by SOPHIE KERMAN
Twin Cities audiences might notice an interesting phenomenon this holiday season: two different productions of the same story. Both the Minnesota Opera‘s world premiere of Silent Night and the reprise of the Cantus/Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust production of All is Calm stage the incredible Christmas Eve of 1914, when German, English and French forces laid down their weapons and called a truce. Silent Night, which ran from November 12-20, met with rave reviews both here on Aisle Say Twin Cities and in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Star Tribune; All is Calm premiered in 2007 and has been re-staged every December since. (This year it will be presented in a limited run at Pantages, only six performances from December 15-18.)
So what makes this story so special? And why have these two different companies chosen this particular story to stage during this holiday season?
Although the tale of the Christmas Truce has become legendary, it is based on true historical accounts of an improbable Christmas night when enemy soldiers temporarily joined together to sing carols, eat and drink together, play soccer, and bury their dead. The message of the play is clearly a positive one, but the emphasis depends on which director you ask.
Peter Rothstein, the creator and director of All is Calm, describes the courage of the soldiers brave enough to cross No Man’s Land:
The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks – the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic – those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place. Their story puts a human face on war, and that’s the story I hope to tell.
Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of the Minnesota Opera, sees in the story our need to connect with each other in spite of differences:
This is also this time of year when we all yearn for signs of hope that things can be better. We are presently in a period in history in which people are demonized because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation, their political beliefs. It is a time of forced and created hatred and animosity. The reason people gravitate towards SILENT NIGHT and ALL IS CALM, is because they tell of one brief period during one of the most brutal wars in history, where people of differing views and histories laid down their arms as well as their misconceptions and hatreds and celebrated together.
The subtle differences between the two productions don’t end with their message. Silent Night and All is Calm both use music as a way into this story, but they take two vastly different approaches. Silent Night, a full-length opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, will be unfamiliar to audiences except for a very few songs used to powerful effect. As a result, both the words and the music command the viewer’s attention, playing off one another for dramatic effect. As Dale Johnson explains:
[Campbell’s] libretto is moving but not verbose. He really allows the composer’s voice to come through brilliantly. Often times these days, new operas are too wordy. That was definitely not the case with Silent Night. We chose an orchestra composer deliberately so that the orchestral moments of the piece were not simply filler but integral parts of the storytelling.
All is Calm, on the other hand, offers both familiar and historically-accurate Christmas tunes, including well-known French, German and British carols such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as well as patriotic and trench songs that could have been sung at the time. Musical arranger Eric Lichte explains,
All Is Calm allows Cantus to sing Christmas carols that everyone knows and loves, but when set in the context of trench warfare, take on a new poignancy. Music was an important part of life in the trenches and one of the primary factors that instigated the truce.
In the style of a radio play that the WWI characters might actually have listened to, the music is woven together with readings by actors Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson, who present letters, journal entries and official documents from thirty real World War I figures. Rothstein traveled to Europe to conduct the research for the production, and it is clear that he was deeply affected by the experience:
It was incredibly powerful to stand on the very spot where this extraordinary happening took place. For decades, the Christmas truce was considered a romantic fable, however there is no doubt thousands of courageous men took part in this remarkable event.
Both All is Calm and Silent Night spring from their creators’ deep personal connections to the material, so your choice of which performance to see would depend only on whether you are more excited by the prospect of a live-action radio play or by the complex layering of sound in Puts’ opera. But given the appearance of these two productions in the same year, you’ve got to wonder about the present-day resonance of this almost century-old story. As Johnson says:
I think we all want peace. We are tired of the animosity and hatred. We are tired of being told what to think, what to believe, who to hate. The Christmas season purports to be about peace on earth. Oh, if only that could happen.