“We could see lighted matches, and where they couldn’t talk the language, they were making themselves understood by signs. Here we were, laughing and chatting to men who only a few hours before we were trying to kill.”
Cpl. John Fergusen of the Seaforth Highlanders, quoted here in a letter he wrote to his family in Scotland, was one of some 100,000 German, French, English and Scottish soldiers who in one remarkable evening during the first year of World War I — Christmas Eve, 1914 — threw down their weapons, climbed out of their trenches and made the frightening walk across No Man’s Land.
There they mingled with their enemies, exchanged food and souvenirs, sang carols and, at least at one site, played a game of soccer — the Germans beating the English three to two. In some places along the Western Front, which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the truce lasted through Christmas Day — New Year’s Day, in one instance — thereby allowing the troops to retrieve and bury their dead. Then fighting resumed, continuing until 1918 and leaving some 9 million soldiers dead.
The cease-fire, unsanctioned and unplanned, was denounced by commanders on both sides of the conflict. “Any fraternizing with the enemy, unofficial armistices and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting or occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited,” stormed an English brigadier general. And there were repercussions. In one instance, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards was court-martialed for allowing the truce.
The event, known ever since as the Christmas truce, wasn’t reported until a week later, first in the New York Times and then in Europe, and has largely been ignored in histories of the Great War. But that has changed in the past decade. Two nonfiction books have been published on the truce — “Silent Night” by Stanley Weintraub and “Oh Holy Night” by Michael C. Snow — and a screen dramatization, the French film “Joyeux Noël,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2005.
Minnesota Opera, Cantus versions
More immediately, within the next few weeks, Twin Cities audiences will be offered two more versions of the story. The first is a newly commissioned opera with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell that will be premiered by Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center Saturday night. It will run through Nov. 20.
Then, in six performances starting Dec. 15 at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, Hennepin Theater Trust, Theater Latté Da and the male choral ensemble Cantus will present “All Is Calm” by Peter Rothstein. It is a music-theater work based chiefly on documents and songs from World War I that premiered on Minnesota Public Radio in 2007.
Why the initial blackout on the truce? Rothstein, who made two trips to Europe to research the project, theorizes that news of a friendly cease-fire ran counter to war propaganda. “By this time in the war, letters home were already being censored,” he said. “Propaganda, in fact, is thought to have begun with World War One. There was so much effort to convince the Brits that the Germans were rapists and baby-killers. The last thing they wanted to hear was that Tommy and Fritz were celebrating Christmas together.” His text quotes a British radio speech: “Down with the Germans, down with them all. Pull out their tongues, put out their eyes.”
“We’re still uncovering information about the truce,” said Rothstein. “What made the story — and still makes it — so riveting is that it was foot soldiers who executed the truce, and that heroism taps into our idea of the little guy changing the course of history. And I think we’re drawn to it in the performing arts because music was the thing that made the truce happen.”
According to letters and documents, the Germans began the truce by decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, and then continued by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. Christian Carion, who wrote and directed the film, adds an effective but fictional touch: A German tenor sings “Silent Night” as he walks across No Man’s Land alone and then is joined by his fiancée, an operatic soprano. A woman, Rothstein assures us, wouldn’t have been allowed near the trenches at that time.
‘My goodness, there’s an opera plot here’
It was while watching the film on DVD in the summer of 2007 that Minnesota artistic director Dale Johnson hatched the idea of turning “Joyeux Noël” into an opera. The prior season the company had enjoyed considerable success with the premiere of “Grapes of Wrath,” and Johnson was looking for a follow-up. “Seeing the movie, I thought, ‘My goodness, there’s an opera plot here,’ ” he said. He began looking for a composer and encountered the music of Kevin Puts, a young American composer from St. Louis, then living in New York City. While driving, Johnson listened to Puts’ Symphony No. 2 on CD and was intrigued. “If a CD grabs my attention during rush hour, I take note of it,” he said. Johnson knew that Puts had never composed an opera, “but he knows how to build tension into music, and that’s a key,” he said. He called Puts and asked him to see “Joyeux Noël”; he called librettist Mark Campbell and asked him to listen to some of Puts’ music.
