Born at the Minnesota Opera in 2011, “Silent Night” came home last weekend for the first time in seven years. It was a triumphant return. On opening night – the night before Armistice Day, though it was already Armistice Day in Europe by then – a color guard held the American flag while Courtney Lewis led the Minnesota Opera orchestra in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the house lights went down, the audience settled into their seats, the stage lights came on and war was declared.
We spent the next two hours in a Berlin opera house, in bunkers, in No Man’s Land and at a surreal party given by the last crown prince of the German Empire. Men fought, died and were buried. Snow fell. Day turned into night turned into day. It was thrilling, terribly sad and vividly cinematic, with bayonets-flashing, bombs-exploding battle scenes and projections that added depth and realism. Eric Simonson’s staging was superb. The fight scenes (fight director: Douglas Scholz-Carlson) looked shockingly real.
A large revolving platform on the stage took us from one location to another as the story was told of an impromptu Christmas Eve ceasefire between some Allied and German soldiers during World War I. For a few hours, the men experienced peace, camaraderie and humanity. The next day, the fighting resumed.
“Silent Night” was written by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, who were brought together by Dale Johnson, then the opera’s artistic director (now its creative adviser). This was the first time Puts and Campbell had worked as a team. Puts had never written an opera before. Campbell based his libretto on the screenplay for the film “Joyeux Noël.” The world premiere played to standing-room houses at the Ordway.
It’s not unusual for a new opera to find success in its hometown, then fade away. Not so “Silent Night.” In April 2012, it won the Pulitzer Prize for music. In December 2013, a performance recorded in 2011 was broadcast on PBS. It has since had several productions across the U.S., in Montreal, at the Wexford Festival in Ireland and the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. More are scheduled for 2019.
Twenty-first-century opera can be daunting, music-wise. There’s no “O mio babbino caro” in contemporary opera, no “Nessun dorma” or “Habanera.” You won’t leave “Silent Night” humming any tunes, but you will feel the power of the music. Puts’ score is sensuous, poignant and anguished. It can be jarringly dissonant. At times, the strings seem to teeter on a brink, then glide downward to oblivion.
In opera, the focus is often on the music. But operas don’t happen without librettos, and librettos (usually) come first. In Campbell’s libretto for “Silent Night,” the story is clearly drawn and beautifully paced. The characters have their own personalities. And they sing in three languages: the Scots in English (with a Scottish brogue); the Germans in German; the French in French.
In the Ordway’s production, soprano Karen Wolverton reprises her role as the opera singer Anna Sørenson. Miles Mykannen is her lover, Nikolaus Sprink, a tenor whose voice and actions spark the truce. Edward Parks is the cultured French Lt. Audebert, Andrew Wilkowske (also returning) his aide-de-camp Ponchel. He’s a breath of fresh air. People ask him for a haircut when they don’t need one. Troy Cook is Father Palmer, a Scottish priest helpless to prevent young Jonathan Dale (Christian Sanders) from enlisting and later from channeling his grief into cold-hearted vengeance. Each stands out as memorable, believable and fully human.
Two hours of dread, death, and battle would not make an inviting night at the opera. Campbell’s libretto also contains little fireflies of humor, brief flashes that make it OK to smile or laugh. And they always seem to come at the right time.
“Silent Night” is being hailed as a modern classic. We can’t imagine a better production than the one at the Ordway right now, through Nov. 18. Three performances remain: Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. FMI and tickets (start at $25).
Tonight (Wednesday, Nov. 14) at the Parkway: Gabriel Kahane. We first saw singer/songwriter Kahane at the Southern in 2011, where he sang about a sandwich relish and put music to a poem by Galway Kinnell. He was enchanting, and we’ve tried to catch him ever since when he’s come through town. Kahane is touring behind his new album, “The Book of Travelers,” and here’s the story behind it: The day after the 2016 presidential election, he boarded a train at Penn Station and spent two weeks traveling nearly 9,000 miles around the continental U.S. with no phone or internet, talking to dozens of strangers, recording his conversations from memory in a diary. Kahane calls the album “a plea for empathy.” Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8. FMI and tickets ($22/28).
Thursday through Saturday in the MCAD Galleries: MCAD Annual Art Sale. Countless art collections have begun and grown thanks to this signature event, now in its 21st year. Attended by connoisseurs and people who just want something to hang over the sofa, it features thousands of original artworks in all media, all priced less than $1,500 with an average price of under $100. All proceeds go directly to the artists or to MCAD Art Sale Scholarship funds. Expect crowds wandering and digging through paintings, prints and photographs, checking out furniture, sculpture, clothing, toys, ceramics, glass, jewelry and accessories, and watching what other people grab. Opening reception and sale Thursday, 6-9 p.m., with valet parking and appetizers ($150); sale Friday, 6-9 p.m. ($25/30) and Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (free). Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis. FMI and tickets. Preview the show online.
Friday at Artistry: Opening reception for “A Doodle a Day: Ten Year Doodle Journey with Nancy Carlson.” Many children in the Twin Cities and beyond have grown up on picture books by author and illustrator Nancy Carlson – tales of Harriet the dog, Louanne the pig, Henry the mouse, and Loudmouth George the rabbit – that teach without preaching or causing cavities with gooey sweetness. Ten years ago, Carlson began an art project she called Doodle a Day, posting her latest sketch on her website and social media. In late fall 2012, Carlson learned that her beloved husband, Barry McCool, had frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which explained years of personality changes. She kept doodling through a time of grave financial peril, McCool’s decline and his death in 2016. Some of her doodles are sunny, others are not. “A Doodle a Day” is both show and sale. Carlson will be present at the opening. 6-8 p.m. FMI. Free. She’ll also give an artist talk on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m.
Friday and Saturday at the O’Shaughnessy: Karen L. Charles Threads Dance Project: “In the Margins.” Charles has been dancing since she was 5 years old, but she didn’t realize her dream – starting her own dance company – until 2011, when she founded Threads. Its mission is “to examine, expose and celebrate the threads that connect us.” Charles believes that dance can improve humanity and make the world a better place. “In the Margins” reaches out to people who are often marginalized: the deaf/hard of hearing and women. The first half, “To Hear Like Me” incorporates sign language and projections, some with song lyrics. Guest artist Canae Weiss is deaf. The second half, “Femthology,” features works about women from the Threads repertory. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30-5). Here’s more about Charles, the company and the program.
Sunday at Plymouth Congregational Church: “King David.” Organist-choirmaster at Plymouth and founder of VocalEssence Philip Brunelle is celebrating his 50th year at the progressive Minneapolis church like it’s 1999, with one festive event after another. On Sunday, Brunelle will lead the Plymouth Choir and St. Mark’s Cathedral Choir, soloists, actors and celebrity narrators in a performance of Arthur Honegger’s rarely-heard symphonic poem “King David.” With 89 voices, a 16-piece orchestra, and narrators who will bring it – Jearlyn Steele, Don Shelby and Bradley Greenwald – this will be an afternoon to remember. The subject is biblical; the music is a blend of Middle Eastern influences, jazz, Baroque styles and Gregorian chant. 2 p.m. Free, with freewill donations accepted.