaging story. That’s where film director Christian Carion got the ball rolling, giving Puts and librettist Mark Campbell a roadmap to push forward from there.
“Mark adapted it brilliantly for the opera stage and also did some research of his own to find out more about the period and the facts of the unlikely events on which the story is based,” says Puts. “I think the characters in the film were already very interesting and their interaction is compelling and beautiful. However, Mark decided smartly to inject more humor into the opera, to make the characters real and flawed. Humor makes tragedy even more moving, I think.”
On that cold Christmas Eve, still early in the “war to end all wars” that didn’t, the combatants had already settled into situations that added terrible phrases to our language – trench warfare, war of attrition, No Man’s Land. When orders came, these soldiers went “over the top,” hoping to reach and kill their adversary before he could aim at and kill them. Artillery shells fell all around both sides, many delivering poisonous gas.
That made what has always seemed a Christmas miracle all the more remarkable, with soldiers on one side and then the other laying down their arms – for a few hours – and joining the enemy in a few carols, a handshake here and there, a shared drink of whatever they had. To Puts and Campbell, the moment from history was proof of what each already believed: that it’s hard to hate someone you know to be the same as yourself. The same fresh and blood, the same heart and soul, the same desire to make it home to the arms of loved ones.
So few did make it home from those World War I trenches by the time hostilities ended Nov. 11, 1918, and those who did were changed forever. As though in response, the world changed forever too, with the United States an international power for the first time, the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire erased from the map of Europe, Russians trudging home to revolt against their czar, and Germany in its shame-filled place of punishment – until Adolf Hitler handed them another option for dealing with defeat.
With a flourish of realism shared with the film, Silent Night is sung not in one language but in several – specifically English, French, German, Italian and Latin. While Puts didn’t pursue making each character’s music “sound” like his nationality, he certainly found himself fascinated as the score began to come together.
“The show begins on the stage of the Berlin Opera, where two of our characters are singing an opera within an opera, in the style of Mozart,” explains the composer. “It was tremendously fun to try and channel the music of my favorite composer, and then come out of it in a style nearer my own. This beginning seemed to open up the possibilities of ‘poly-stylism’ throughout, though none of it was premeditated. The music is tonal at times and atonal at others, though I don’t really define music in those terms. I think of all music as tonal, but there are times when the harmony simply has more notes in it.”
In his Washington National Opera debut, artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun of The Atlanta Opera directs the action onstage, with conductor Nicole Paiement keeping the orchestra in line from the podium. The cast of Silent Night is comprised almost entirely of artists from WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, both alumni launching opera careers around the world and current participants. The opera will be given seven performances at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, with a Military Appreciation Day on Sunday Nov. 25 and special discounts at select performances for active-duty service members.
Silent Night, originally commissioned by Minnesota Opera with Opera Philadelphia, premiered in 2011 and picked up its Pulitzer Prize the following year. Since then it has been produced in Fort Worth, Cincinnati, Calgary, Montreal, Kansas City, Atlanta, San Jose and Michigan, along with the Wexford Opera Festival. With the latest incarnation gracing the Kennedy Center stage beginning this Saturday, Puts has every reason to remember the challenges right alongside the satisfaction of addressing them effectively.
“There were particular pieces of the puzzle which took some solving,” he says, “for example the prologue of Act I in which the Scottish, French and Germans all sing their battle songs at once as they march to war. Or discovering how to give Act II forward momentum as all the plot lines are tied up at the end. But I have said often that when I started writing the opera (my first), it felt natural and easy and an absolute thrill to tell a story through music. I would say the greatest satisfaction is discovering that even with rather vastly different productions, casts, orchestras, directors, the piece seems to hold up well and speak to the audience.”
Production photo by Teresa Wood. Composer photo by David White