So, What’s Going On?
Berlin: Summer, 1914.
Celebrated singers Nikolaus Sprink (NEE-koh-louse SHPREENK) and Anna Sørensen (SUR-ehn-sehn) put their dazzling chemistry on display—they’re in love off-stage as well as on—in a production of an Italian opera. The show is interrupted by a terrible announcement, however: Germany has entered into a war against Russia, igniting conflict with Russia’s French and British allies. Anna and Nikolaus know they’ll be forced to separate, as Nikolaus will have to join the army.
Miles away in Scotland, William Dale learns of the German declaration and asks his brother, Jonathan, to join him in “the glory of battle” against the Germans on the “Western Front” along the French/Belgian border.
Back across the English Channel, Lieutenant Audebert (oh-deh-BEAR) gets ready to join the French forces (and their British allies) on the front, despite concerns from his pregnant wife, Madeleine (mad-LEN).
By the way…she’s petrified, and rightfully so—these battles on the Western Front were death sentences for millions.
December has arrived, and the war shows no signs of letting up. On a battlefield flanked by French, Scottish, and German trenches, Sprink, Audebert, and the Dale brothers face a horrific array of bombs, bullets, and gas attacks. Nikolaus kills an unnamed soldier while William is tragically shot, making Jonathan more determined than ever to defeat the Germans (it’s hard to blame him).
As the body count rises on all sides, Audebert receives harsh criticism from his general (who just so happens to be his father). When the lieutenant tries to comfort himself by looking at a photo of his wife, he discovers he’s lost his wallet—and all of her pictures— during the recent fighting. Disappointed, he decides to write to his wife instead, and describes his desperate need for sleep.
And he’s not the only one who’s exhausted. As night falls, all of the soldiers rejoice at the chance to get some rest.
Take a listen…
German, Scottish, and French fighters alike all succumb to sleep after a long day. Listen for the comforting, drawn-out chords from the cellos and the plucking of the harp—all of which give the music the quality of a dreamy lullaby.
The sun rises on Christmas Eve Day, and each of the camps is in a fairly happy mood. While admiring the Christmas trees placed inside the German trench (which are pretty much a useless gift from the higher-ups in the German army), Nikolaus learns he’s been asked to perform at a concert for the German Kronprinz (krohn-PRINTS, a German commander and the son of the reigning German Kaiser), which will allow the singer to be reunited with his beloved co-star, Anna. Meanwhile, the French and Scottish have received Christmas care packages full of food and wine to help brighten their spirits.
Away from the front, Nikolaus and Anna find themselves in the Kronprinz’s luxurious chalet—a cruel contrast to the death and destruction Nikolaus has observed on the battlefield only a few miles away. Anna pleads with Nikolaus to forget the war for a little while, but he insists on returning to his fellow soldiers that night, saying he won’t abandon them at Christmas. Despite the danger, Anna insists on coming along.
Back in the trenches, the French plan their military strategy while the Scottish soldiers break out into spontaneous song to celebrate the season. The French and German soldiers can clearly hear the music and, when Nikolaus and Anna arrive back at the German camp, Nikolaus sings a musical response to the Scots across the battlefield. Mild applause erupts from the Scottish camp (proving that music is hard to resist, even when it’s sung by your enemy), and Nikolaus, suddenly inspired, grabs one of the Christmas trees and strides boldly out into the perilous “No Man’s Land,” leaving himself completely exposed. Everyone freezes, waiting breathlessly for Nikolaus to be shot down.
Encouraged by the hushed silence, Nikolaus begins to sing a Christmas carol and invites the French and Scottish camps to join in.
Take a listen…
Taking his life into his hands, Nikolaus walks out onto the battlefield unarmed, singing a Christian hymn. Across No Man’s Land, a Scottish soldier begins to play along on the bagpipe. Pay attention to the combination of German lyrics and traditional Celtic accompaniment. Do these two forces blend well? Do they sound melodious or strange together? Or do they feel like something in between?
