One of the operas on stage this year is Silent Night – based on a true story of a legendary cease-fire during World War I.
The words to the opera Silent Night are by Mark Campbell, and the music is by Eastman alum Kevin Puts. This was his first opera, and he remembers his excitement – and concerns – from when he started writing:
“It’s funny because when I was writing the piece – this all happened within a matter of 5 or 10 minutes, I got the libretto from Mark in the mail and I put it on the piano, and I was like, my heart was racing, and I was so excited to just sort of get in – improvising on the piano, and singing as I improvised, and it was happening so quickly. I had la few pages of it and I thought, ‘this is going really well. I love doing this.’ And I thought, ‘okay, I just want this to go well enough so I get to do another opera.’ At the same time, I thought, ‘this is going well, but nobody’s going to produce this opera.'”
The opera did get produced, and has had many performances since its premiere in 2011 – not to mention winning the Pulitzer Prize.
And Puts did get to write another opera – based on the Manchurian Candidate; and he has yet another in the works – he says he can’t yet reveal the details about that one.
This opera, Silent Night, has a beautiful and improbable story, which also was depicted in the movie Joyeux Noel, set in World War I, as Puts describes, “Christmas Eve of the First World War, and it’s based on the true story of the troops in various places along the front, deciding spontaneously on Christmas Eve to get out of the trenches and stop fighting and share stories about their home, and champagne, and chocolates; play soccer together. It really happened. It really is about larger forces at work – the war, this thing they’re all involved in, but then what happens when you get to know your enemy Is it possible to go back to killing each other the next day. That’s really the big question of the opera.”
In telling this story through opera, Puts and Campbell used music to highlight the relationships between individual people and these larger forces at work:
There’s a moment at the end of Act I, where Anna sings to all the troops, because in the story she’s a famous singer and they all would have known who she was, and to have a moment like that where they’re all crowding around her, these soldiers of different nationalities and having this moment where she’s in the middle of it all, singing an a capella “Dona nobis pacem” and then you hear bombs off in the distance. In other words, the war is still going on even though we’re having this amazing moment of humanity in the midst of all that.
Silent Night is on stage at The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown with performances through August 23rd. After that, the opera will be performed this year in Minnesota, Washington DC, and England, and then on to Austin, Texas in 2019.