Monday, November 14, 2011

"Silent Night" at the Opera

The Black Hat Collective was invited out to another show at the Minnesota Opera on Thursday.  Our mission is to view the opera, interpret it with cartoons, then blog about it.

This time the show was Silent Night — An adaptation into opera of the 2005 film Joyeux Noel, which is a beautiful story about the 1914 "Christmas Truce" of World War 1.

Read on to explore the history, music, art and drama behind Silent Night in this fully-illustrated article —with cartoons, videos and more!

First, some background on the Christmas Truce.  In 1914, British and German armies met on the front lines, ready to kill each other.  But on Christmas eve, when soldiers were nostalgic for home and under the influence of the Christmas Spirit, each army overheard the other one singing Christmas Carols.  Neither side desired violence on Christmas, and so they took the chance to have a formal truce, to bury their dead, and to mingle together.

Here is a short documentary about the Christmas Truce:

And here is a song about the truce, "Christmas in the Trenches" (1984) by John McCutcheon.

In 2005, a film was made.  Joyeux Noel gives a fictionalized account of a Christmas Truce between Scottish, French, and German soldiers.  The film features dialogue in all three languages and won lots of awards.  Watch the trailer for Joyeux Noel.

The opera Silent Night is a direct, scene-for-scene operatic adaptation of the film.

Silent Night summarized and illustrated.

The play opens with the main characters being called away to war.  We see what they have going for them and just what they have to lose.

Audebert, top.
Ponchel, bottom.
In Scotland, brothers Jonathan and William are caught up by patriotic fervor and join the army.  Their priest, Father Palmer, is concerned for their safety and joins the same army as a medic.

Lieutenant Audebert, leader of the French faction of the military, has a pregnant wife at home.  And his aide, a local named Ponchel, longs to visit his mother who lives only 2 miles away.

Arguably the main character of this story is an opera singer named Nikolaus Sprink (yes the main character was an opera singer, even before the Movie was made into an opera, how meta is that?)

Sprink is called away from his career (and the love of his life, a soprano named Anna Sørensen) to take part in the war, but does so gladly.  The German lieutenant Horstmayer, on the other hand, does not like Sprink at the beginning of the story for one reason:

Tell it like it is, Horstmayer!
This cast of characters convenes on the battlefield, which is located in France
The set for Silent Night centers around a rotating
circular stage that serves as the elevated war zone between trenches
A battle ensues.  William, the older of the Scottish brothers, dies, and Jonathan is heartbroken and maddened.  Audebert loses his only photo of his wife (which is in his wallet) and is also heartbroken.

In the middle of all the fighting, Sprink is called away to give a Christmas recital for the German Princes and generals.
The recital is a duet with his love interest, of course.
I'd be grossed out too.

The safety and pomposity of the generals compared to the men in the trenches disgusts Sprink.  He and Anna make plans to run off back to France and give a performance for those who deserve it - the german soldiers in the Trenches.

When Sprink and Anna arrive, the nearby Scottish soldiers are singing their own songs, and playing bagpipes.  The Scots are playing for themselves, but the Germans can hear it.

Sprink sings for his German compatriots, and the Scots can hear it.

Sprink is so moved by the playing of the bagpipes that he musters up the courage to wander out into the center of the battlefield, carrying a small Christmas Tree, and sing.

This part is the best section of the opera, musically, IMO.
A bagpipe/opera-singing jam session!
Scottish Lieutenant Gordon.
Must.  Resist.  Batman reference!
Audebert looks
The lieutenants of each respective army frantically run to the center of the scene to keep things from becoming violent.  Instead they propose a truce for Christmas eve.

All the soldiers convene and mingle.  They trade booze, tell stories, play soccer, and do other fun things to cut the tension of wanting nothing but to murder each other moments before.  Horstmayer finds Audebert's wallet and gives it to him, solidifying their friendship.

The only person who doesn't have fun is Jonathan, the younger Scottish brother.  He finds his brother's corpse, cries over it, buries it and vows to KILL EVERYONE.
On Christmas Day, the armies catch Jonathan burying his brother and decide to spend the day burying all of their dead.  Father Palmer, who followed Jonathan and William into battle, leads the ceremonies.
These squiggles are actually a poignant depiction of the casualties of war
By the third day, the truce is officially over, but nobody can bring themselves to kill their new friends.  However, eventually word gets out that this truce has happened.  And then all of a sudden everybody is in 

German (left) and British (right) Majors read news of the Christmas truce
and freeze as if to say, "OH NO YOU DI-ENT"

The bosses come out to the field to crack down on fun.

The German bosses announce that the whole team is being relocated to a war zone in Russia.  They also decide that Sprink is to be arrested and thrown in jail for a long time because it's all pretty much his fault.
Sprink and Anna share a romantic freak-out moment.
In the movie, they have sex or something.
In the Opera, it's a duet
Sprink and Anna decide that rather than get split up, they will walk across the battlefield and let themselves get taken as prisoners of war by the French military.  Horstmayer knows he has to stop them but he lets them go anyway, because he's a nice guy deep down.

The British bosses show up to the battlefield to berate everyone.  When they see a lone man dressed in a German uniform, the British major demands that he be shot down.  Nobody complies at first, but then Jonathan, who still wants revenge on all that lives and breathes, guns the poor guy down.

