'Silent Night': A World War I moment of peace

"The theme is that once you know your enemy , it's impossible to kill them," composer Kevin Puts said of the acclaimed opera "Silent Night," which will premiere Friday at the Academy of Music.
"The theme is that once you know your enemy , it's impossible to kill them," composer Kevin Puts said of the acclaimed opera "Silent Night," which will premiere Friday at the Academy of Music.
Posted: February 05, 2013

War is being declared - literally and repeatedly - on stage at the Academy of Music in the acclaimed opera Silent Night, which has much to do with Christmas, though on an anything-but-silent World War I battlefield.

Knowing that, audience members at Friday's Opera Philadelphia opening might wonder if they're in the wrong theater: Initially, the opera appears to be, and for some minutes sounds like, 18th-century Mozart. But that opera-within-an-opera, being performed in 1914 Germany, is interrupted by officers of the Imperial Army announcing the outbreak of World War I.

Soon, the stage is dominated by a bombed-out church surrounded by German, French, and English encampments. With great hesitation and unfortunate consequences, these warring troops were to converge in no-man's-land for a temporary truce on Christmas Eve 1914, when the shooting stopped and enemies became, if briefly, friends.

Though based on true events, the opera packs a Puccinian punch that few saw coming.

"I know the music feels honest to me . . . but I wasn't prepared for all the elements contributing to something greater than I imagined," said composer Kevin Puts, who won the 2012 Pulitzer after the opera's 2011 premiere by the Minnesota Opera.

"Sometimes, you know you've done a good job with a show, but it ends there," said stage director Eric Simonson. "This is a kind of special show. It goes outside the opera. People start talking about it. That's what happens in Minneapolis. It sold a goodly amount of tickets. Then . . . it sold out."

"It's one of the most relevant pieces I've done," said tenor William Burden, who plays a soldier/singer character with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The other day on WHYY there was a story on the unbelievable number of soldiers who return from Afghanistan and kill themselves. A story like [ Silent Night] shines a light on this - and one that we're ready to see."

No one involved in the production claims to be on an anti-war crusade; Burden says working on the piece gave him increased empathy for what soldiers face. Yet, the opera seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist as one in a series of major ventures on TV, stage, and film that center on World War I.

Why might this war speak to the 21st century? With trenches, gas, guns, and horses rather than submarines and helicopters, it was the last major face-to-face conflict.

"The theme is that once you know your enemy, it's impossible to kill them," Puts said.

Based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, Silent Night was headed for the Academy of Music even before its Pulitzer, though Puts, 41, was hardly a proven operatic commodity. Though remarkably successful at an early age (he wrote four symphonies between 1999 and 2007), Puts was offered Silent Night by Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson, who thought his big-orchestra sensibility would be good for a piece with three armies.

The chemistry with librettist Mark Campbell was immediate. "From the moment I put the libretto on the piano and started playing and singing, I didn't question myself," said Puts. "I had a creative excitement I hadn't felt in a long time. When I did Silent Night, I didn't do anything but that for two years."

Even with the obvious pathos of a Christmas truce among desperately lonely enemies who weren't entirely sure what the war was for, the story is loaded with pitfalls: It demands a cast that be can monotonously male - addressed by an operatic soprano who (like Marilyn Monroe in the Korean War) arrives at the front to sing for the German troops.

Less easily solved is the plot peaking early with the Christmas Eve truce. "They came out of their trenches, they had a nice Christmas. And then did they continue fighting? After they know what they know?" said Simonson. "Once you've realized the enemy is not the enemy . . . how can they go back and kill? Everybody had a different opinion on that."

The biggest challenge was putting a war onstage in an age when audiences are used to cinematic realism. To achieve the stage equivalent of cross cuts, the stage has two revolving discs - at a rake that slants toward the audience.

"Tonight should be a little bit hairy," Burden said before the first stage rehearsal last week, even though he sang the Minneapolis performances. "The set is ingeniously built. The disc has what is meant to be sandbags on the sides of the trenches . . . but they're not typical steps, so it can be challenging to find your footing."

The stage floor is uneven: The singers walk on bodies inlaid in the ground to suggest fallen comrades who have sunk in the frozen mud.

This is one war opera that works to break down the artifice that can separate audiences from the stage. Soprano Kelly Kaduce, for one, did none of the usual background research on her role as the visiting opera soprano to achieve a fresher, more direct characterization.

More important, the primary model for the battle scenes is the infamous, chaotic first 10 minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan. Bodies won't be dismembered onstage. "But you can stab them with bayonets for a really, really long time. And you can strangle them with a shovel," said Simonson. "We want people to feel what these warriors were feeling."

You wonder how the singers maintain their emotional composure.

"The rehearsal process takes care of that," says Burden. "We've had an opportunity to explore extremes of emotions. Then you pull back just enough that you can do the job."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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