While composer Kevin Puts, librettist Mark Campbell, and I were developing Silent Night, one of us—I can’t remember who—mentioned a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse-Five. We were trying to find the right sentient and pitch for the story we were telling. We wanted to express the irony, complexity, and ultimate futility of war. In the prologue of that book, the author, playing himself, tells his friend, an old buddy from World War II, that he’s thinking about writing an antiwar novel. His perplexed friend replies: “Why not just write an anti-glacier novel?”
The thought behind this, of course, is that war is inevitable; it cannot be stopped. There have been wars since the beginning of time—there are wars now, and there will always be wars. How then do we find comfort in this cold hearted truth? How, then, do we find the courage and strength to move on? Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, reach out and touch “the better part of our angels”?
The story of Silent Night, which is a familiar one to anyone with a cursory knowledge of World War I, gets at our heartstrings, because the characters act as we would wish them to act. In the midst of one of the most brutal and horrific wars in history, opposing armies disobey their generals, drop their weapons, walk out of their trenches, and exchange Christmas greetings. Here, in sharp contrast, we see the best part of our human nature. It’s a cry against the insanity of war and evidence of our common humanity.
Silent Night opened seven years ago, on this very stage, in this same production. Since then it has won the Pulitzer Prize and has had dozens of productions, securing its place in the standard opera repertoire. Quite an achievement for Minnesota Opera and everyone who has worked on the New Works Initiative. It was my honor to be a part of it. In my opinion, there is no greater thrill than creating something from nothing.
In that same seven years since the premiere, a lot has happened in our world at large, not necessarily with the start of new wars, but in the hardening of divisions between groups of people with different mindsets and cultures. It feels that now more than ever we are a divided country desperately in need of a reason to come together, to see ourselves in one another. The story of Silent Night, expressed by the soaring and rich score created by Kevin Puts and the libretto by Mark Campbell, is a welcome salve that calls attention to our common humanity. It serves as a reminder that we are all not as far apart as we might think, even though some might try to convince us otherwise.
–Eric Simonson, Stage Director