All plans of attack are abandoned as white flags are raised by each of the armies, and conversations spring up between soldiers on opposite sides of the war. Though communications are tense (and some of the men have trouble understanding one another, thanks to the three different languages in play), Lieutenant Gordon of the Scottish force eventually proposes a ceasefire—a truce for Christmas Eve. Lieutenants Audebert and Horstmayer (HOHRSHT-my-ehr, the German officer) agree. In a time of impossible struggle, they choose to end the struggle altogether—for one night only.
Almost immediately, the men from each camp begin swapping stories and supplies. There’s even a spontaneous Christmas Mass given by Father Palmer and an impromptu concert given by Anna, who sings a peaceful prayer.
Take a listen…
Anna sings a plea for universal peace in front of a group of soldiers. Why do you think the composer chose to have the soprano sing through this moment without any help from the orchestra? How does Anna’s song contrast with the music at the very end of the act?
Everyone seems to be grateful for the sudden calm; that is, everyone except for Jonathan, who has trouble breaking bread with the men who killed his brother (again, hard to blame him). Still, as bombs go off further along the front, Anna and the soldiers do their best to enjoy their own yuletide “Silent Night.”
With Christmas Eve over, the truce seems to have ended. Jonathan takes a huge risk and tries to bury his brother in No Man’s Land, but is spared from harm thanks to German soldiers who show him kindness. The incident sparks yet another agreement among the camps: They all decide to extend the truce and give their fallen comrades proper burials.
Yet despite the show of mutual respect, everyone knows this peaceful interval won’t last forever. Even worse, the three lieutenants’ commanding officers (the Kronprinz, the British Major, and Audebert’s father) have each received news of the ceasefire—and they’re not at all pleased. Convinced the truce essentially amounts to treason, all three high-ranking officials head for the front.
Back at the camps, emotions run high as Nikolaus begins to show disgust for Lieutenant Horstmayer’s blind loyalty to the German cause. With Horstmayer threatening to arrest Nikolaus for his disobedient outburst, will Nikolaus ever be able to find a happy ending with Anna? And with the commanding officers on their way to punish those who participated in the ceasefire, will Audebert ever be able to return to his wife? Can the spirit of the truce last long enough to calm the patriotic fury of soldiers like Jonathan and…perhaps…turn the tide of the war?
Lieutenant Horstmayer, a German officer (baritone—a middle-range male voice) Nikolaus Sprink, an opera singer and soldier (tenor—the highest male voice) Anna Sørensen, an opera singer and Nikolaus’s love (soprano—the highest female voice) Kronprinz, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II (tenor)
Lieutenant Gordon, a Scottish officer (baritone) Jonathan Dale, a young solider (tenor) William Dale, a soldier and Jonathan’s older brother (baritone) Father Palmer (baritone) The British Major (bass—the lowest male voice)
Lieutenant Audebert, a French officer (baritone) Ponchel, Audebert’s right-hand man or “aide-de-camp” (baritone) The French General (bass) Madeleine, Audebert’s wife (soprano)
Good to Know About the Opera
For those of you slightly unfamiliar with the history of World War I who are thinking the tale of an armistice at Christmas sounds too good to be true: You’re right.
But it happened anyway.
In the winter of 1914, against all logic and all probability, some troops representing opposing forces in the “Great War” between the Triple Alliance (consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy—later joined by Bulgaria and modern-day Turkey) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Great Britain) laid down their guns and enjoyed a full day of polite and peaceful exchange at Christmas.
During those hours, the troops, who’d been suffering unspeakable conditions on the border of Belgium and France, chose compassion over violence—defying cultural tradition and, in some cases, direct military orders. Food and stories were shared. People who might otherwise have killed one another on the battlefield became friends, if only for a day. To some, the event was nothing short of a miracle.
It’s unclear exactly how or why the famous Christmas truce began, but reports suggest these ceasefires occurred all along the Western Front at the center of the war, and that they had a lasting impact on the soldiers who were there. No surprise, then, that the story eventually inspired a 2005 film entitled
Joyeux Noël (French for “Merry Christmas”) which, in turn, inspired a prominent artistic director to commission the film into an opera.
The result was
Silent Night, an opera by composer Kevin Puts (with lyrics by Mark Campbell). An ambitious retelling of a sweeping and epic tale, Silent Night is unique in that it has each of its characters speak in their native language (no “I’m from Spain but I’m singing in French” happening here, as it does in some other operas).
