A moment’s peace in World War I: Opera San José premieres Pulitzer-winning Silent Night

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Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer and Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale. (All photos: Pat Kirk)

“War, we are taught to believe, is the work of opposing forces. The characters of  Silent Night are sworn enemies, soldiers from three countries facing each other in battle,” writes Georgia Rowe in The San Jose Mercury. “Yet, in Kevin Puts’ splendid dramatic opera, they come together, finding common ground and joining together in brotherhood.”

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Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Matthew Hanscomas Gordon and Kyle Albertson as Horstmayer

The acclaimed Pulitzer prize-winning opera Silent Night, which retells a true Christmastime night of peace in the bloodbath of World War I, is making its West Coast premiere this month at Opera San José. It continues through February 26.

“One hears the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 so often that it’s tempting to suspect a little mythologizing, perhaps wishful thinking,” writes Michael Vaughn over at his blog, Operaville. “But no, the smallest bit of research reveals that not only did mortal enemies meet in No Man’s Land to exchange tidings and small gifts that winter, it happened at dozens of points along the front. Working from the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, librettist Mark Campbell and and composer Kevin Puts did a masterful job of distilling those stories into three squadrons – Scots, French and German – and creating a moving, personal account of that astounding night. For their effort, they won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.”

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Kirk Dougherty as Nikolaus Sprink; Julie Adams as Anna Sørensen

“After arranging for the composer to create a custom score for its 47-person pit, Opera San José has put on perhaps its most ambitious project ever.”

According to Vaughn:

The moral driver is (conveniently enough), an opera singer. Kirk Dougherty plays divo-soldier Nikolaus Sprink, singing his spinto protests against a terrible, pointless war with the kind of artistic passion that drives military folks crazy (“Artists make bad soldiers,” says his lieutenant). Preparing for a command performance before the Kronprinz with his singing partner/lover Anna, he refers to “all these fat old men, swigging their champagne,” the true beneficiaries of the bloodshed. Anna manages to talk him into taking her to the front for Christmas eve, and thus are the seeds planted for a rebellious truce. The Germans have Christmas trees, the French have chocolate, the Scots have whiskey. And the tenor arrives with an actual angel.

I watched the youtube preview video here – and the small, artificial Christmas trees are in it. That echoes an episode with the German soldiers in Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate(I wrote about the magnificent book here and here and here.) Which came first? Grossman’s 1959 novel, presumably – unless the incident actually happened in 1914.

“Opera San José, which takes seriously its role as an incubator for young artists, tends to concentrate largely on the works of the standard repertoire for understandable reasons,” writes Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle. “But the company’s occasional forays into more contemporary fare almost always seem to pay off, and this arresting production is no exception.”

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Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer, Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale, and others.


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