I went to the Michigan Opera Theatre last evening for a wonderful musical and theatrical experience. It was the local opening night of the new opera Silent Night, music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell.
During Christmas Eve and Christmas of 1914 at the start of World War I there was an informal truce along the Western Front. Pope Benedict XI had proposed it earlier that December. The military leadership condemned the idea. About 2/3 of the soldiers did it anyway. Some simply didn’t shoot. One area in particular took it further – the British soldiers sang a Christmas carol, the Germans responded. When the British sang O Come, All Ye Faithful and the Germans joined in with the Latin Adeste Fidelis they came out of their trenches and met in no man’s land and shared chocolate, wine, and photos of girlfriends.
This scene closes Act I of the opera, though the composer avoided existing carols (in spite of the title). The scene starts with a Scotsman singing a song and another on bagpipes joins in. The composer said he found bagpipes are really loud. To be able to hear anything else they had to place the actual piper almost in the parking lot and have an actor onstage pretending to play. It is a beautiful scene.
The opera starts with the announcement of war and German, Scottish, and French men answering the call. Then comes a horrific battle scene and the local lieutenants begin to realize the war was not going to be over quickly, as everyone had been assured.
There was a turntable in the middle of the stage as no man’s land. It was sloped – turned one way we could see the action on it, turned another and it became the side of a trench. Encircling it were the shacks for the Scottish and German soldiers and the damaged church used by the French. When a scene focused on one of them that particular enclosure was brought around to the front.
At the start of Act 2 the truce is still in effect and each group brings out the bodies of enemies that had fallen in their trenches and time is taken to give them a proper burial. The higher brass finds out what happened and are furious. Each of the three battalions is shipped off to another part of the war – because these soldiers became friends they would be more hesitant to kill.
The music was harsh and horrible sounding when it needed to be. There were also many moments of transcendent beauty. Before going to the theater I listened to an online preview from the local classical music radio. The host talked to Kevin Puts and played some of the excerpts. The composer said that the dialogue was written in English, then translated into the language of the character. The Scots sang in English, the Germans in German, and the French in French. A part of a religious service was in Latin. All of this was displayed in English in the surtitles. The composer, though, had to figure out how to turn each language into singing that sounded natural in that language.
Each character singing in his or her native language is relatively new to opera (though this is far from the first). For example, When Madame Butterfly of Puccini was written in 1903 the Japanese and American characters all sang in Italian (and I first saw it in Germany – what a mix of nations!).
Though the composer wasn’t at the performance (Atlanta was doing the same opera the same weekend), the librettist, Mark Campbell, was. Before the opera began I heard him talking to a group (probably students) in the lobby and listened for a bit.
The idea for the opera came from the head of the Minnesota Opera. He saw the 2005 movie Joyeux Noel and thought it would be a great opera. He raised the money and commissioned Campbell and Puts to adapt the movie into an opera.
I heard Campbell say he had been hired for a specific job, essentially take it or leave it. However, he said, he was a pacifist and would do what he could to make sure war was not glorified, that we saw that it was horrible. Puts, also a pacifist, agreed with that general direction. Their overall message: Once you’ve met someone and gotten to know them it is harder to shoot them.
Puts said he was hired on the strength of his symphonies. He had not written an opera before this one. This one was so successful it won the Pulitzer Prize for music and got him two more operas to write. One has already been premiered, the other is still being written.
This opera is part of a series of operas for today, new or recent operas written on topics appropriate for modern audiences. Last year’s production of The Passenger at Michigan Opera Theatre also fits this category. I attended that one almost exactly a year ago. I hope to attend more of these kinds of operas.
I bought my ticket when I got to the opera house yesterday evening. I named the general price range I wanted. The box office agent decided I was close enough that she gave me a senior discount, about 45% off. Not bad! I went on in for the Opera Talk, given an hour before the opera starts. For this, those interested sit in a section of the main floor.
Once the talk was over I went up to the Mezzanine, where I always sit. The usher asked if stairs were a problem. They’re not. So up we went … and kept going. She finally pointed down a row in the back mezzanine. I said this was not what I wanted, even if it was a discount I didn’t want to sit this far back. So I went back down to the box office, though talking to a different agent. I said I didn’t want to be so far back. The conversation got weird. She said she had something in Row A (great seats in the mezzanine) but some people don’t like to sit so close because they have to tilt their heads back so far to read the text above the stage. Huh? I asked for the seat map, which she had declined to show me before, and pointed to the mezzanine. Oh, no, sir, the ticket you have is for the main floor. Oh. I decided to keep it. That meant first ticket agent didn’t ask whether I wanted main floor and the usher on the mezzanine who guided me to the proper aisle, the usher in that aisle, and the usher who climbed steps with me didn’t notice the ticket said main floor.
This opera resonated with me in an extra dimension. Veteran’s Day was, of course, the day before. I decided to honor my most recent direct ancestor who had been a veteran. That was my father’s father, who had been in the Army in France for the end of WWI. To honor him and to mark the 50 years since his death in 1966 I searched through my stash of family photos collected from Dad’s house, scanned a few, and sent them off to family. Not all of them were of the war. This one is, at least I think so. Nothing is written on the back, so I don’t know the date or location.
When I wasn’t caught up in the story and music I did think a bit that this was my grandfather’s war.