History Deconstructed

December 20, 2011.By Becki Iverson, Twin Cities Metro Magazine.

Part concert, part recitation, and part pantomime, All Is Calm is an entirely unique approach to the season's most popular Christmas story.

The show uses the inimitable vocal stylings of Cantus, the nine-piece male vocal group, and three actors to simply tell the story of the Christmas Truce, which occurred on the first Christmas of World War I in 1914.

As the story goes, each nation embroiled in the war had promised its troops that they would be home by Christmas. When they weren't, the soldiers defied all executive orders and called a ceasefire over the holiday. Instead, they sang Christmas carols, played games and buried each other's dead. Those who participated were later severely reprimanded for their actions, and the Christmas Truce was not repeated.

As creator Peter Rothstein (of Theater Latte Da fame) writes, "The propaganda machine of war is powerful, and news of soldiers fraternizing across enemy lines would [ ... ] readily undermine public support for the war. The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks -- the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic -- those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place. Their story puts a human face on war, and that's the story I hope to tell."

The Christmas Truce was only made possible through the power of music, as each regiment heard foreign soldiers in nearby trenches singing familiar carols in different tongues. These songs bridged other cultural gaps between the soldiers, and All Is Calm rightly focuses itself on these traditional soldier songs and carols.

Rather than imagining a narrative in which to tell this special story, Rothstein chose to only use text created by the soldiers of World War I. Vignettes and songs were selected from diaries, letters, museums, radio broadcasts and more after he extensively researched the Christmas Truce abroad.

The staging Rothstein chose is also basic, with each performer attired in black winter clothing and a simple set of crates and platforms, leaving the audience free to focus on the text.

The effect of this "history deconstructed" structure is uniquely elegant. Many of the soldiers' quotes are eloquent and simple, and are beautifully juxtaposed with Cantus.

Cantus' vocals are perfect for the show, which Rothstein wrote specifically for them. They are layered and reflect the reality of the battlefield, where often the only thing the soldiers had to make music with was their voices. Cantus rearranged some traditional carols ("0 Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night" being the loveliest and eeriest of them), and their lonely deliveries of battlefield songs such as "Will Ye Go To Flanders?" bring a haunting sadness to the story.

The show's actors (Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson), also do a fine job despite some inconsistent regional accents. They help the show clip by at an intermission-less 75 minutes.

All Is Calm first premiered in 2007, and the Hennepin Theatre Trust continues to stage the show each year at Christmas time to remind audiences of one of the most magical Christmas tales of all. It is a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of the corporatized holiday season, reminding us all that sometimes the best gives we receive are the simplest ones.

Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia

December 18, 2011.By Madeline Salmon, TC Daily Planet.

On December 24, 1914, a German soldier emerged from the trenches in Ypres, Belgium lighting candles and singing "Stille Nacht." The British troops on the other side chose not to shoot him. Instead, soldiers from both sides stepped into No Man's Land and enemies started "shaking hands like a couple of long lost school chums," in the words of one British sergeant. So began the Christmas truce of the first year of World War I, the event celebrated in Peter Rothstein's All Is Calm.

The program -- a collaboration between Theater Latte Da, Hennepin Theatre Trust, and the male ensemble Cantus, who provide the stunning and almost ceaseless vocals -- is not quite a play, but more like a vocal retelling of history. The musical pieces, arranged by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, range from folk songs to Christmas carols to drinking jigs. The singers do some acting, though most of the speaking (and there is quite a bit) is done by three actors who recite letters and other texts written by the men who experienced the truce. The words of those soldiers, beautifully arranged by Rothstein, speak more truth than any original script ever could.

The show looks lovely as well, with a set and costumes highlighted by nothing but their simplicity and a marvelous use of fog machines to set the tone. And its setting in the Pantages Theatre (built during World War I in 1916) couldn't be more ideal.

At 75 minutes, the program doesn't do much more than recount that Christmas Eve in 1914, and it does so with artistry and elegance. But it does take the time to touch on the horrors surrounding this night of peace, an event that was never repeated. Reflecting on the meaning of Christmas in the midst of war, one German soldier asks, "Poor little God of love, how could you have ever loved mankind?"

With nine million soldiers dead by the end of World War I, that question lingers. All Is Calm avoids the mistake of guiding us toward an easy answer. It celebrates the joy felt by the men who transformed No Man's Land into "Every Man's Land," but it also mourns the strife that forced those same men back down into the trenches.

Because of the show's sheer beauty we are left with this imperfect, but not all together unsatisfactory, answer to the soldier's question. The story of the Christmas truce teaches us that at our best we are capable of laying down our guns and lifting our voices as one.


A separate peace

December 17, 2011.By Matt McGeachy, Minnesota Playlist.

On December 15, 2011, the United States formally ended its military mission in Iraq, marking the end of eight years of war that left thousands of troops dead, hundreds of thousands civilians dead or wounded, and many more cynical and disheartened citizens both here and abroad. For many of us it was a senseless and disheartening war, of dubious legality, fed by lies and deceit from our elected officials, reminding us (as if we needed any more reminding) that the machinations of history happen without our consent and outside our control. So Thursday was not quite a cause for celebration as it was a sobering reminder of what havoc men (and women) blinded by power can wreck. It was in this frame of mind that I saw opening night of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, about another senseless and disheartening war where the small people -- people like you and me -- were excluded from the machinations of history except for on one starry, snowy night: Christmas Eve, 1914.

