As Kevin Puts smiled and shook hands at the opening day of rehearsals for "Silent Night" at Minnesota Opera, a visitor asked the composer what he expected -- in terms of changes to the score -- over the next few weeks.

"I don't know," said Puts, innocently. "I've never written an opera before."

Puts' debut comes in an auspicious project. "Silent Night" is one of only three premieres in the American opera world this season, and Minnesota's first since "The Grapes of Wrath" in 2007. The $1.5 million budget is 50 percent larger than a normal Minnesota Opera production, buttressed by the company's New Works Initiative.

By friendly accounts, Puts has earned high marks for this piece, which adapts the 2006 film "Joyeux Noel," based on the legendary Christmas truce of 1914. His report card reads:

  • He works well with others, eagerly editing his score where it seems long.

"I have never heard a composer say the words, 'This feels long to me,'" said librettist Mark Campbell. "I can't tell you how exciting that is."

  • He listens well in rehearsal, adjusting pitches to fit the range of vocalists. In an interview, he said he had just raised notes for one character so his voice would "pop more."
  • He understands the dramatic requirements of opera.

"Young composers often don't know how to create, develop and sustain tension over a movement of music," said Dale Johnson, the opera's artistic director. "I felt Kevin had that innate ability."

Puts, a polite Midwesterner now lost in Yonkers, N.Y., lets none of this go to his head.

"I just want this to go well so I get to write another opera," he said.

This may be his first opera, but Puts, 39, has built a substantial reputation nationally through his orchestral and chamber ensemble work, including a piece for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2006. Johnson chose Puts for this commission after listening to a symphony on tape that the composer had submitted.

The creative team has every reason to gush about how well things have gone. On Saturday, "Silent Night" will be judged by cooler eyes in a debut at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. The whims of audience members and critics and the curiosity of onlookers from the opera world will be the ultimate judge.

"Silent Night" is the fourth result of the Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, which aims to put into circulation world premieres or rarely produced newer operas. The company held three workshops and beefed up an all-male chorus to 48 voices. The cost compares to about $1 million for a normal staging. Eric Simonson, who staged the premiere of "Grapes of Wrath" and last year's "Wuthering Heights," returns to direct. Michael Christie ("La Traviata" and "Wuthering Heights") conducts. Among the named roles are familiar singers Karin Wolverton, Andrew Wilkowske and Michael Nyby.

Once obscure, now familiar

The historical event that inspired "Silent Night" may sound familiar to Twin Cities audiences. In 2007, Theater Latté Da and Cantus debuted "All Is Calm," using diaries, letters and existing music to tell the story of Christmas 1914. Johnson, who is friendly to "All Is Calm," points out that he already had seen the film and had the gears in motion by then.

"Joyeux Noel" used a fictional love story to propel the drama, which the opera picks up.

"It's an opera," Campbell said. "It has to have a love story."

On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers left their trenches and met in No-Man's land where they exchanged gifts, notes, drinks and even played soccer.

Several generating events are cited -- the appearance of Christmas trees on the German parapets, an impromptu caroling competition between the warring trenches, an agreement among officers to let each side bury their dead.

"What I find fascinating about 'Joyeux Noel' is that you discover war is not sustainable when people start seeing each other as people," said Campbell. "When you look the enemy in the eye, you see they have wives and homes, too."

Puts said he wanted to create a fantasy, a moment where time stands still and reality makes no sense.

"I saw it as if one of the soldiers would say, 'I dreamed we got out of our trenches and had a party with the enemy,'" Puts said.

Campbell and Johnson seem of two minds when considering the show's relationship with Christmas. That it will premiere the day after Veterans Day indicates a greater appreciation for the story's identification with war.

When he initially considered the material, Johnson was thinking of creating a Christmas-themed opera -- "something besides 'Amahl.'"

Campbell said, "I want it to be the 'Nutcracker' of the opera world."

However, in almost the next breath, Campbell said, "I don't think it's a Christmas story but a beautiful message of peace." And Johnson, after a second thought, called the piece, "A story about humankind that works any time."

Looking ahead

The Opera Company of Philadelphia, which contributed to the commission, will stage "Silent Night" in January 2013. Beyond that, nothing is scheduled. The economy and the girth of the production (although Johnson said it could be staged with a reduced chorus) have cooled interest. Several companies will send representatives, as they did with "Wuthering Heights" and "The Adventures of Pinocchio," two other newer works.

"Pinocchio" moved from Minnesota back to Opera North (Leeds, England) and subsequently to Theater Chemnitz (Germany). All three were co-producers. "Wuthering Heights," the Bernard Herrmann opera produced last spring, has not been picked up.

"Silent Night" stands distinct for Minnesota as a wholly new work -- one of only three premieres in American opera this year, according to Allan Naplan, Minnesota Opera's president and general director. It is also Minnesota's first stab at debuting a work since composer Ricky Gordon and librettist Michael Korie unveiled "Grapes of Wrath" in 2007. That show has subsequently been staged at Utah Symphony & Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, in a concert version at Carnegie Hall and in universities.

Stylistically, "Grapes" was intended to work as a crossover between opera and Broadway, Johnson said. The Joad vernacular demanded an American musical theater idiom, constructed of pieces that built a grand story arc.

"Silent Night," he said, is more in line with contemporary opera, composed entirely with a musical language that is more complex. He said he hears the influence of Prokofiev, John Adams and Philip Glass in Puts' music.

"It's melodic and he knows how to write for the voice," Johnson said. "To my ear it is, anyway. He was born to be an opera composer."