• Silent Night, New Opera by Kevin Puts at Opera Philadelphia


    Silent Night, opera in two acts. Music by Kevin Puts. Libretto by Mark Campbell, based on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion, and inspired by true events in 1914 during World War I.

    Hopefully, if the winter storm didn't disrupt it, our friend Liam Bonner has sung tonight the opening performance of American contemporary composer Kevin Puts' acclaimed first opera Silent Night's run at Opera Philadelphia, following the premiere by Minnesota Opera where Liam created the role of Lieutenant Audebert. This opera is the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and has been an absolute success of public and critic. The composer is being heralded as a name that will make a deep dent in operatic history, given such a successful first outing. Opera Lively will be attending the show next week, and we will publish a review. Edit: done, see it [here]. Also, see our exclusive interview with the composer [here].


    Click [here] for tickets - last we checked, they were still available, but not many. All performances were getting spectacular sales and we anticipate that many of them, if not all, will sell out.

    Remaining dates and times are:

    Sunday Feb 10 at 2:30 PM
    Wed Feb 13 at 7:30 PM
    Fri Feb 15 at 8 PM - I will attend this performance in person
    Sun Feb 17 at 2:30 PM

    Performed in German, French, English, Italian, and Latin, with English supertitles
    Venue: The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA


    Kelly Kaduce as Anne Sorenson
    William Burden as Nikolaus Sprink
    Liam Bonner as Lieutenant Audebert
    Craig Irvin as Lieutenant Horstmayer
    Gabriel Preisser as Lieutenant Gordon
    Troy Cook as Farther Palmer
    Andrew Wilkowske as Ponchel
    Zach Borichevsky as Jonathan Dale
    Brandon Cedel as William Dale
    Albert J. Gluekert as Kronprinz
    Harold Wilson as French General
    Thomas Shivone as British Major
    Angela Mortelaro as Madeleine Audebert

    Opera Philadelphia Orchestra
    Conductor Michael Christie
    Stage Director Eric Simonson
    Set Design Francis O'Connor



    Here is what Liam told Opera Lively about Silent Night when we interviewed him:

    OL – At Opera Lively, both staff and members are very interested in contemporary opera. I see that you participated in the world première of Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning new opera Silent Night as Lieutenant Audebert. We’d love to hear a bit about this experience. First, we’d like to ask you about the challenges of creating a new role in a contemporary opera.

    LB – I honestly can’t say that there were many challenges in creating that piece. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had thus far, and one of the things I’m extremely proud of having accomplished. Kevin is an incredible composer. I remember thinking, before I went to Minneapolis after learning the piece and studying it, that it would be a good opera. I didn’t realize fully what we had until we had all gotten together and had started rehearsing it. Then I said, "Oh my God, this is going to be something out of control on the best level."

    It was like doing ... I imagine what doing Billy Budd for the first time might have been like, with regards to just having an all male cast, a few females, but really the vast majority all male cast, and just this sort of -- for lack of a better explanation -- a frat boy mentality. We all hang out together outside of rehearsal, and just spent a lot of time together, working on the piece and outside of it, which I think added a lot to the camaraderie which people saw on stage, which I think it is so important to have those relationships.

    It’s based on the movie Joyeux Noël, which I purposely only watched once, because I didn’t want what I saw in the movie to inform me too much in the way that I would interpret the character as an opera, because there are different things. For one, Mark Campbell, the librettist, wrote an extra scene for my character -- basically my aria -- that isn’t in the movie, so it’s connecting all of that and adding something like that seamlessly that fleshed out the character a bit more and gave me a lot more to work with than just what the movie had given.

    We are so thrilled that we’ll fortunately be able to do the piece again next season in Philadelphia! So if you have an opportunity to come and see that I highly recommend it.

    The piece moves, it’s moving. I don’t know how to explain it without getting quite cheesy, but I absolutely love the piece. I think it’s going to have a life outside of these first two seasons. I know that there are some other companies interested in doing it, as well as it receiving the Pulitzer now.