Even more unique than having the main characters sing in English, French,
and German, is that the opera’s music shifts in style according to the character that’s singing and their country of origin. All of these varied sounds combine to help plunge the audience into the terrifying realities of World War I, while occasionally evoking the beauty and serenity of the unlikely truce. NOTE: Silent Night is presented during this 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, which occurred on November 11, 1918. The armistice was an agreement between the fighting parties that symbolized the ending of the First World War.
Learning to Listen
Try thinking of opera singing as its own type of language or speech. When we’re speaking, our emotions can change the way our voices sound from moment to moment—and one word can have a thousand different meanings depending on
how you say it (loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, with a high- or low-pitched voice, etc.). The same is true for the characters in an opera. Each voice you’ll hear will have its own special flavor depending on who the characters are and what they’re saying.
Lieutenants Gordon, Audebert, and Horstmayer, for example, are all military men who, due to age, family ties, and/or experience, have a higher rank than most of their fellow soldiers in the trenches. These officers exist somewhere between the hot-headed youth of men like Jonathan Dale and the gruff, dispassionate nature of the military higher-ups like the French general. The lieutenants’ voices, therefore, are deeper and more mature-sounding than those of the younger men at the front, yet still capable of higher, soaring phrases that suggest optimism and hope.
Anna Sørensen, on the other hand, is a young woman who’s in love and at the pinnacle of her career. Her bright and brilliant soprano voice indicates her youth and fearlessness (remember: this is the gal who enters into the trenches despite the peril), while her long, extended musical phrases and nearly super-human high notes help symbolize her desperate aspiration for peace and her intense commitment to Nikolaus.
When in doubt about how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking, always pay close attention to exactly how they
sound. (The instruments in the orchestra will give you hints as well.)
Check This Out…
Nikolaus and Anna are unusual opera characters: They’re both identified as
actual opera singers (in a world in which everyone sings through almost every word anyway). Can you tell which moments in the opera are meant to represent Nikolaus and Anna’s performances and which moments involve real human conversation between the two of them? (Hint: The scenes in which they perform might sound a bit different from the rest of show. They might even make you think of older more “Classical” styles used by composers like Mozart.) In this production, the director and designers chose to present most of the performance using three separate stage levels, each representing one of the three central camps. How does this layout affect your understanding of the story? Does being able to view three trenches at once make the opera seem more exciting? More confusing? Both? (Note: While you’re observing the sets, be sure to pay attention to the curtain, which will occasionally flash some of the names of the millions of World War I casualties.)
Musical sound effects—that is, effects created by instruments rather than standard atmospheric noises like gunshots or explosions—can be heard throughout Silent Night. Listen for scenes where a specific instrument (or group of instruments) gives you clues about the action surrounding the characters. (Hint: Think trumpets and percussion in the opening battle sequence.)
Think About This…
As mentioned above, Lieutenants Gordon, Audebert, and Horstmeyer are all played by baritone singers, which means their voices all have a similar color (traditionally warmer and more “chocolate-y” than a tenor’s sound). Why do you think the composer opted to cast all the lieutenants as the same voice type? Does this choice give you added insight into their characters? Do you ever have trouble distinguishing between the three officers?
Silent Night have a clear protagonist or antagonist? Is there anyone in the opera who is obviously wrong or obviously right? Do you find yourself rooting for anyone during the show? (And, if you do, do you think the music they sing helps influence your choice? Why?) If brass and percussion help to signify warfare in
Silent Night, which instruments—if any—do you feel are meant to symbolize peace? Even if you couldn’t understand the lyrics or were unable to follow the action on stage, would you still be able to identify the moment the truce begins just by listening? Think about the voices as well. How do the singers sound different when their respective characters are fighting vs. when they’re not? Lieutenant Audebert’s barber and aide-de-camp (or right-hand man), Ponchel, plays a big role, both in the trenches and in the opera itself. Why do you think the opera’s creators felt it was important to give such a seemingly “insignificant” character such a significant part? What does his solo song (or aria)—with its swirling string accompaniment and its references to time—help reveal to the audience about the daily lives of the men in the trenches?
