A triumphant debut
New American opera “Silent Night” makes its East Coast premiere on the heels of a Pulitzer Prize win.
By Naila Francis
Writing an opera was always high on Kevin Puts’ to-do list.
“But I didn’t really because I was busy with orchestral-and chamber-music kind of commissions and I didn’t have the time to start at square one and go through the ordinary channels of learning how to write an opera,” says the celebrated classical composer.
Puts figured if he ever did find the time, he’d perhaps start with a one-act piece, the kind that could be shepherded through one of those opera company programs for young composers.
But when Minnesota Opera commissioned him and librettist Mark Campbell to create a new work based on the screenplay for the 2005 film “Joyeux Noel,” Puts, with his first foray into the art form, struck rare and unexpected gold.
“Silent Night,” about the unauthorized truce between German, Scottish and French soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1914, earned the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.
“The whole thing was a huge surprise. I didn’t think it had a shot,” says Puts, whose orchestral catalog includes four symphonies and several concertos. “When I started the opera, I felt I was doing the best work I could do. I thought, ‘This is not drudgery to come up with this music. … It’s coming out of me quickly and naturally and I want to get this onstage and want it to go well enough so I can write another opera because this is so much fun.’ I actually didn’t think it was the kind of piece the (Pulitzer committee) was looking for.”
The award brought renewed attention to “Silent Night,” which had its world premiere in St. Paul in 2011 — a timely groundswell, considering it makes its East Coast bow this Friday with Opera Philadelphia.
The organization, formerly known as the Opera Company of Philadelphia, co-produced the work with Minnesota Opera, and is staging it for five performances at the Academy of Music, with a cast that includes acclaimed tenor William Burden in the role of Nikolaus Sprink, the drafted opera singer whose voice inspires peace in the midst of brutality, soprano Kelly Kaduce as his love interest Anna Sarenson, and Troy Cook as Father Palmer, the Scottish priest providing spiritual guidance during the cease-fire.
The story, of an improbable and spontaneous moment of camaraderie on World War I’s Western Front, may seem an unwieldy choice for an opera. But Dale Johnson, artistic director for Minnesota Opera, believed he was looking at a compelling plot when he saw the film. He could envision some of its more arresting images — the opening battle, the soccer game among the troops, the soldiers burying their dead — against an orchestral backdrop. And so he began the search for a composer.
“I wanted somebody who would have an interesting tonal color, who would be able to use the orchestra in an interesting way, and I wanted a new composer, somebody who was fresh and wanted to write an opera,” says Johnson.
Puts’ Second Symphony, which he listened to while driving home from work one day, passed his rush hour test.
“I was playing it, and it was like there was no rush hour,” says Johnson. “I was sort of transported somewhere … and I just started crying. I just thought it was some of the most beautiful, emotional, moving music that I’d ever heard.”
He called Puts. The composer, who admits a partiality to the operas of Mozart, Benjamin Britten and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams, was understandably daunted.
“Suddenly, I had to think about writing a full-length opera with a big orchestra and chorus and in five languages, but I wasn’t going to say no,” he says. “From the very moment I started writing it, it was just so exciting to get the libretto on the piano and just start dreaming up how this thing would unfold on the stage. I’ve never experienced such a creative excitement.”
The commission wasn’t all baptism by fire. Johnson paired him with Campbell to provide the kind of support he would need. The seasoned librettist has written more than a half-dozen operas, including “Later the Same Evening,” inspired by five Edward Hopper paintings, the Grammy-nominated comedic opera “Volpone” and “Rappahannock County,” a song-cycle about the impact of the Civil War on daily life in Virginia.
“He was very well-known for writing comedies, yet there was a kind of humanity in his writing. It wasn’t just slapstick,” says Johnson, who has already commissioned the duo for a second opera, an adaptation of Richard Condon’s cold-war thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” that will premiere in the spring of 2015.
“I thought Mark could take this screenplay and make it into a working libretto,” he says. “With a story like this, visually, on film, just an image can convey a lot of things, an image and music, but onstage, you have to fill in those blanks. He really took the bull by the horns and created a fun and moving libretto.”
Like Johnson, Campbell was inexpressibly moved by Puts’ music. He recalls his eyes filling with tears while he listened to one of his violin concertos strolling New York City’s Union Square.
“When I listened to Kevin’s music, I thought if he can understand the technical aspects of writing for the voice, if he can give himself an education in that, then there is no worry because his music is accessible and has a strong narrative,” says Campbell.
Puts, who says he always sings his concertos while writing them, exhibited a natural knack.
“(He) writes so beautifully for the voice,” says David Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia, which is presenting the work as part of its American Repertoire Program. “Plus, he is such a brilliant orchestrator. When you put both of those talents together, as he has with ‘Silent Night,’ they tell a story in a very impactful way.”
Puts is known for his sharp contrasts, and with “Silent Night,” he drew on a typically broad palette to create its dark and resonant contours, conjuring moments of stark melancholy and striking cacophony, of elegiac beauty and driving intensity, while integrating forms and styles from fugues and waltzes to a folk song for bagpipe and a Mozart-like duet with seeming effortlessness.
“I didn’t think about the music of the era at all. There is a motif or sort of a theme, this war theme, and everything in the opera is derived from that theme,” says Puts. “All the styles, they’re styles I’ve used before that I feel are part of my voice … but I managed to somehow take myself out of the equation and do what I thought the story needed, to tell the story in the most vivid way, the most convincing way possible.
“If an opera is going to make it and an opera is going to last, the listener has to be completely absorbed by what’s going on. That’s the most important thing.”
Campbell allowed the music plenty of room to do just that.
“I view myself as an architect. I create a structure, I create a foundation. It’s got to be really solid and then the composer comes in and chooses the paint and the pillows and the things that are beautiful that we love,” he says. “I try to write as few words as possible because I want to get out of the way of the composer.
“My favorite moments in opera actually are when people stop paying attention to the words, when they’re just feeling the music. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer