Forget hoop skirts and ornate tunics, Roman columns and fancy gardens — all the usual trappings of a classic opera. When Utah Opera opens its latest production, “Silent Night,” on Jan. 18, the company is going to war, and war is messy.
“There’s a major battle scene about five minutes into the show that is extremely visceral, both for the action and the music,” said Craig Irvin, a baritone who plays one of the lead roles in the World War I-set opera.
“Ten minutes later, there’s some of the most beautiful music and orchestration I’ve ever heard,” Irvin said. “You can visualize, just through the music, the sun breaking the crest of the horizon, and the frost on the grass start to melt away, and birds taking off. But it ends darkly, because as the sun comes out, you see all the dead bodies.”
“Silent Night” — composed by Kevin Puts, with a libretto by Mark Campbell — premiered in 2011 with Minnesota Opera and won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012. It was inspired by the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noel,” and like the film, it tells the story of the Christmas armistice in 1914, when German, French and Scottish soldiers, bitter enemies in “The Great War,” called a temporary truce and met face-to-face over the holiday.
“Silent Night” is a test for Utah Opera and its audience, to see if a 21st century opera can produce the same emotional and musical punch — and draw — as the classics.
Puts, the composer, said the staying power of a new opera “feels unpredictable, with the operas that stick in the repertoire and the ones that don’t. ‘Silent Night’ has stuck as a new opera.”
New operas often rely on adapting familiar material — a movie, a play or a historical event — said Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of Opera America, which supports and promotes opera across the United States.
“What’s wonderful about ’Silent Night’ is it’s an extremely beautiful opera, very touching, very human,” Scorca said. “It’s a piece that grows out of the classic opera tradition, even while being contemporary. It has been successful because it reflects a continuum of the opera vocabulary.”
Christopher McBeth, Utah Opera’s artistic director, points out that “Silent Night” joins a string of modern operas — along with “The Little Prince” and “Moby-Dick” — that the company has staged in the last few seasons.
“There is an inherent challenge with some of the people, [whose] passions lie with the great romantic operas of the 19th century,” McBeth said. “I find that younger audiences resonate more with [recent works]. I hate to make it an age factor, but it’s hard to ignore that. … But even with our traditional audiences, there is a subset that is hungry to see something that is new to them.”
The box office results have shown promise, McBeth said. “They’ve actually sold pretty well. Are they selling like ‘Turandot’ yet? Not quite.” McBeth noted that the new works have filled about 75% to 80% of the house.
“Any time there’s a new opera, it’s an event,” said Elizabeth T. Craft, an assistant professor of music at the University of Utah. “There’s an excitement there of not knowing what you’re going to get.”
Craft cites Utah Opera’s production of “The Little Prince” last year as an example of a production that “felt like a community event, especially since there were local kids singing the [title] part.”
The trend, Craft said, is for midsized opera companies to produce new works — with some, like Minnesota Opera did with “Silent Night,” commissioning the operas.
“It’s easy to commission new works,” Craft said. “It’s harder to get a second production.”
“Silent Night” has overcome that hurdle, with numerous productions across the country since its 2011 premiere. The story of the Christmas truce, McBeth said, “is beloved already around the world.”
Irvin said Utah Opera’s version is the eighth production in which he has performed. He has become the go-to performer for the role he first played in Minnesota, of the hard-nosed German officer, Lt. Horstmayer.
“The first production I was in went to your soul through your heart,” Irvin said. “This one’s very conceptual … and I think goes through your soul through your mind.”
In his first entrance, Horstmayer is angry because the Crown Prince has delivered Christmas trees into the bunker, “not weapons or men, which is what I really need.” When one soldier, an opera singer in civilian life, is called from the front to perform for the prince, Horstmayer is exasperated. When the soldier asks his lieutenant, “Why don’t you like me?” Horstmayer’s response is terse: “It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s that I don’t need you,” Irvin said. “In my army, I need men who will work.”
“As Americans, we’re predisposed to think of the Germans as the bad guy,” Irvin said. “I want [the audience] to think I’m the bad guy. As the plot goes on, you realize he’s not a bad guy. He’s trying to keep his men alive.”
Working on a newer opera can be as surprising to the cast as to the audience. Baritone Efraín Solis, who plays the French officer, Lt. Audebert, compared “Silent Night” to “a film that people talk up all the time, but they don’t want to give away any spoilers. … In the first five minutes [of rehearsal], every preconceived notion I had walking in was completely turned around.”
The staging for “Silent Night” (whose ensemble is mostly men, though there are two women’s roles) is challenging. The front of the stage represents the no-man’s-land where the clashing armies hold their tense truce. Behind that, at the back of the stage, is a three-tiered wall representing the three camps — Germans on the bottom, and the French and Scottish troops alternating between the middle and upper levels.
“They stack the soldiers on top of each other, so you can see everything happening,” Irvin said. “You can see them just sitting there waiting for something to happen.”
Campbell’s libretto is in German, French and English — and the language barrier comes to represent the other differences among the three groups. (Supertitles are projected above the stage, a long-standing convention for opera productions.)
The libretto, Puts said, served as a structure for the music. “I realize how important the story is to an opera audience,” Puts said. “It’s not abstract. It’s very concrete. I have to be at the service of the words.”
Puts said writing operas — “Silent Night” was his first; he’s now working on his fourth — gave him a new appreciation for the masters, like Verdi and Puccini.
“Those guys just had it so right. It’s staggering how good those operas are,” Puts said. “The music is so good. It lends itself so well to singing.”
McBeth also loves the classics, but knows that opera companies have to mix in new works. “If we merely become custodians of those same antiquities, then eventually nobody comes back to see those pieces,” McBeth said.
“Not all new operas are amazing, but all new operas are important,” Irvin said. “They breathe life into this art form.”
’SILENT NIGHT’ AT UTAH OPERA
Utah Opera’s production of “Silent Night,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, about the 1914 Christmas armistice during World War I. Sung in German, French and English, with supertitles.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
When • Debuts Saturday, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. Repeats: Monday and Wednesday, Jan. 20 and 22, 7 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 26, 2 p.m.
Tickets • From $14.50 to 95, at utahopera.org
Screening • A free screening of “Joyeux Noël,” the 2005 movie on which “Silent Night” is based, happens Friday, Jan. 17, at 5:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake County Library’s Sandy branch, 10100 Petunia Way, Sandy. “Silent Night” composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell will take part in a Q&A before the movie.
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.