"Peace is always a possibility"
This March, Arizona Opera will take audiences back to the historic Christmas Truce of 1914 in the acclaimed modern masterwork Silent Night. During the holiday season, librettist Mark Campbell answered some questions we had for him about his experience crafting this acclaimed work, and how this opera continues to speak a relevant message.
What does opera offer an unstable, turbulent modern world?
I think what Silent Night communicates is especially relevant in today's unstable world, in which hate is rampant and comes from a place of ignorance and alienation. The message of Silent Night is not simply that "war is bad", but more specifically that it is simply unsustainable once sworn enemies actually come to know each other and discover their commonality. It is important for us to remember this amazing moment as an actual event when the absurdity of war---in this case, young men hiding in rat-infested trenches a few hundred yards away from one another for month upon month-- came into clear focus, and was quickly stamped out by those in charge.
How does opera speak to the human condition, regardless of era and place?
There are scenes in Silent Night that I think speak to us all: a young lieutenant imagining his wife back at home, comforting a child he has never met while the war rages on; a German officer torn between his sense of duty and his sense of compassion; a young French man who risks great danger just to see his mother one last time. These are feelings and motivations we can all understand. Mark Campbell has written a libretto which allows us to care deeply for its characters.
In the case of Silent Night, how does opera use music to evoke the visceral realities of World War I?
I refused to limit myself with respect to musical language when I wrote Silent Night. I knew that the music would need to traverse a great emotional range, from the horrors of close combat to moments of intimacy and reflection. As my students know, I like a lot of music. Silent Night is influenced as much by Penderecki as it is by Puccini! And hopefully my "voice" is in there somewhere...
In your view, what accounts for the timelessness of opera?
The combination of music, story and the human voice can work together to create something more powerful and emotionally evocative than any one of those elements alone.
How does Silent Night resonate with audiences today?
Based on Christian Carrion’s screenplay for the movie Joyeux Noël, is a fictionalized account of one of the Christmas truces in 1914. The story still engages deeply with audiences because people want to believe, especially during these woefully divisive times, that peace is always a possibility. I also think that Kevin Puts’ music is among the very best ever composed for an opera—he’s not afraid to reach for the heart.
How has opera evolved with the times? What differentiates modern-day opera from those of years past? What has remained the same?
You’d have to ask an expert in opera history about that. But I think we’ve seen an upsurge in contemporary American operas in the last ten years because my colleagues and I are endeavoring to create new works that more directly connect with the world around us, while eschewing the cultural elitism that has often plagued opera in the past. I also think that forward-thinking opera companies, like Arizona Opera, are finding ways to cultivate new audiences and help them experience the power of the form in a new way. If anything has remained the same, it’s that ineffable power of music, story and voice. That won’t change.