Each was impressed. Puts liked the movie, and Campbell gave a thumbs-up to the music he heard. “It’s like there’s a narrative in Kevin’s music, even when there are no words,” Campbell said. “His music is dramatic. Many composers write brilliant symphonies but don’t know how to write operas. Kevin does.” (Puts calls his score for the opera “polystylistic,” and indeed the music speaks in multiple idioms, including a Mozart-like prelude that takes place at the Berlin Opera just as war is announced. Puts wrote all the music, however, including the carols and the battle songs.)
What is it that makes a story suitable for an opera?
“I look for a story that’s larger than life because I’m going to have to write language to validate it so that it suits the music,” Campbell said. “Music and text always elevate a story.”
Cease-fire occurs early in the story
“Silent Night” is not an easy story to tell, since the climax, which is normally near the end of a script or screenplay, occurs early in this instance — the truce itself. Rothstein faced the same problem in creating “All Is Calm.” “I knew I couldn’t tell it in a traditional way because the climax of the story is the lack of conflict. That doesn’t make for good drama,” he said. His solution was to use three actors along with the nine singers of Cantus and to base his text on contemporary letters, propaganda posters, official war documents, transcriptions from gravestones and quotes from World War I poets, mixing these with music of the period. He opens with the recruitment because, as his text makes clear, it was promised that these men would be home for Christmas.
“To me, that was a huge dynamic of what made the truce happen,” he said. “More men died the first winter from influenza than from gunfire. Conditions were much better in the German trenches, whereas the Brits were in water up to their knees, and literally, men’s feet were falling off. So I think they felt that they had been lied to and that they had more in common with the enemy that was at points no more than 50 yards away than they did with their own superiors, who they felt weren’t caring for them.”
For the opera, which has been staged by Eric Simonson — who directed “Grapes of Wrath” and last season’s “Wuthering Heights” — Campbell put the cease-fire at the end of the first act, while hinting that the truce is fragile and that the second act therefore will be full of complications. “It was when I finished the first act that I realized what this story is really about,” he said. “It’s about: How can you continue the nasty business of war when you know who your enemy is?”
Both productions were tested in workshops — three of them, in the case of the opera. “I revised like crazy after every workshop,” said Puts recently. “We’re still making changes, but not major ones. The reason I feel good about this is that we’ve had all this time with the singers and the orchestra. I’m not used to that. Usually, there isn’t time. You show up four days before the premiere, you have three rehearsals, and you can’t make any significant changes. I’m not used to this sort of luxury.”
Hopes for Christmas tradition
“All Is Calm” has already seen wide circulation. The original radio broadcast of the work has been distributed to five continents via American Public Media, and Cantus has performed it live dozens of times in a concert version. (The performances at the Pantages will be minimally staged.) Rothstein has received letters praising the show from people all over the country, many of them veterans. He hopes to make “All Is Calm” a Christmas tradition, which after five years of performances here it probably already is, and he plans eventually to make the work available to other choruses.
Like Rothstein, Campbell hopes that his opera comes to be associated with Christmas, as Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” has been so identified — or, in his words, becoming “The Nutcracker” of the opera world. The opera, he said, “has a message about war and how horrible it is. Maybe it can reach people and say ‘Stop doing this.’ I hope we can influence history in some way.”
In a similar vein, one of Rothstein’s World War I witnesses, Sgt. G.H. Morgan of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, ponders a question as old as the very first wars: “What if we had decided to end the fighting all by ourselves? Could it really have happened like this? If all the troops all along the line had refused to fight, on both sides, would the war have ended right then? If we’d all walked away at that point, could the result have been a truce? I doubt it, but it’s a thought.”
“Silent Night,” a new opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell. Minnesota Opera. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, plus Nov. 15, Nov. 17 and 19; 2 p.m. Nov. 20. Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Tickets $20-$200. 612-333-6669.
“All Is Calm,” a collaboration among Cantus, Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 18. Pantages Theater, 710 Hennepin Av., Minneapolis. Tickets $27.50-$35. 1-800-982-2787.