‘Optimism in the face of brutality’: a great opera about the Great War

The Wexford-bound Silent Night explores the horror of war through the prism of the unofficial Christmas Eve truce of 1914. Its composer and librettist talk about the making of a Pulitzer Prize winner

France's most notoriously eccentric composer, Erik Satie, once offered a tongue-in-cheek timetable of "The Musician's Day". It begins: "Get up: 7.18am; be inspired: 10.23 to 11.47am". The cliche he's mocking – the solitary artist waiting for and grappling with inspiration – is the opposite of the process behind most operas. And it's a million miles away from the process that led to American composer Kevin Puts's Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night.

The inspiration for that opera came first to Dale Johnson, artistic director of Minnesota Opera, after he saw Christian Carion's 2005 film Joyeux Noël, about an unauthorised first World War truce between German, Scottish and French soldiers on Christmas Eve 1914. Johnson brought the idea to Kevin Puts, a composer with no track record in opera, and paired him for the project with an experienced librettist, Mark Campbell.

Campbell was interested in the film “because of the human story it showed”, although he found parts of it “too sentimental”, and he thought of ways for the opera “to reduce the sentiment and bring up the humour”. He wanted to show how horrible and unnecessary the first World War was. The strength of the film, he says, is that “it shows the human damage done by war”.

Amazing historical event

Puts liked that “the story was built around such an amazing historical event. There was a lot of power in that event and a lot of emotion. There were certain scenes in the film that I could imagine on the stage really easily. And I thought I had the voice for it: the kind of voice that would work well for the emotion involved, the grim optimism, optimism in face of horrible brutalities and a terrible environment where hope is springing up somehow.”


However, one decision the two men made early on – that the various armies would sing in their own languages – was a huge musical challenge. Puts knew he could write music that would support a story. “When I was young I would make up music at the piano while my brother ran around with guns and swords and stuff. I’ve always loved film and film music. I didn’t think it would be hard to read the scenes and come up with music. I read the libretto and went to the piano and knew exactly what I wanted to do. I even had to slow myself down. What I was really intimidated by was the fact that we decided to write in German and French, and there’s even some Italian and Latin. That was the most daunting part. I had to get the rhythm and sound of those languages in my head.”

Although Puts had never written an opera before, when Campbell listened to his work he could hear “this really beautiful narrative in his music, and that’s what you look for in a composer who can write opera. I also heard someone who is not afraid of melody and who does not adhere to a certain school of music that might prevent him from telling a story in a beautiful way. Kevin is everything I ever hoped for in an operatic composer, and more. He is a terrific collaborator.”

The admiration is mutual. Puts describes his librettist as “someone for whom emotion is right on the surface. He feels things very strongly. He’s a very intelligent guy, but the cerebral part of him is less evident than the emotional part. And I think I’m the same way. We wanted to write music that you feel something for, rather than making some kind of statement about war in a more cerebral way.”

They clicked as people, too. “After having worked together, you have to want to be in the same room as the person you’re working with. We both like to laugh a lot. We have a good time together. We have a self-deprecating way of working. It leads to fruitful things.”

Their second opera, The Manchurian Candidate, another adaptation that has a history in film, will open, again in Cincinnati, next March.

Campbell wrote the Silent Night libretto quickly, and the composer had the entire text before he started. "I would say he set about 90 per cent of what I had written." The words may be written first, but Campbell sees the music as primary. "Otherwise why would you be writing an opera? Go write a play. I teach opera now, and I tell my students: don't try to fight music. Music will beat you every time. People are not here for the words. They are here for the story and the music, and the music that is telling the story."

Sung theatre

Puts sees it slightly differently. “Essentially you’re doing sung theatre. The architecture of the story has to be there first. The words, the specific words, can be adjusted based on what needs to happen musically. The architecture is everything. Then the composer has to make something out of it. In a string quartet or a symphony you have to decide the architecture on your own. In an opera it’s given to you. You have to build music on top of that. For me, it’s a really satisfying idea.”

The two had disagreements – they both mention a chorus that Puts insisted on extending – but no serious arguments. “We know when something’s not working, though maybe not why,” says Puts. “And we’re both willing to say, ‘It might be my fault’. Mark understands how important the music is – that it’s all about the music. And from my point of view, I understand that it’s all about the story.”

The Wexford production

They’re both excited about seeing the new Wexford Festival Opera production. The quick scene changes of the prologue, which were handled by the rotation of a turntable in Cincinnati, will be solved at Wexford with lighting. And they both mention – but don’t identify – some parts that they’ve thought about changing. The new production will help them to make up their minds.

Which operas do they admire most? Campbell names Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Mozart's Figaro and "almost all" the operas of Benjamin Britten, before settling on "almost everything from the last 20 or 25 years". Puts names Mozart (Figaro, Don Giovanni), skips over romantic operas ("I've never been personally drawn to the style") to Puccini ("gorgeous and beautiful and harmonically much more satisfying than Verdi"), Berg's Lulu, Britten (Peter Grimes, Billy Budd), and John Adams (Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer).

Puts identifies the biggest challenge for opera composers over the past 100 years as being “when you have dialogue that’s clearly not aria-like and you want to create some idea of realism, how do you make them sing? Lots of singers sing and sound good, but you want it to sound like quick dialogue between them.”

Honour for US composers doesn't come any greater than the Pulitzer Prize. That prize went to the composer specifically for Silent Night. Campbell recalls one of the Minnesota performances, sitting with his back to the wall, and "feeling the silences in the audience, and knowing that they're asking questions about war: why do we keep doing this; how do we continue to allow this to happen? I thought, this is the most incredible privilege in the world. I even thought, you know what, if I walk out of this theatre tonight and a bus hits me, at least I have written Silent Night."