    And I have to say, I told my manager, "Any opportunity I have to create a new role, sign me up." I’d absolutely jump at the opportunity. There is something very free, creatively, to be able to originate a role like that. You know you are not going to be compared to anybody else because nobody else has done it. And there is something very artistically freeing about that, to not be concerned about what they are going to think, or "Oh, he didn’t sound like so and so," or "They don’t have the right voice for that"; these sorts of things I have actually to deal with in Il Trovatore, where some people may say, "Oh, he didn’t sound like Sherrill," or "Leo did it so much better." For Silent Night there was not that worry; I could just be myself, and create and interpret what I saw on the page for myself.

    OL - Can you tell us a bit about Silent Night, the opera? Our organization being headquartered in the United States and having as a mission the fostering of the art form, we have a keen interest in American contemporary opera, and it is always good when we have an opportunity to generate exposure for this kind of work.

    LB – Silent Night is based on the true story of the World War I armistice on Christmas Eve, when the troops voluntarily put down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together. See, you have the camps, with these French and Scottish troops and they can’t understand each other because the French speak French and the Scots speak English, and you have the German soldier who was conscripted into the army, who was actually an opera singer. And because he was an opera singer he knew these other languages, and he actually becomes the translator for everybody to discuss this truce. And so on Christmas Eve they have the truce, then on Christmas Day they decide to have another truce so that they can bury the dead as a sign of respect.

    Here are soldiers who are seeing what they’ve been forced to do, and they don’t agree with it. It is particularly poignant today when you have things like sending soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they may not know why they are going there; they don’t believe fully in why they have to be there. They are doing what they are ordered to do because they are soldiers. And it is very fascinating to take a story that is almost a hundred years old now, and see how relevant it is today. This is one of the reasons why it was so moving to people, because they can absolutely relate to it.

    OL – How is it musically?

    LB – I have to plead ignorance on that because my strength is not music theory (laughs). But I will say that Kevin writes very melodic things. I can’t say that when you leave Silent Night for the first time you’ll be humming any sort of tune, but it is extremely accessible to first time audience members. The audience’s reaction was more than I ever expected. They just absolutely ate it up and loved every moment of it.

    A lot of it had to do with the way it was staged by Eric Simonson and the set design and how it kept everything moving. There was never this dead space, there was never any waiting around, it just moved along but with the right pacing, and the moments that needed to be tender and intimate were there, but in the moments that you needed to get through, there was not a lot of repetition. The libretto is from the movie script, adapted for the opera. So it’s very theatrical.


    Liam talks briefly about it in this clip:

    Then, he sings his aria here:

    Here the composer talks about it:

    Let's watch some excerpts:



    We can learn more about the opera by reading this short essay published by NPR when it premiered in Minnesota:

    "New York-based composer and Peabody Institute faculty member Kevin Puts has won the Pulitizer Prize for music with Silent Night, his first opera. The work received its world premiere in November at the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul.

    Pulitzer officials described Silent Night as "a stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire among Scottish, French and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart."

    Minnesota Opera commissioned Puts to write Silent Night with librettist Mark Campbell and came up with the idea of basing it on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the Oscar-nominated 2005 French film Joyeux Nöel, which dramatized actual events.

    The 40-year-old composer says it's his first opera. "I'm still learning about the voice and how to write most idiomatically for it," Puts said in a phone interview. "My music has become more and more lyrical over the years, so it wasn't too much of a stretch."

    What was a challenge for Puts was the variety of tongues — there are scenes in Silent Night sung in German, French, English, Italian and Latin. "Getting my head around the language was the biggest challenge of the opera," he said.

    Much of the opera is set in the trenches of a Belgian battlefield during the days before Christmas 1914. On Christmas Eve, music comes from the French and Scottish bunkers as soldiers celebrate the holiday. An opera-singing German soldier responds with a Christmas song, and before long white flags wave and a temporary truce is brokered. In the end, generals admonish their soldiers for giving in and the battlefield is emptied as snow begins to fall.

