'Silent Night' recounts Christmas Truce across no man's land

Silent Night
A battle scene in the Minnesota Opera production "Silent Night."
Minnesota Opera/Michal Daniel

The world premiere of "Silent Night," the operatic retelling of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914, will be presented by the Minnesota Opera on Saturday.

As befits a tale of the 'war to end all wars' the production is done on a huge scale. The premiere is the culmination of three years of effort by the creative team. Creating an opera takes time and a lot of people. In April, a full orchestra and a phalanx of big-voiced singers gathered at the Minnesota Opera Center in downtown Minneapolis to give "Silent Night" a test-run.

The piece is based on the 2005 French movie "Joyeux Noel." It's the story of how an opera star visiting the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914 sang for the German troops. When French and British soldiers joined in from across no man's land the soldiers laid down their arms to celebrate the season together.

Hours later the carnage resumed.

Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson commissioned composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell to create the piece as part of the company's New Works Initiative. This story posed particular challenges, Campbell said.

"It's actually in five languages," he said. "But mostly in three languages, because I thought it was a very important aspect of these three cultures trying to communicate with each other and not necessarily knowing each others language, in German, French and Scottish."

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At the April workshop, Campbell listened for how the words worked, but Puts was all about the music. "We have the amazing opportunity to have an entire orchestra here six or seven months before rehearsals will start," he smiled.

Mark Campbell, Kevin Puts
Librettist Mark Campbell, left, and composer Kevin Puts wrote the score for "Silent Night."
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

A celebrated composer, this is Puts' first opera. He learned how the music has to flow through the production, and how to leave time for dramatic stage action. He also learned how too much time can create "dead spots," and he identified some of those at the workshop in April.

"My score is completely marked up in red and yellow and all kinds of colors," Puts said in April. "In the next months I'll first revise the score and then I'll do an entire new set of orchestra parts and then I'll also revise the piano vocal score because that'll be what's used when rehearsals begin in October."

In November, just days before the premiere, a tech rehearsal takes place at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. Armed men stalk the building, dressed in WWI-era uniforms of the French, German and Scottish regiments. The stage is filled with a huge battlefield set which is soon swarming with men locked in the horrors of trench warfare.

Strangely, the violence accentuates the beauty of the music and the singing.

Puts said he's still trying to come to terms with it.

"It's more intense than I realized it would be," he said. "Just to see someone singing one of the arias and break down in the middle of it and then continue to sing. It's just an amazingly powerful thing for me and it's an element I am not used to."

"Silent Night"
Karin Wolverton as Anna Sorensen and William Burden as Nikolaus Sprink, an opera singer in the Minnesota Opera production of "Silent Night."
Minnesota Opera/Michal Daniel

Puts was struck by the amount of research the singers have done into their characters and the period. One singer researched shell-shock, as post traumatic stress disorder was known then, to incorporate it in his performance.

Seeing the production at this stage is exciting — and scary — Campbell said.

"The idea that an audience is going to watch it is terrifying," he said. "Because as a writer, I am always concerned &dmash; is the story clear enough? Are people in the back of the Ordway, are they going to be able to follow a certain character or something. That's the scary part."

The Minnesota Opera wants other audiences outside the state to experience "Silent Night." It's one of only three operas premiering in the U.S. this year. The work is a co-production of the Philadelphia Opera and several other companies are visiting St Paul this weekend to scout the show, and get a taste of the onstage blood and battle scenes.