On Christmas Eve 1914, something extraordinary happened in the muddy trenches of Belgium.
Carols were sung, greetings shouted. Soldiers from the Allied and German armies met in no man’s land to exchange cigarettes, hats and uniform buttons.
The so-called “Christmas truce” proved unpopular with the men’s military commanders. Yet it became an almost folkloric symbol of human decency amid the bloody carnage of World War I.
Almost a century later, the truce was re-enacted on a stage in St. Paul, where the Minnesota Opera premiered “Silent Night” by composer Kevin Puts in 2011. A Star Tribune reviewer called it “grimly beautiful” and “a significant addition to the repertoire.” National recognition came the following year, with Puts winning a Pulitzer Price for the opera’s music.
In the seven years since the premiere, no fewer than 12 more companies have staged the opera, including Opera San Jose (2017) and Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera (2014). And the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice on Nov. 11 brings a new wave of productions, making “Silent Night” the most successful product of the Minnesota Opera’s industry-leading New Works Initiative.
The Minnesota Opera reprises its production this week, with the big opening scheduled for Saturday. The San Francisco Symphony co-commissioned a new orchestral suite based on the opera, which premiered late last month. Another seven opera companies are mounting “Silent Night” productions this season, including a U.K. premiere in Leeds.
“ ‘Silent Night’ moved from its premiere to being part of the repertoire in such short order,” said Opera America CEO Marc Scorca. “That does not happen often.”
Tale with ‘operatic potential’
Dale Johnson was the Minnesota Opera’s artistic director when the organization commissioned “Silent Night” in 2009. Now semi-retired, Johnson recalled how the compelling story of the Christmas truce came to his attention.
“I had read a review in the New York Times of ‘Joyeux Noël,’ a film about the truce made in 2005 by French director Christian Carion,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “So I got a DVD of it, and immediately saw the operatic potential.”
The opera owes much of its success to that riveting story, Scorca said via phone from New York City. “The subject of the opera, though historically based, is contemporary in terms of finding humanity and community even with those we’re fighting against.”
Conductor Nicole Paiement will lead the Washington National Opera’s production of “Silent Night,” opening Saturday at Kennedy Center. “I think the relevance to present times is something we need to reflect on,” she said. “It has a lot to say about the nature of humanity.”
Scorca and Paiement agree that the quality of Puts’ score is another important quality. Scorca called the music “beautiful and compelling.” Paiement pointed to its evocative depictions of people and emotions.
“It’s so well-crafted in painting the various characters,” she said. “There’s a separate sound world for the French, the Scots and the Germans. The orchestra is part of the storytelling at all times.”
A Minnesota Opera favorite, librettist Mark Campbell has worked on several company commissions — from 2015’s “The Manchurian Candidate” (with another score by Puts) to 2017’s “Dinner at Eight” (with composer William Bolcom). Campbell fashioned the text for “Silent Night” from the 2005 movie that sparked the idea in the first place. And Paiement sees his script as yet another of the opera’s strengths.
“Mark’s libretto really develops all the characters in a very fast-paced way,” she said. “Operas often take a lot of time to do that.”
A place for new works
Staging new work was central to the Minnesota Opera’s mission from the start. The company was born, in fact, when the Walker Art Center commissioned Dominick Argento’s “The Masque of Angels” in 1963. With an emphasis on commissioning and staging new works by American composers, the organization was regarded as an alternative opera company through much of the 1970s.
After a few decades of emphasizing more traditional fare, the organization renewed its commitment to contemporary opera by establishing the New Works Initiative in 2008. In addition to the 2011 premiere of “Silent Night,” the program produced the 2016 hit “The Shining” by composer Paul Moravec. Next up: an opera depicting the 1919 World Series (Joel Puckett’s “The Fix,” opening in March 2019) and another based on Minneapolis author Kate DiCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” (coming in November 2019).
That commitment to new work “puts it in really rarefied territory,” Scorca said.
And the company’s record of staging high-quality first productions helps launch successful new operas, Paiement added.
Theatergoers also play a part. “In the Twin Cities you have an audience that welcomes new work,” Scorca said. “That is very important in making opera a vibrant 21st-century form of cultural expression.”
So what of the future? When the dust settles on this current spate of productions, will “Silent Night” continue to be a favorite contemporary opera?
Johnson thinks so. He pointed to the work’s emotional impact. “I was a mess the first time I heard it,” he said. “And I will be a mess again on Saturday evening.”
Scorca struck a more cautious note. “Will ‘Silent Night’ last another five years or 10 years? Or another century? Who knows?” he said. “What’s important is celebrating a piece that has such connection today.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.