Last night, I crossed off an item on the ole’ bucket list. Attend the opera. I was terribly excited, but so unsure of what to really expect. After all, the first thing that came to my mind was emotional women in enormous dresses being dramatically in love, and not the smooth sailing, blissful kind either. This was entirely different.
I had the privilege of being in the first audience of the Minnesota Opera’s world premiere of Silent Night. It was the first commission by the Minnesota Opera New Works Initiative. Before walking a few short blocks down the charming sidewalks of St. Paul to the Ordway theatre, we enjoyed sushi and drinks at Sakura, where we were introduced to the composer, Kevin Puts (writer of music) and librettist, Mark Campbell (writer of the words). The passion beamed forth as they shared their vision and excitement for this project. As an artist, witnessing other artists talk about creating things they love is a powerful experience.
Silent Night is based on Joyeux Noel, the 2005 French film that depicts the true story of Christmas Eve of 1914, when the French, German, and Scottish soldiers call a truce and celebrate the holiday together. The film is beautiful and moving, definitely something to see this holiday season.
But, the opera, transformed this story in a way I couldn’t imagine. Upon entering the regal theatre donned in rich crimson and gold, the stage transports you directly into the story. The monotone piles of rocks, ravaged battlefields, and the crumbling fortresses turned trenches all set against spiny shadows of trees, heavy with death and ominous clouds dripping hostility.
And from this tragically beautiful stage came music that was so rich with emotion and energy. I felt homesick with the soldiers as they bravely carried on and missed their families. I felt the loss as they mourned the death of their friends. I felt the tension between the armies as they fought in the name of their homeland. When the first brave man climbed out of the trenches bearing a Christmas tree and surrender flag, in the hopes of peace, I was sure that something terrible would happen. I suppose that is the power of the music, doing just what it was intended to do, the power of this art form, telling a story through notes on scale. The transformation of enemies becoming fellows was so remarkable, as they found kindred spirits in the most unlikely of places.
It was enchanting.
During the second act, the composer sat just three seats down from us. As the last notes poured out over the seats, he sat forward, with his fists clenched tight, frozen. And when they melted into silence, he dropped his head and exhaled with everything in him as the curtain cascaded down on his very first opera. I am certain, it was a moment he will never forget. I won’t either.
Photo: Michael Daniel