Librettist Mark Campbell and I last spoke when he was mentoring young librettists in a “supportive role” for Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. Now Campbell is front and center for Silent Night, his highly acclaimed opera with Kevin Puts – for which Puts won a 2012 Pulitzer for musical composition – at Washington National Opera.
Silent Night is based on a film which in turn is based on the famous spontaneous ceasefire event when, after World War I had been declared and young men from so many nations were sent into battle. On Christmas Eve somewhere near Belgium, homesick soldiers from the French, German, and Scottish lines began singing songs of home, and these men laid down their weapons, climbed out of the trenches, and shared food, songs and stories for what is remembered as a miraculous night of peace. It opens November 10 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
Susan: What has changed for you both since this piece was first produced in Minnesota in 2011?
Mark: Well, Kevin and I are both genuinely surprised by the huge success the opera has had. So many operas open and do well, and find audiences that like them, and then they die.
Silent Night has had something like 16 productions – What do you attribute it to?
Well, the Pulitzer certainly helps. But there are other things. The opera goes to the heart in a very direct way. Kevin’s music is about telling a story, and the music pours out from his heart, and people feel this. There is a body of contemporary opera that never reach out to an audience in that way.
Washington National Opera
November 10 – 25, 2018
Details and tickets
Do you think some contemporary operas get derailed by too much clever artiness?
Mmmm…I think you’re touching on something. I don’t know the intention behind them, but let’s say they don’t reach across the footlights.
This production is a commemorative one, celebrating the centennial of the WWI Armistice. Do you think people now are hungering more desperately than ever for a truce, some kind of common ground, a feeling that may resonate with what those WWI soldiers, pitted against each other by their leaders, were also feeling?
[Laughing] That’s a leading question, but lead on. I’m damned exhausted! And this country is being hollowed out where the things most of us believed in are being scooped away by this madman in the White House and his minions. We all keep wondering why his little friends don’t tell him to stop. But that’s not the whole of it. This opera also found success under the last administration. I believe people are looking for operas driven by character and story.
My detractors might say the music or my writing is conservative. It’s not conservative! What this work and my work has in general is a clear story. And Kevin is unafraid to write music from his heart. For instance, I defy anyone not to be moved by Kevin’s music for the battle scene. Going back to what we were saying before, in much contemporary so-called serious music there is a lot of cultural elitism and, in opera in particular, creators sometimes produce clever, dystopian and angry works. But those operas leave a lot of empty seats in the theatre.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about the alternative of creating or attending only sentimental works. Silent Night is an opera about war, and the battlefields that are mentioned at the end of this opera should bring a realization that every soldier in this piece is going to his death. But it’s reminding us that this moment of peace happened before and asking us perhaps, ‘How can we make it happen again?’ I certainly chose to tell this story out of many other war stories because I want to create a hopeful message.
What inspired you to write this opera with Kevin?
Neither of us chose the subject. Dale Johnson from Minnesota chose the subject for the opera. He had heard Kevin’s music, although at that time Kevin had never written an opera. Dale recognized that there was a strong element of narrative in Kevin’s music. He called me and said, “Watch the movie and listen to this composer’s music and get back to me on Tuesday.” I think it was a Friday. So I watched the movie and I listened, and I thought that Kevin is a guy who isn’t afraid. As for the movie, I thought that it’s too large a canvas and I remember thinking I’d probably put humor in it to balance the sentimentality.
I also told myself I’d have to tarnish up the opera singers who in the movie are rather heroic, and that making a modern opera where the two opera characters are the heroes would be a little too self-referential and aggrandizing. But I was definitely interested. But when I told Dale, he said, “Okay, we’ll look at all the librettists and get back to you.” So I urged him to be sure to hire an experienced librettist who could talk to the composer, director, conductor, and cast and so on!
Then Dale put in another step, “ I want you to meet Kevin.’ We were both living in New York at that time. We met downtown and sat on a corner over a bottle of wine. I think we talked about everything except the opera. I wanted to make sure he was a pacifist. By the end of it and he stood up he said, “Do you think we should do it?” And I think I said, “Yes, let’s go forward. “I did put out one idea I had about having three different chorus groups, singing in different languages French, German, and English. He liked that.
