It will soon be 100 years since World War I ended at the “11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.” Minnesota arts groups know that’s long enough ago to forget.
But they want you to remember. To mark the anniversary of the signing of the armistice, they’re staging plays, performing a new, epic symphony and bringing back a favorite opera.
The first World War is “such a distant memory,” said Eric Simonson, director of “Silent Night” at the Minnesota Opera. “It’s not even a memory for most people. … It just feels like ancient history.”
The opera he’s directing, based on a legendary Christmas truce on the Western Front, speaks to the specific horrors of that war, the first with modern weaponry — tanks, airplanes, chemical weapons. But it also reveals something bigger: “It brings to light the idea that we’re still dealing with these issues that are imprinted on our DNA as human beings,” he said. “We war … but despite that, there’s a common humanity among us.”
This marks the opera’s homecoming; the production premiered here in 2011 with Simonson at the helm. Theater Latté Da is restaging its own take on that true story: “All Is Calm,” written and directed by company founder Peter Rothstein. On Nov. 11, the Oratorio Society of Minnesota will honor the centennial at Northrop with the U.S. premiere of a new work: “The Great War Symphony” by Patrick Hawes, an hourlong work for chorus, orchestra and organ.
“It’s probably one of the most powerful pieces of music that I’ve heard,” said Dave Fielding, programming administrator for the nonprofit Oratorio Society. “It’s not just the music — it’s the poetry he’s chosen to set it to. …
“If you revisit the story of the war, as I’ve come to do over the last year and a half, you just can’t help but be moved by what he’s done.”
But that mega-work, which Fielding has set to a slide show of historical photos, is just one part of the concert, titled “Lest We Forget.” Musicians will perform other pieces, including a medley of popular songs from the time and “Dirge for Two Veterans,” composed in 1911 and then set aside. Outside the auditorium that day, an honor guard of military veterans will toll a bell 21 times, then read the names of the 1,432 Minnesota soldiers killed in combat during the war. There will be a mural, too.
“We really are trying to honor the armistice,” Fielding said, “not just tip our hat to it.”
The war in one night
Fielding, the architect behind the Oratorio Society event, has long been fascinated by music — and investigating the stories behind music. As a teenager, he created inserts for the church bulletin with the history of the hymns.
“To understand the world that exists today, you have to understand World War I,” he said, “how it was executed and how it was resolved.”
Marian Santucci, 63, knows well the Vietnam War and its tolls. “A lot of us were touched by the war. … We had a cousin, a brother or a neighbor who fought.” Her generation, too, is familiar with World War II and its many on-screen adaptations, from “Saving Private Ryan” to “Dunkirk.”
But World War I? Not so much.
Until “The Great War Symphony.” Santucci is an alto with the Oratorio Society, and as she learned her part, she spent time with the history, the numbers. “You read these statistics, and they’re pretty astonishing,” she said of the war’s 40 million casualties.
Then she saw the video presentation Fielding made for the performance, its newspaper clippings and black-and-white photos carefully timed to the music. And she cried.
“To be sitting there crying is something I don’t experience a lot,” Santucci said. “In talking with other singers, they’ve had the same reaction.”
Mastering the music, and researching the history, “you can get kind of heady about it,” she continued. But seeing the photos set to the music transformed her into an audience member. “I have a son who’s 27,” she said. “To look at these young men — what an enormous sacrifice.”
When Kevin Puts was composing the music for “Silent Night,” he figured that “no one’s going to play this piece after the premiere.”
“It’s too big, too expensive,” Puts said by phone last week. “The fact that it’s being done so much is kind of unbelievable to me.”
This season, nine companies will perform the opera, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The Washington National Opera will unveil a chamber orchestration. San Francisco Symphony has commissioned an orchestral suite.
“Silent Night” tells the story of Christmas Eve 1914, when Scottish, French and German soldiers called a truce, leaving their trenches to sing carols, exchange drinks and share photos of their girlfriends back home. The opera argues that once your sworn enemy is no longer faceless, war becomes less likely, Puts said.
“Most of these conflicts and the kind of passion for war comes from not knowing each other and feeling that the other side is so different and so distant and so alien,” he said.
While each movement in “The Great War Symphony” is inspired by a year in the war, “Silent Night” puts a long, difficult war into focus by centering on a single night.
In composing the opera’s music, Puts communicated moments of intimacy using solo instruments. A single harp. A solo oboe. “Hearing a vibrato of a single person playing … can be very powerful,” he said.
But he also needed to show the bigger, brutal scale, he said. So one of the musical themes is “more a depiction of the scale of the whole thing,” Puts said. “The fact that all these little stories, this little event is part of something much bigger — and much more ominous and sinister.”