It turns out that the guy in German costume was actually Ponchel, the French aide!  He had disguised himself as a German so that he could get past the blockades and see his Mom one more time.  With his dying breath he informs Audebert that his wife has given birth to a son.  This makes Audebert happy to be alive and willing to endure the crap he's going to receive for allowing the truce to happen.

When the German soldiers are deposited in Russia, they march off to battle singing a Scottish Christmas Carol, illustrating the power of memes.

Then holographic letters pour out of the sky with choral voiceovers, implying that word of the event was spread and the Christmas Truce was immortalized.


Watching this production warms the heart, but also gives one a sense of the terrible irony of war —where humanity is looked upon as "weird" and violence is the norm.  I think the message of this play is not only that "Artists make bad soldiers," as Lieutenant Horstmayer points out at the beginning of the play, but also that good human beings make bad soldiers.

"Unsolicited criticism — Always a good seduction technique!"
—Anna Sørensen 

Now I will REVIEW "Silent Night."

Let me start by saying that I love the Christmas Truce.  I am a history nerd.  I geek out over history so hard.  I am also a film person, and Joyeux Noel is a great film.  Given that this opera is based on a great historical film, I think it's safe to say that anybody who is either a history or a film enthusiast like I am will greatly enjoy this opera for its content.

When it comes to the form of the opera, I am also a theater person and a classical music enthusiast, and in the formal arena I have to say that while I liked it a lot, it could've been better.  Here follows my well-reasoned critique:

The staging of this opera is brilliant.  As a staged version of Joyeux Noel, it's perfect.  The costumes are great.  The circular stage gimmick works really, really well.  There are hologram effects, great sounds, great acting.  This could have been a normal play and still had 75% of its charm.

I say that because, musically, my opinion is split 50-50.  The incidental and background music (the stuff I can only call the "soundtrack") is pretty darn good.  It sounds very reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann to my ears.  Occasionally it gets a bit dissonant and cacophonous in an unpleasant way at inappropriate times —between scenes, during transitions between one location and another.  But overall I was pretty positive about the soundtrack.

On the other hand, there's the dialogue-singing —what I would call the "songs."  These are my main area of concern.  When compared to average operatic fare, these are well-written.  The composer is clearly a talented classical mind with a style he's developed and likes to stick to.

However, that's my problem.  Think about this:  There is only one style throughout this entire play.  I gather that the composer was more interested in composing his own opera than he was about composing the Christmas Truce opera.

Because when you're dealing with a story about three armies from three different countries, you have a lot of openings for mimicking and blending regional styles of song.  Unfortunately those avenues were not taken (except in the scene between the bagpiper and Sprink, which was beautiful and I loved).  The scenes with the Frenchmen don't sound particularly different from the scenes with the Germans and the Scots don't seem musically Scottish at all.  

Here's what I would have liked to hear:
Each army should have melodies or leitmotifs inspired by each nation's musical or operatic tradition.

German opera has a style.  It's Wagner, Mozart (just to name a few).  The music of Beethoven.

French opera has a different style.  Think Debussy, Berlioz, Bizet, Offenbach, Gounod.

Britain, admittedly, doesn't have much of an Opera tradition.  Unless you count ballad operas, light operas, and musicals.  But that doesn't mean they don't have a great lyrical music tradition. —especially the Scots!

One could easily model the music in the Scottish Army's section off of traditional Scottish, Celtic, or folk melodies.  It would have been brilliant to turn to the songs written by poet Robert Burns, for example.

And then when Christmas happened, the styles could merge and influence one another and the melodies could form counterpoints.

That would have made the show a *masterpiece.*  I'm drooling now to imagine what that would sound like.

So as such, the background music is good, but the songs were not great.  And the two different strains often blended together in an unsatisfying way.  But the staging was perfect.

Either way, Silent Night is an amazing stage adaptation of Joyeux Noel.  I rate it 3.7/5


  1. The three armies DID have distinct musical styles. Did you not hear the Bach fugue at the beginning of the German bunker scene? Or the Mozart and Schubert influences during the opera singers' scenes? How about the transparency of the orchestration in the French scenes? How about the Benjamin Britten influences of the Scottish scenes? I felt that Mr. Puts' music ran the gamut from minimalism to heart-on-your-sleeve-post-romanticism.

    I may not agree with your opinion, but I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for your review and your AMAZING sketches!!!

  2. You know what? Thank you for your input! If you noticed all that, I'll admit that I could probably use a second listen. Given that I was watching, reading, listening and drawing all at once I could easily have missed those influences. I hope that sometime soon I can get ahold of a recording of the show and give it another listen. If I notice the same things I'll definitely reconsider my opinion.

  3. The problem these days is that anyone can write a review online. It is so absurd that you think my opera is written in "one style" that it is almost beyond belief. The music of each army could not BE more distinct. When the three armies finally come together in truce, the style is perhaps more "general", perhaps more my own, maybe even somewhat American. The fact that you think I was trying to write "my opera rather than the opera of the Christmas truce opera" or whatever you said is beyond inane. My only concern was to set this beautiful story the way it needed to be set, with little or no regard for making my own stylistic statement.

    Maybe you are referring to the fact that the whole opera sounds "classical" rather than including hip hop, ragtime, reggae, country...? I dont know, I am truly at a loss. Maybe you should listen to the serious concert music (maybe even some opera) of the last 150 years and educate yourself before you put stuff like this online.

    I write music to be "gotten", to be understood. I am not one of those composers living in an ivory tower. It saddens me when it is not understood the way I intended it to be understood. KP