The Arts/History Connection
Silent Night is one example of how real events, places, and people from World War I have inspired artists. Check out these other examples:
All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
A concert experience about the same holiday truce captured in Silent Night.
A behind-the-scenes look into the creation of the life-sized puppets in the Broadway play, War Horse.
Take Action: Declare a Truce
Clearly one of the reasons the Christmas armistice of 1914 has earned a special place in world history is that the whole thing seems so…well…impossible. How could various armies locked in such deadly conflict find enough common ground to celebrate the holiday season together? How could so much brutality and pain turn into a scene of solidarity and hope? No one has any real answer to these questions, and yet the story sticks with us—perhaps because we know that if it happened once, it can happen again.
And it can start with you.
Remember: No one needs to be at war to initiate a truce, and yet pretty much all wars begin with a disagreement of some kind. Do your part to help diffuse conflict—even if it’s only on a very small scale. Find someone you have a habit of disagreeing with (but who still makes you feel safe and respected) and see if they’re open to having a pleasant conversation. If they say yes, be sure not to talk about the disagreements, but rather, focus on finding something the two of you can share or enjoy together.
Take the time to observe and listen without passing any judgment and without trying to sway the person to your way of thinking on any particular subject. Topics can range from a book you both read, to a movie you both dislike, to a class you both had to take, or anything in between. Concentrate on the things you have in common rather than the things that divide you. Keep communication friendly and keep your mind open. You may find yourself making a new best friend.
Afterwards, write down your thoughts about the experience and revisit them the next time you find yourself getting frustrated when someone doesn’t have your exact point of view. If you can, share your feelings about the encounter on social media using the hashtag
Teacher & Parent Guide
Parents and Teachers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of opera, but just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and eventually made its way to the United States. As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing.
is a Pulitzer-Prize-wining opera by then first-time opera composer Kevin Puts, who was born in 1972 (yes, you read that correctly), and seasoned librettist Mark Campbell. Based on the French movie Silent Night Joyeux Noël, Silent Night tells the somewhat true story of the World War I ceasefire that was observed during the winter of 1914. As in the film, each of the characters in Silent Night speaks in their native tongues, meaning the performers mostly sing in three different languages, and even present some scenes in which lines are “translated” in real time by the singers themselves (as when Lieutenant Horstmayer has to translate Lieutenant Gordon’s words into French so that Lieutenant Audebert can understand them).
Although the language barriers in
Silent Night add an appropriate element of tension to this war-torn drama, it’s the music that makes the cultural differences among the soldiers in the opera most apparent.
Composer Kevin Puts deliberately infuses
Silent Night with musical references to each of the respective countries represented on stage, paying homage to each of their nationalistic traditions in equal measure. A German soldier will sometimes sing with the weight of the full orchestra behind him (complete with booming brass and crashing cymbals) à la some of the later German composers like Richard Wagner. A French soldier will often be accompanied by the sweeter sounds of the woodwinds—a trick often employed by turn-of-the-century French composers such as Claude Debussy. (You can probably see where we’re going with this.) As a result, what unfolds in front of the audience is a musical metaphor for World War I and the legendary ceasefire—a dissonant culture clash that resolves into soothing harmony only when the fighting stops.
NOTE: Silent Night is presented during this 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, which occurred on November 11, 1918. The armistice was an agreement between the fighting parties that symbolized the ending of the First World War.
Explore More This November
The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage will host a special (free) WNO
Silent Night concert performance on November 8, 2018, featuring music created during and inspired by World War I.
Learn more here:
Can’t make it in person?
Watch this livestream event November 8th at 6:00pm EST at:
Or after November 8th, here:
More Opportunities and Resources
In the Washington, D.C. area:
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Special events November 10-11, 2018 on the centennial of World War I’s end:
Library of Congress
Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I
An exhibit through January 2019 on how Americans were impacted by World War I at home and abroad.
Also available online:
On November 9, 2018, several cultural organizations across the United States (including Smithsonian institutions and the Washington National Opera) will be using the hashtag
#storiesofservice to share how Americans contributed toward making a difference during the war. To learn more about these stories, visit: https://americanhistory.si.edu/topics/world-war-i/pages/2018-social
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