    As soon as Puts watched the film, he could envision the scenes unfolding onstage. His love of cinema affected the rhythm of his opera.

    "I didn't want to let go of the audience," Puts said. "I wanted to keep a grip on them for the entire duration. Some scenes overlap. I wanted to create a sense of dreamlike continuity as you move from bunker to bunker. And that is a sort of cinematic influence."

    A native of St. Louis, Puts studied at the Eastman School of Music with Samuel Adler and Pulitzer winner Joseph Schwantner, before moving on to Yale for a master's degree, where he studied under Jacob Druckman and David Lang, who have also won Pulitzers. Puts returned to Eastman for his doctorate.

    Puts teaches composition at Peabody and has composed an impressive body of work including symphonies, concertos and chamber music performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. He began working on Silent Night with Campbell in 2009.

    "The first thought I had when I started writing measure 1 was that it is was so exciting that I wanted it to go well enough that I could write another opera," Puts said. "The medium is so exciting to me."



    Prologue - Late summer, 1914

    War is declared. At a Berlin opera house, the announcement disrupts the careers and personal lives of international opera singers Anna Sørensen and Nikolaus Sprink. In a small church in Scotland, it inspires dreams of heroism in William who demands that his younger brother Jonathan immediately enlist with him as their priest, Father Palmer, looks helplessly on. In the apartment of the Audeberts in Paris, it angers Madeleine who excoriates her husband for leaving to fight while she is pregnant with their first child. Amid the fervor of nationalistic songs, the men prepare to leave for war.

    Act I

    In and around a battlefield in Belgium, near the French border, around Christmas Scene one – December 23, late afternoon
    A horrific battle is fought between the Germans and the French and Scottish. An attempt by the French and Scottish soldiers to infiltrate the German bunker fails miserably; corpses begin to pile up in the no-man’s land between the three bunkers. Nikolaus is seen violently engagingin combat--stabbing a man to death and growing in despair at the violence. William is shot, Jonathan must leave his brother behind to die.

    Scene two – December 23, evening

    In the Scottish bunker, Lieutenant Gordon assesses the casualties after the battle. Father Palmer attempts to offer solace to Jonathan in prayer. In the French bunker, Lieutenant Audebert discovers the French General waiting in his makeshift office, who reprimands him for surrendering and threatens him with a transfer. The General leaves and Audebert laments the loss of his wife’s photograph to his aide-de-camp, Ponchel. When he is alone, Audebert tallies the casualties in the last battle, while missing Madeleine and their child who he has not yet seen. He sings of needing sleep, a sentiment echoed by all of the soldiers. As it starts to snow, covering the corpses in no man’s land, the soldiers slowly begin to sleep. Alone in the German bunker, Nikolaus reveals to an imagined Anna his despair about war.

    Scene three – December 24, morning

    In the German bunker, crates have arrived – and little Christmas trees from the Kronprinz. Lieutenant Horstmayer criticizes the Kronprinz for not sending them more useful presents, like ammunition and reinforcements. He receives a directive from headquarters that Nikolaus has been ordered to sing at the nearby chalet of the Kronprinz, along with one Anna Sørensen. Nikolaus departs for the chalet, excited that he will be reunited with Anna again after many months apart. The French soldiers have received crates of wine, sausages and chocolates from the quartermaster and open them jubilantly. Ponchel, a barber by trade, brings coffee to Audebert and sits him down for a haircut. He is reminded of having coffee with his mother every morning, who lives only an hour away by foot. The alarm clock he carries next to his heart at all times (which shielded him from a bullet in the last battle) rings at ten o’clock every morning to remind him of their daily meeting. In the Scottish bunker, crates of whiskey have arrived from home. Jonathan writes a letter to his mother, not mentioning his brother’s death.

    Scene four – December 24, early evening

    At the chalet of the Kronprinz, Anna and Nikolaus perform a duet. Following the performance, they steal a few moments on a terrace outside. Anna notices the cruel effect war has had on her lover’s spirit. She has arranged for Nikolaus to spend the night with her and is angry when he says he must return to his fellow soldiers. She vows to accompany him back to the battlefield.

