Reaching Across the Trench: Austin Opera performs “Silent Night”

Kevin Puts' Pulitzer-winning opera juxtaposes the horrors of war with a story of humanity


Hating your enemy is easy. But for one night 100 years ago, singing with them was even easier.

Austin Opera will be presenting the celebrated work, “Silent Night,” in three performance January 26 to February 3. Since premiering at the Minnesota Opera in 2011, “Silent Night” has had a variety of versions produced for the stage around the world. Austin Opera will be presenting a production by acclaimed Israeli director and producer, Tomer Zvulun, with direction from the Dublin-based director, Conor Hanratty.

“Silent Night” tells a fictionalized account of the very real Christmas Armistice of 1914, when entrenched WWI soldiers of varied nationalities and alligencies spontaneously brokered an unofficial peace on or around Christmas across numerous battlefields.

The opera follows a particular armistice that occurs when allied Scottish and French armies find themselves caroling back and forth with German troops across no man’s land on Christmas eve. After an unexpected call and a response via Scottish bagpipes and a German opera singer, men start to exit their trenches and meet, leading to a miraculous and all too short period of peace and comradery.

The libretto for “Silent Night” was written by Mark Campbell, with music was composed by Kevin Puts, who received a Pulitzer Prize in music for the project in 2012. (Puts taught composition at the University of Texas Butler School of Music from 1999 to 2005.)

The success of Puts’ work on “Silent Night” was notable not only for the quality of his compositions, but also for the fact that the production was his first ever foray into opera.

“I actually did just dive in,” Puts said in an interview with Sightlines. Having previously focused on standard concert music, Puts discovered that his established predilection for emotionally-driven music was a perfect fit for the opera genre when composing “Silent Night.”

“Even those abstract pieces that I had been writing, there was a narrative kind of quality to them. It was just a natural kind of progression — from writing symphonies and concertos with imaginary narratives, to an actual one.”

Matching the high-drama of show’s plot, Puts’ compositions are appropriately cinematic, backing violent battle scenes with crashing brass sections, as well as hushed, poignant moments with waves of aching strings.

While the libretto of “Silent Night” is an adaptation of the 2005 film “Joyeux Noël,” the filmic nature of the opera’s music is a vision all its own. Though Puts did see the Oscar-winning picture, in discussing his process he states that it was better to isolate the two works from each other, making the Campbell’s libretto his sole inspirational architecture.

“I don’t try to think about either the pacing or the nature of the film, or the film music. You read the libretto over and over and you start to talk about the possibilities of it — that becomes the reality.”

Puts’ efforts in tailoring the music to the reality of the opera goes the extra mile by featuring five different languages — English, French, Latin, Italian, and German. The languages spoken by the soldiers of the three armies regularly overlap and weave together in in ways both beautiful and complex.

On top of having to understand the aural idioms of each language, the literal translations proved difficult for Puts when composing the opera.

“That was one of the biggest challenges — writing music which was convincing to a German listener, or a French audience,” he says. “Even a week before the premiere, people would say ‘oh no, that’s actually not the correct article, a German soldier would never speak in that way to a superior officer!”

Though “Silent Night” features moments of musical harmony amongst its characters, Campbell’s libretto and Puts’ music very calculatingly avoids being a tale of pure sentimentality. Throughout the opera, Puts creates a sense of dreadful inevitability that squarely contrasts with the humanity-affirming events of the plot.

“They’re all these different characters, different nationalities, all very different kinds of music, but there’s this theme that keeps coming back,” Puts says about the subtext of his compositions, “You keep hearing it throughout the opera and that is what grounds the audience and makes them realize that all these characters are at the mercy of this larger force.”

The “force” in this context is war itself. Although the fraternizing soldiers begin to recognize beauty and compassion within one another, both they and the audience remember that there is ultimately no escape from the machine of war.

It’s a sentiment that remains very current, and is acknowledged by Puts when considering the struggles of today’s societies.

“The fact is we still spend billions and billions of dollars on our military, and there are wars going on everywhere, it’s a lesson we haven’t learned,” Puts says reflectively. “War is not something we’ve evolved beyond as a species.”

“Silent Night” is in many ways a tragedy, featuring characters whose open hearts are no match for the cruel and consuming nature of one of history’s bloodiest periods. But even with this knowledge, audiences are sure to be profoundly moved by experiencing a unity that truly did exist in the most unlikely of places — amongst sworn enemies.

“It’s easy to hate. It’s easy to think, ‘they’re different, they’re wrong, and they’re nothing like us.’ A lot of the soldiers (in World War I) didn’t really know why they were fighting, and that’s why it became possible for them to actually hear some Christmas carols on a bagpipe across no man’s land and say ‘I wonder what’s going on?’,” Puts muses.

“Once you know your enemy, it makes war very difficult.”

Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa is a musicologist and arts writer from Santa Barbara, California. Now based in Austin, he splits his time between going out to eat too much and arguing about video games.

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