Opera: Kevin Puts / Silent Night

The Minnesota Opera
Kevin Puts (Composer) | Mark Campbell (Librettist)
Danielle Beckvermit (Madeleine Audebert), Troy Cook (Father Palmer), Nicholas Davis (British Major), Miles Mykkanen (Nikolaus Sprink), Charles Eaton (William Dale), Matthew Opitz (German General), Edward Parks (Lt. Audebert), Joshua Jeremiah (Lt. Horstmayer), Stephen Martin (Kronprinz), Christian Sanders (Jonathan Dale), William Clay Thompson (General Audebert), Christian Thurston (Lt. Gordon), Clark Weyrauch (German Sentry), Andrew Wilkowske (Ponchel), Karin Wolverton (Anna Sørensen), Courtney Lewis (Conductor).

As we settle into the holiday season, I thought it would be nice to immerse myself into the Kevin Puts / Mark Campbell opera Silent Night. The opera is based on Christian Carion’s screenplay for the 2005 French war film Joyeux Noël, and concerns an actual incident that occurred in the first year of World War I where soldiers of the opposing sides of the conflict declared a temporary truce in order to celebrate Christmas together. 

The version of this opera I am writing about is the 2018 performance by the Minnesota Opera, which is thought to have set the benchmark for this work. It took a lot of jumping through hoops to experience this opera but I can tell you it was time and effort well spent.

I wish I could say I saw it, but there is no full streaming version of Silent Night that I could find anywhere. The Minnesota Opera has a filmed document of this run someplace in their vaults, but as of this writing they have only released a couple of trailers, teasers, and artist interviews on YouTube. This is for an opera that ran over 5 years ago, mind. I’m at a loss as to what these opera companies think they might lose by making archival performances available in some on-demand paid version.

Naxos CD cover of The Minnesota Opera recording of Kevin Puts 'Silent Night'

So to experience Silent Night, I had to buy a CD of the Minnesota Opera‘s live performance of it (to get the info, synopsis and libretto and actually hold them in my hand for reference), wait for it to show up in the post, and then listen to it multiple times to get the gist. The CD package came with no libretto so I had to scrounge around on the Naxos website to find one and print it out. 

You sure have to be determined to write about opera these days. Is there no entity in this world better at thwarting interest in classical music than the classical music industry itself? 

Enough ranting. Onto the opera. Kevin Puts’ Silent Night

And… it’s great! There is so much beautiful music and powerful singing and compelling drama in this opera that I have to call it out as the best 21st century opera to date. I loathe excessive summary so I will simply call out signature moments.

The Minnesota Opera production of Mark Campbell and Kevin Puts' opera 'Silent Night'

Photo: Don Norman

Silent Night is sung in three different languages (four if you count the Scottish burr heard from baritones Christian Thurston and Troy Cook). The shift between languages was novel and effective. It’s something I think we’ll see a lot more in opera as it gets decentralized from the conventional European tradition. 

In the first scene of the first act, Come on Brother, there is an aural depiction of warfare that is as unique as anything I’ve heard from an opera orchestra. The percussion section is turned into an armory, with tympani standing in for large cannon, tom toms for mortar fire, and machine guns accurately represented by rolls on snares and cowbells. It’s eerily effective, setting up the audience by putting them on edge for the subsequent drama.

Following the battle sequence a Bartók-ish orchestral transition introduces the first of a series of nocturnal laments that make up the second scene. The music in Silent Night is more in the service of the story than most operatic scores I can recall. The composer doesn’t force the orchestra on you at every turn; instead, the music often sits in the background to allow the characters to come to life in a way they would’t be able to if the action was subdued by heavy waves of orchestral comment. Some scenes feature only the instruments played by the characters in the scene – like the Many The Miles I Have Travel’d scene in Act I where the orchestra is mostly silent as the Scottish soldiers offer up a song to the German and French soldiers to an accompaniment of solo bagpipe.

The Minnesota Opera production of Kevin Puts' 'Silent Night'

In other scenes like Act I’s Christbaüme, Komm Furling!, and Per Ana Notte Sola, composer Puts pens brief period-style arrangements. Most composers of today would eschew this type of thing in the name of maintaining their modernist musical language, but it seems to me that if you’re composing music for an opera that is a period piece then calling up the spirit of the music of the era is a viable choice.

The rest of Act I has the soldiers coming together to exchange well wishes, songs and camaraderie in their different tongues, interrupted by a subplot of a German soldier and his lover (Miles Mykkanen and Karin Wolverton) singing for the crown prince while on furlough. The first act ends with Wolverton’s Anna singing the Renaissance canon Dona Nobis Pacem just before an ominous plot twist is underscored by more brilliant tonal evocations of battle, quietly this time to evoke conflict in the distance.

The Minnesota Opera production of Kevin Puts' 'Silent Night'

Photo: Don Norman

In cross-referencing other reviews of this opera there was more than one classical music critic who cast a slightly skeptical eye on the uncomplicated beauty of the music. It’s not atonal enough, it adheres to no particular artist manifesto or compositional thesis, etc. After a century of debate on the subject the music world still seems to still be struggling with the idea that tonality in modern classical music is regressive. The idea never stops being tiresome.

For example, in one review I read which I will not link to here, a critic made mention of the overall consonant character of the music and suggested that Silent Night was “a contemporary opera but not necessarily a modern opera” for its avoidance of dissonance, and suggested that it flirts with being musical theater. I’m not sure where the reviewer got all of that that because I hear plenty of dissonance in the music and it sure as hell doesn’t sound like Broadway to me. This reviewer was thoughtful and positive, but they seemed to think something missing. Perhaps they are a bit kinkier than I am, and the score didn’t satisfy their longing for the pain of atonality on a more sustained level. In the interest of objective journalism, they might have connected with an S&M group on Tinder after the show so they could have satisfied their masochistic yearnings prior to press time.

Kevin Puts' opera 'Silent Night' 2018

Photo: Don Norman

Act II begins mournfully with the burial of soldiers, the bagpiper reprising his Act I appearance with a brief elegiac refrain. The action soon switches to focus on characters of the General Staff who, when hearing about the truce, are outraged by what they consider an act of mutiny in the lowest levels of the command hierarchy. 

As is my habit, I will stop at this point to avoid a spoiler. Kind of silly, really, since anyone attending an opera usually has a full synopsis to read over well before opening curtain. For me though, an opera is like a film and I like to be in suspense until the end. Suffice to say that the opera’s power and beauty is sustained throughout its duration. The diminuendo end to the final act is as perfectly rendered as everything that precedes it. Wonderful stuff. 

In addition to all of the above, there is another aspect to this watershed production of Silent Night, that I would be remiss in not calling out, and that is the stone handsomeness of the talent that was assembled to bring this production to life.

I mean, we all know that the personal branding of classical musicians and singers is gilded with excessive glamour. But even in that rarified strata of beautiful people, when it comes to well-tailored swoonability this crew is off the charts! The leads, the bit players, the conductor, and even the lauded composer are serious specimens of hunkitude. Behold these beaux visages that may be decorating an airport newsstand near you as I write this:

Kevin Puts, Courtney Lewis, Christian Thurston and others on magazine covers

I think this infusion of allure is great for the operatic medium. With adonises like these are plying their talents, opera companies might be able to pull a segment of America’s hoi polloi away from their TVs and we may be on the verge of a new American renaissance of high culture. Who among the casts of The Bachelor, Survivor: Samoa, or Naked and Afraid can compare with the talented hotties of Silent Night? They’re ticketed for the media frenzies in our future – prepare for it!!