    Scene five – December 24, night

    In the French bunker, Gueusselin volunteers to infiltrate the German bunker, and with several grenades, sidles onto noman’s land. The Scottish soldiers drink whiskey and play a bagpipe that another unit has sent them, as Father Palmer sings a sentimental ballad about home. The men in the other bunkers hear the song and react to it with sadness, caution and annoyance. Nikolaus arrives; his fellow soldiers greet him with cheers and applause and gasp in amazement at seeing Anna with him. When the song in the Scottish bunker is finished, Nikolaus sings a rousing Christmas song loudly in response and midway through the bagpiper begins to accompany. Emboldened, Nikolaus stands atop the bunker raising a Christmas tree as a gesture of friendship. Against the protestations of their superiors, the soldiers from all bunkers stand. Nikolaus bravely moves to the center of no-man’s land. Gueusselin abandons his plan to grenade the German bunker. Eventually, the three lieutenants, waving a white flag of truce, agree to a cease-fire … but only on Christmas Eve. The soldiers slowly and cautiously move toward each other. They share their provisions, their photos and their names. Anna appears and all of the soldiers are awed by the sight of a woman. Father Palmer has set up a makeshift church and celebrates mass with the men, while Jonathan finds his brother’s body and vows revenge. Father Palmer finishes the mass and urges the men to “go in peace” as bombs explode menacingly in the distance.

    Act II

    Scene one – December 25, dawn

    The following morning, Jonathan tries to bury his brother. Because the truce is officially over, two German sentries are prepared to shoot him, although Father Palmer and Lieutenant Gordon intervene. Looking on, Horstmayer proposes that it may indeed be time to bury all of the dead. The three lieutenants meet and decide over coffee that the truce will be extended until after the dead in no-man’s land are buried.

    Scene two – December 25, late morning, early afternoon

    The soldiers pile up the corpses, Father Palmer delivers last rites and the soldiers form a processional bearing the wagon of bodies away. Anna looks on with Nikolaus and promises that he will not suffer the same fate.

    Scene three – December 25, all day

    In the meantime, news of the cease-fire has reached headquarters, and the British Major, the Kronprinz and the French General all react in anger and disbelief. They declare that they will punish the soldiers for their betrayal.

    Scene four – December 25, evening

    Lieutenant Horstmayer prepares to return to war and Nikolaus berates him for his allegiance to the Fatherland. Horstmayer arrests Nikolaus for insubordination, but Anna takes his hand firmly and leads him across no-man’s land as Horstmayer orders his men to shoot, but no one moves. Reaching the French bunker unharmed, Nikolaus regains his voice and demands asylum for he and Anna.

    Scene five – December 26, late morning

    The British Major admonishes the Scottish soldiers for participating in the Christmas truce. They are to be transferred to the front lines. When a German soldier is seen crossing the battlefield, the Major orders him killed. Jonathan complies and dispassionately shoots the man.
    Lieutenant Audebert returns to his small office and discovers the French General there. The General tells Audebert that he will be transferred to Verdun as punishment for consorting with the enemy and that his unit will be disbanded. Audebert informs the French General – his father – that he has learned he has an infant son named Henri. They vow to survive the war for the child’s sake.
    The Kronprinz angrily announces that the German soldiers are to be deployed in Pomerania as punishment. As the soldiers are taken off in a boxcar, they hum the Scottish ballad they heard in the bunker on Christmas Eve. The battlefield is now completely empty. Snow begins to fall again.



    Opera News Magazine

    "The opening night ovation for Silent Night was long and clamorous, the loudest acclaim fittingly reserved for composer Kevin Puts. [It]is Puts first opera and one senses that he's found his metier. (Occasionally, one has the sensation of looking over the composer's shoulder as he discovers the power of his medium.) He's a master polystylist, able to weld together heterogeneous musical materials that range from a pseudo-eighteenth-century-opera-within-the opera to jarring atonality. He writes impressively complex polyphony when it's called for, but is more affecting when his music turns spare and reflective. His timing is unerring. With this remarkable debut, Puts assumes a central place in the American opera firmament. Much will be expected from him."

