Tune in to Classical MPR’s broadcast at 7pm on Tuesday, December 1
“When Mark sent me the libretto, I was so excited that my hands were shaking, and then I realized I have no idea what to write.’”
The composer Kevin Puts was recalling the first stages of his collaboration with the librettist Mark Campbell on their opera, Silent Night. Puts went to his piano that day and envisioned the first scene in the libretto, an opera house in Germany, and he began to sing in the style of Mozart. “Suddenly, I was singing lines that were classical in an Italian vein,” he said. “And from there I just went from scene to scene. It all seemed easy and logical. We had a harder time, though, with Act Two.”
The hurdles of Act Two were obviously overcome. Silent Night, commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera, sold out five performances in November, 2011 at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul and just a few months later was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. By 2015 the opera had been presented in eight productions in North America and Europe, making it already one of the most often-produced new operas of the 21st century.
One wouldn’t have predicted this level of success for the work, considering the fact that, although Campbell had written librettos for nearly a dozen operas and other varieties of music theater, Silent Night was Puts’s first opera. Verdi and Puccini had to wait until their third operas to achieve even modest success. Operas, moreover, seldom earn the Pulitzer. Silent Night was only the seventh win for an opera in an annual competition begun in 1943.
The work’s continued acclaim seemed moreover to validate in a public way Minnesota Opera’s venturesome commitment to new works, a resolve not widely shared in the American opera world. (During the 2011–12 season only two other companies gave the premieres of new operas.) Silent Night was conceived as part of the company’s New Works Initiative, a seven-year, $7 million program that promised to present a new commissioned opera or an important recent work as part of the company’s main season, one each year. On the one hand, so progressive an agenda might seem appropriate in this case, given the company’s origins in the early ’60s as Center Opera, an offshoot of the Walker Art Center, a much-respected promoter of avant-garde painting and sculpture. It was a bold venture, nonetheless.
Silent Night is based on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the 2005 French film “Joyeux Noel,” which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film tells the true story of the “Christmas Truce,” when during the first year of World War One, on Christmas Eve, 1914, some 100,000 German, French, English and Scottish soldiers threw down their weapons, climbed out of their trenches and made the frightening walk across No Man’s Land, where they mingled with their enemies, exchanging food and souvenirs, sang carols and, at one point, played a game of soccer, the Germans beating the English three to two. In some places along the western Front, the truce lasted through Christmas Day, thereby allowing the troops to carry their dead comrades back across the lines for burial. Fighting immediately resumed, continuing until 1918 and leaving some 9 million soldiers dead.
The cease-fire, unsanctioned and unplanned, wasn’t reported until a week later, first in the New York Times and then throughout Europe and has largely been ignored in histories of the “Great War.” However, two books on the truce were published during the first decade of this century, increasing awareness of the subject, and the film presumably provoked even more interest.
It was while watching the film on DVD in the summer of 2007 that Dale Johnson, the company’s artistic director, hatched the idea of turning Silent Night into an opera. He had been looking for a follow-up to Grapes of Wrath, a work based on the John Steinbeck novel that the company premiered to wide acclaim the prior winter. Around that time Johnson encountered the music of Kevin Puts, a young American composer from St. Louis, then living in New York City. While driving, Johnson heard Puts’s Symphony №2 on a CD and was intrigued. “If a CD grabs my attention during the rush hour, I take note of it,” he said. Johnson knew that Puts had never written an opera, “but he knows how to build tension into music, and that’s a key,” Johnson said. He called Puts and asked him to get a copy of “Joyeux Noel,” and then he called a librettist he knew, Mark Campbell, and asked him to listen to some of Puts’s music. Both were impressed. Puts liked the movie, and Campbell gave a thumbs-up to the music he heard. “It’s like there’s a narrative in Kevin’s music, even when there are no words,” Campbell said. “His music is dramatic. Many composers write brilliant symphonies but don’t know how to compose an opera.”
Puts and Campbell, who also lives in New York, got together, found each other compatible and said yes to the project. Work didn’t begin until the spring, 2009. As always, the libretto came first. The decision had been made to adapt Carion’s screenplay rather than start from scratch, and this caused concern, since the contract gave Northwest, the company that owned the film, the right to approve the libretto. “This made me scared,” Campbell said, “because I had made changes, dropping some characters and adding some humor. But they were fantastic. They not only approved it, they seemed to understand that certain changes had to be made to make the story stage worthy.”
It’s not an easy story to tell. Beside the large number of characters and languages that needed to be sorted out, the biggest problem was that the climax, which is normally near the end of a script or a screenplay, occurs early in the story. The truce is the climax. Campbell’s solution: he put the cease-fire at the end of the first act, while hinting that the truce is fragile and that the second act therefore will be full of complications. It was when I finished the first act that I realized what this story is really about,” he said. “It’s about: how can you continue the nasty business of war when you know who your enemy is?”
The production was tested in three workshops, an opportunity that Puts described as a luxury. “I revised like crazy after each workshop,” he said. “We had a lot of time with the singers and the orchestra. I’m not used to that. Usually, you show up four days before the premiere, you have three rehearsals, and you can’t make any significant changes. It’s agony.”
Initial reviews were enthusiastic and the opera has continued earning praise as it takes up residence in various cities. “One could only marvel at Puts’s multi-layered orchestral score, which turned on a dime from battle scenes — a cacophony of dissonances, edgy intervals and machine-gun sounds — to moments of serene, lyrical beauty,” Janelle Gelfand remarked at cincinnati.com.
The first production at the Ordway, staged with flair and imaginative detail by Eric Simonson, all of it enhanced by Francis O’Connor’s rotating cyclorama and projected slides, made a strong impression on opening night. The score suggests Prokofiev and John Adams and, in the evocative interludes for orchestra, a hint of “Peter Grimes.” But Puts has his own expressive idiom: a rich lyricism sprinkled with dissonance and an ability to chart the dramatic line and the emotions of a scene with an assured hand and a minimum of notes.
Campbell hopes that “Silent Night” will come to be associated with Christmas as Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” has become so identified, or, in his words, becoming “The Nutcracker” of the opera world. The opera, he said, “has a message about war and how horrible it is. Maybe it can reach people and say, ‘Stop doing this.’ I hope we can influence history in some way.”
Join MN Opera in kicking off December by tuning in to Classical MPR at 7pm on Tuesday, December 1 for the airing of Silent Night.