Three Perspectives of 'Silent Night'
Kevin Puts’ opera ‘Silent Night’ was recently premiered in the UK by Leeds-based Opera North. The opera tells the story - from the three different perspectives of characters in the French, German and British armies - of the 1914 Christmas truce during WW1. As the narrative of the opera comes in three strands, I thought it would be interesting to ‘review’ the piece from three different perspectives as well, as opera (as with all music and perhaps even art) can mean many different things to many different people. As ‘Silent Night’ stood out to me as one of the more complex operas I’ve seen, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Including myself, the three perspectives are from people with varying levels of involvement and experience of opera. I hope you find it insightful!
Liam: New to Opera
‘Silent Night’ proved to be a fitting tribute to the real-life story of the Christmas Truce which took place on the first year of World War I. The three dividing chapters in the opera give you a glimpse of the lives of our main characters on the dawn of war, then leading up to the truce and finally the moments ending the truce. We follow three individual soldiers, one on each side of the opposition, as they learn to cope with life in the trenches. It took one man, a German opera singer, to let out his frustrations by stepping out of the trenches and singing in empathetic protest, which sparked the beginning of the Christmas Truce.
For those who knew only a little about this miraculous event, the opera ensured to make us aware that there was plenty more to be learned. I particularly liked the emphasis made by the Scottish soldiers to deny all remarks about their Englishness, reminding us that the term “British” doesn’t just refer to English. But the main strength of the opera was found in its ability to recreate how it emotionally impacted everybody involved: the heartbreak of leaving behind a loved one, the torment of lying in a letter to your mother about the death of her other son, the peculiar satisfaction of being able to visit your relatives only a short walk away from the trenches.
It was also eye-opening to see the diversity on display during the exchanges between the opposing soldiers, who seemed to be genuinely interested in each others’ cultures and heritages. The banter that these common mercenaries shared both verbally and physically was special to watch. But also, their mutual agreement to honour their dead troops (whom had been caught in their own crossfire) was touching to say the least. The vocal performances of the main cast were individually phenomenal across the board. I felt that there were moments during the chorus sections in the first act where there seemed to be more focus on raw power than coherent harmony. But that would only serve as to add more terror to this hauntingly accurate portrayal of the First World War and the harsh brutality thereupon, making the emergence of the Christmas Truce seem even more remarkable.
Benjamin: Ex-Student of Opera
This semi-staged production of an opera which tackles such huge ideas, both thematically and musically, was incredibly vivid in its portrayal of human emotion and the nature of war. While there was little in the way of set, an effective use of projection onto Leeds Town Hall’s beautiful organ coupled with a score which is rich in description of setting and emotion of its own accord was perhaps even more effective than the usual operatic set might have been.
Puts’ music blended a plethora of styles and was incredible at conveying the sound effects of war as well as painting a musical picture of the ‘emotional scenery’ as it were. After a beautiful, unifying song about the beauty of sleep and pretending that the war wasn’t surrounding the soldiers during the night, the music and lighting changed to represent the start of a new day. The music went from an initially peaceful sound to one that began to infuse with wrought tension, perfectly signifying the initial peace of exiting sleep morphing into the anxiety-inducing realisation of reality. Likewise, I had half expected the music to be full of harmonious, triumphant chords and the temporary peace began to break out, but instead the score was tentative and nervous while maintaining a sense of innocence. Of course it was! It was the perfect portrayal of the moment within the form of an opera.
The attention to detail and realism went far beyond the score, as it was immediately apparent that those behind this production had taken great care in their character, costume, direction and even language work. The effect was astounding, as although the troops were portrayed to be, of course, at war with each other, there was an ever-growing sense of what unites us as humans which was portrayed visually as well as just in the libretto and score. The seamlessness of this created something that was emotionally engaging and powerful in a way that it was quite difficult to single out. Such a beautiful piece, so beautifully executed from all angles is surely a rare and special thing.
Martin: Opera Expert and Répétiteur for ‘Silent Night’
I was one of two répétiteurs on the show. That meant that I coached the singers, played early rehearsals on the piano and generally assisted the conductor Nicholas Kok. As part of our preparation some of us sat down and watched ‘Joyeux Noël’, the film on which the opera is based. You could see why the team who created the piece thought that the film would make a good opera: the central character Nikolaus is an opera singer in civilian life, and singing plays a crucial role in the story. It is when the soldiers hear their enemies singing in the opposing trench that peace breaks out.
It’s the only time I’ve worked on an opera in five languages – not just English, French and German for the central drama but also pastiches of Italian opera and Latin church music. This is an inheritance from the film, where the Scottish, French and German actors all perform in their own languages and their words are translated in subtitles on the screen. In opera we now use surtitles (captions on screens above or beside the stage) to serve the same purpose. I don’t think this opera would have been feasible before the introduction of this technology about 20 years ago.
At Opera North when we rehearse operas in foreign languages we always have a specialist language coach on hand. Even if a piece is written in English we will sometimes employ a dialect coach to help us catch a particular English accent. Most commonly that will be an American accent (e.g. recently in ‘Carousel’ and Kiss Me, Kate’) but in this opera the British soldiers come from rural Scotland, so we tried as hard as possible to get their accent right – you don’t want country boys sounding like posh Edinburgh matrons. In ‘Silent Night’ once the truce breaks out the characters also try to speak each other’s languages, with varying degrees of success. So Horstmayer the German Lieutenant is a very cultivated man who speaks English and French – in fact we discover that his wife is French. He is fluent in those languages but he still speaks them with a bit of a German accent.
So at times in the rehearsal room we would have three specialist language coaches: one for French, one for German and one for English, all listening out for ‘their’ characters’ lines and conferring with each other when the three accents overlapped. That might feel like an extravagance but if you get this kind of thing wrong it can undermine the credibility and impact of the singers’ performances. The audience reaction suggests that we got this basically right – in the hall people genuinely seemed to believe in the characters and care about their fate.
I hope this has been an interesting read, and my deepest thanks to Liam and Martin for their involvement. A recording of the piece will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 17th December 2018, and I’d very much recommend having a listen!