    Minnesota Star-Tribune

    "Grimly beautiful, the piece is a significant addition to the repertoire and heralds the emergence of composer Kevin Puts as a force in American opera…Librettist Mark Campbell's text is terse and cogent; he knows how to convey the essentials and leave the heavy lifting to the composer. Puts seldom relaxes his grip on the listener. There is no emotion his writing cannot conjure. In the course of two hours he integrates an astonishing range of forms and styles. At its best, as in the heartfelt choral lullaby of Act 1 or the shattering funeral march of Act 2, his music is as powerful as any being written today. "Silent Night" is, improbably, Puts' first opera; it shouldn't be his last."

    WQXR'S "Operavore"

    Silent Night included as one of the Top Ten Opera Moments of 2011.

    "Perhaps it's unfair to include a production from Minnesota on this New York-centric list for a New York-based radio station, but Minnesota Opera presented one of the most compelling, memorable and poignant new works I've seen in recent years. Libretto and score merged flawlessly...here's hoping that it soon reaches New York-and recording."

    Twin Cities Examiner.com

    "…To fully appreciate this achievement, one must begin with the libretto by Mark Campbell. Adhering closely to Christian Carion’s original screenplay for Joyeux Noël, the librettist focuses on each character’s own distinctive sense of grief, whether expressed as guilt over a fallen brother or the simple craving for one blissful night of uninterrupted sleep. These yearnings are memorably expressed in a verbal mosaic of English, French, German, Italian, and Latin. Yet while each voice is unique, they are united by an empathetic longing.

    What really imbues fervor to the production, though, is a landmark score from composer Kevin Puts. Already a widely celebrated talent in the classical world, Silent Night marks Puts’ debut opera. As such, Puts couldn’t make a more stunning first impression, launching into the opening of Act 1 with a wildly spiraling panorama of sound that culminates in an explosive climax. In the aftermath, as fraught silence descends on the battlefield, Puts settles into a suspenseful adagio capable of transitioning swiftly to lavishly layered melodies. No single moment allows more intense poignancy than Act 1’s closing aria wherein [Karin]Wolverton’s emotive register lifts the pathos to heartbreaking heights.

    Without succumbing to cloying sentimentality, this latest creation from the Minnesota Opera achingly conveys the powerful resiliency of kindness and mercy even in the trenches of war. As such, Silent Night stands as a heartfelt hymn to our common humanity."

    Pioneer Press

    "An excellent production that should go down as a landmark in the Minnesota Opera's almost half-century history. Puts' rich, transporting score is the foundation for a very moving piece of theater, filled with imaginative design and powerful performances."


    Opera News Magazine’s full article about the opera can be read here:




    The complete opera can be heard here:




    I have just watched Joyeux Noël, the Oscar-nominated movie, and highly recommend it. For those who are Dish or Blockbuster subscribers, it is available on demand as part of Dish's Blockbuster At Home feature. It is not available on Netflix for streaming. It is available for rent from Blockbuster in most stores.

    Since two of the principal characters in the movie are opera singers, Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazón are the voices behind the actors. The sound track features the Ave Maria by Philippe Rombi with Dessay; Bist Du Bei Mir by G. H. Stölzel with Dessay and Villazón; Stille Narcht, heilige Nacht by Franz Xaver Gruber with Villazón; and Adeste Fideles by John Francis Wade with Villazón.

    It features great cinematography and is very emotional (tears are unavoidable), and thoroughly demonstrates the power of music to bring peace.


    I am highly excited about this performance, and will report back once I see it live on February 15. This is the sort of performance that justifies a trip to Philadelphia. Readers, snatch the last few tickets and go see it!
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Contemporary Opera started by Schigolch View original post

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