Some people say opera is an art form that has to apologize always for being sung in a foreign language. Here, unapologetically, you have written and the performers will be singing in Scot-English, German, French, Italian, and Latin. You write operas in English. What was something you found about writing in these different languages?
I made a really determined choice with that, and some people tried to talk me out of it. One thing ideal about incorporating all these languages is that I can create more conflict if they can’t speak with each other. The characters have distinctly different worlds so there is real justification for conflict in the realm of the libretto. I also didn’t want to hear a Pépé Le Piu or Colonel Klink bad accent. Opera singers are trained in all these languages, why not celebrate this? Opera houses most often have surtitle technology so we could make use of those. As we began working, other advantages popped out at us such as if you have two characters speaking two languages you need a third person to translate, so it’s magical: duet becomes trio. All the characters are trying to make themselves understood, and that gives us another opportunity for humor.
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Tell me a little about the characters.
Christian Carion created several of them in the original movie writing. I combined some of the characters and, as I said, I made the tenor and soprano less noble. They’re more flawed in the opera. I reduced a lot of locations, so it mostly takes place on the battlefield. So you have to create a moment to end Act I. We thought to end Act I with a Christmas truce. The story shows us that war is not sustainable if you know the other side is human. Act II then becomes more painful because of a hyper-awareness of everyone’s shared humanity.
In this production, the roles are being taken by what has been called the “WNO family,” members of the Domingo-Cafritz Training Program and alumni. For me that has always meant singers who are also trained actors and whose work is deeply emotional, nuanced, and very clearly motivated and specific. What are you hoping might be something new brought out by this cast?
I’m very excited about what this cast will bring. But I’ve been to almost every single opening night of this opera, and I am always excited about what the new singers will bring. There’s a smaller production from the Wexford that is touring. This is a big production, like the first one in Minnesota. Every one has brought wonderful surprises. Tom (Tomer Zvulum) has directed this opera before, and he knows deeply what the story is and what to bring out in every performer.
Would you say something more about the special relationship you develop with the director?
I work really hard to tell a certain story, and I love it when a director loves telling the same story.
That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the heart of music-theater collaboration.
Absolutely. When I sign my contract, I want to know up front who the director is. In fact, I usually give my libretto to a director first so not to waste a composer’s time. Eric Simonson directed the first production. I felt immediately we were telling the same story.
With Kevin, it was important he understand musically how to write for comedy. I wanted to add more humor to the libretto not only to draw a close connection to the audience but to give the characters what I think was a real way to relieve their worries. Humor is my easiest way and most direct way for writing about humanity.
In my research I found a joke about this event, where one soldier said, “We will die before we sing Christmas carols in German.” And the German replied, “We would die hearing you sing carols in German!” But a composer has to know how to set a line like that. It can’t go on for several bars. It can’t have melismas.
Working with Kevin, it must be like Duponte felt working with Mozart because the composer understood dramatic movement forward. Kevin has such an innate understanding of musical storytelling. I remember when I first went up to his house in the country where he was writing, and he sat me down at his piano and he was playing the music and I just started crying, and not just because it was gorgeous music. It was because I had found a composer who wrote music from his heart.
I noticed there has been a commitment and very generous invitation sent to veterans to come see this show. What has been the response before? And what would you say to veterans who might not be familiar with the opera form?
It’s exciting. We’ve had veterans attend every production. I want to be clear, this opera is not anti-veteran. My father fought in WWII. I lost my uncle in that war. I always want to say, “Thank you for your service that protected me and gave me the opportunity to write this work.”
Veterans love this opera. It’s a piece that recognizes that soldiers are human beings not machines. How, as a soldier, you want to do right. But I also want to remind them that soldiers are people with wills of their own when they lay down their guns and try to get along.
Is this opera your plea for peace? Can we get there, do you think?
I’m only a librettist. But I am also a pacifist and anti-nuclear. I hope so.