The Minnesota Opera may be deep in the throes of “Wuthering Heights” on stage at the Ordway in St Paul, but back at the Opera’s rehearsal rooms in Minneapolis they’ve been knee-deep in the trenches of World War I.
This week singers and orchestra have been running through “Silent Night,” the latest Minnesota Opera New Works Initiativecommission. The multi-million dollar program aims to develop and perform new American operas.
“Silent Night,” based on the 2006 film “Joyeux Noel,” tells the story of the 1918 Christmas Truce, where soldiers laid down their weapons, to cross no-mans-land, and celebrate the holiday with the men they had been shooting at just hours before. The production will receive its world premiere at the Ordway on November 12th.
In addition to all the people involved in the Minnesota production watching the workshop representatives from other US opera companies were also in the audience listening in to see if “Silent Night” might be a good fit for them in the future.
Of course listening most intently of all were composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell. Two earlier workshops held over the last year were just for singers and piano, so this was the first time they’d heard the whole production with orchestra.
Puts, who has been working on the score for two years, describes it as an amazing opportunity to have this happen some seven months before the opera opens.
“To try everything with orchestra and just to get an idea of the colors I am using, and if they work,” he said. “And other things too that aren’t just orchestral: issues of pacing and timing, and issues that Mark finds related to the libretto.”
And the libretto is far from simple. As befits a story of the Great War, no fewer than four languages are heard: English, German, French, and Latin.
Campbell says he decided early on that he had to do it in so many tongues.
“I thought it was a very important aspect of these three cultures trying to communicate with each other, and not necessarily knowing each other’s languages,” Campbell said. Starting out with his own French skills he also used translators to make sure everything was correct. He believes the work is worth it though for strengthening the depth and meaning of the opera.
“It made it incredibly challenging,” he said, but he thinks Puts had the tougher task. “Kevin had to set these words and keep the sound of the language in his music.”
Puts says his French is stronger than his German, but the French has been more of a problem as he has tried to match the rhythm of the language to the tempo of the music.
“Essentially everything is, sort of, an equal syllable,” he says of French,”But music is in rhythm, and it’s in meter, and there are divisions of the bar, so you have to choose some syllables that are on strong beats and that’s actually difficult know where those should be sometimes.”
Luckily Campbell says he and Puts collaborate well, almost on an instinctual level, and they have been able to work through the kinks efficiently.
They have discovered a few other hurdles they will have to leap, such as the problem of the bagpipes. The instruments were used by Scottish regiments on the battlefield, even in World War I. Puts said hearing the pipes played in the rehearsal was a learning experience.
“I guess I underestimated the volume of them,” admitted Puts with a smile. “It’s a wonderful color and something we think we need in the opera. Unfortunately you can’t hear the singers when the pipes are playing.”
Puts has some ideas about how they’ll deal with this, but he and Campbell want to keep them quiet for the moment.
Campbell’s work is essentially now done for “Silent Night” until the last minute tweaking at rehearsals later this year.
But Puts is going to be very busy, working through the things they discovered during the workshop.
“There are moments that just are sort of dead,” he said. Those moments will need to be changed. He says he will have to remove the dead time and tie the musical ends together.
“It sounds kind of easy, but it takes some effort,” he grins. “And then some orchestral colors that weren’t just the way I wanted.”
There are moments where he wants to add more time, to let the emotion of a scene expand a little more. In coming months he’ll rewrite the entire orchestral score, and the piano-vocal score which the singers will use for rehearsal, beginning in October.
“A lot of trees get killed,” Campbell laughs.
“But fewer than they used to,” Puts counters. He says he’s though about counting how many emails are in his Minnesota Opera folder after the production is done.
“I think there are about 1500 at this point,” he says.
There’s a lot of work ahead they say, but they like where they are now, and they are looking forward to November.