In the midst of yet more war, in the spirit of the many soldiers in the trenches of the First World War, Cantus and Theatre Latte Da have created a show of remarkable beauty, poise, and dignity that escapes neither into sentimentality, despite the Christmas music fare, nor tragedy, despite the dark subject matter. The result is an evening of beautiful music and fine stagecraft that has deservedly become part of the Twin Cities' holiday show traditions.

Originally conceived, according to the program notes, as a radio drama, the evening begins with the men of Cantus singing a prelude medley of traditional English carols, arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The medley includes some well-known carols, such as "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" as well as lesser-known songs with a stronger English flavor, such as a beautiful rendition of the "Coventry Carol" (now perhaps well-known to Twin Cities audiences from its prominent feature in the Guthrie's new Christmas Carol). The prelude concludes and the men of Cantus take formation on risers upstage as fog rolls in and three actors (Matt Rein, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson) enter with wooden crates. These three actors, with help from the choir, will play nearly 30 different historical characters from both sides of the First World War.

Author and director Peter Rothstein opts to let these historical characters speak for themselves, using snippets of letters and other material to convey the evolving sentiment toward a war that politicians hoped would "be over by Christmas" but in the end cost over 8 million lives and countless million more permanent disabilities. Beginning with the youthful excitement of young men heading off to war and accompanied by such optimistic songs as Irving Berlin's "Come on and Join" and the anthem "God Save the King," eventually the grim reality of war sets in, and songs such as "I Want to Go Home" by Lt. Gitz Rice perfectly capture the fading excitement and the realization that one might die in the trenches, far away from all one had known.

When, in 1914, Pope Benedict XV proposed a Christmas truce, the Allied commanders arrogantly rejected it. But, bravely and spontaneously, the men on both sides of the trenches started singing carols, and then celebrated with each other in the No Man's Land between the battle lines. Cantus sings such classics as "0 Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night" in beautiful cappella arrangements, and for a brief moment on the battlefield, ordinary men achieved what their leaders and even the Pope could not: a reprieve from fighting. A Christmas truce.

The peace did not last through the night. On orders from commanders, the troops withdrew back to their trenches and began shooting and shelling the very men that only an hour before had been their companions in celebration; once again fighting for hollow notions of national glory and the boundless arrogance of generations of inbred monarchs.

Marcus Dilliard's lighting design provides maximum theatricality with minimal set, and the simple black outfits from costume designer Christine Richardson perfectly capture the idea that we are visualizing a radio drama. This is a true ensemble show, and each performer fully carried his weight. But greatest credit must go to Rothstein and musical arrangers Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, whose music and story seamlessly intertwined.

Perhaps because the Frist World War is a lesser part of American mythology, or perhaps because each character came and went so quickly, I found myself connecting to this production more on an intellectual level than an emotional level. Nevertheless, when one of the soldiers mused on what the world would have been like had the whole armies refused to fight, I couldn't help but reflect on the hundreds of thousands dead from our current wars and wonder, what if ... ?

This Christmas, I hope you'll join me in enjoying the beautiful show All Is Calm, and in reminding ourselves to always, always ask, what if we choose peace?

Cantus, Theater Latte Da, and Hennepin Theatre Trust present All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 Written and directed by Peter Rothstein Musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach At the Pantages Theatre until December 18 710 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis

All Is Calm, a production of Cantus, Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust

December 15, 2011.By Sophie Kerman, Aisle Say Twin Cities.

In Cantus/Theater Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust's meditative and moving production of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, more is happening beneath the surface than initially meets the eye. Centered around the events of Christmas 1914, in which British, German and French troops famously declared a temporary truce, All Is Calm tells the story of this short-term peace through the music that may have inspired it. (For more about the play's development process and director Peter Rothstein's artistic choices, see here.) Carols and patriotic songs from both sides of the trenches are woven together with quotations from real WWI soldiers, including celebrated poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The resulting tapestry is less an anti-war piece -- or even a Christmas play -- than a reflection on the power of art to cross ideological and territorial lines.

The power behind the production comes from a combination of several elements. First, Rothstein's simple staging allows the audience to focus on the text being sung and spoken. Rothstein writes that he imagined the piece as a radio drama, since that would have been the medium a World War I soldier would have best related to. Although modern audiences are less familiar with the format, in this case it works well: the movements of the twelve men on stage direct our attention to the content through gracefully choreographed patterns of movement and stillness.

The readings by actors Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson are equally well-balanced. The three men do not speak to each other, but their separate monologues seem to flow naturally from the progression of the music and the narrative. The pace of the action, however, comes not from the actors but from the nine singers of Cantus, an all-male vocal group. Cantus is the kind of musical ensemble who, to be blunt, could make sorting the recycling sound beautiful; the vocalists blend so fluidly that even their vibrato seems synchronized. Even so, they seem to infuse this performance with all their heart and emotion, particularly when it comes to the moments of nostalgia for home.

The men on stage build the perfect combination of voices to argue for music's ability to bridge linguistic gaps and create solidarity, first in recruiting soldiers to war and then in uniting two opposing sides. If only we could learn to harmonize with one another, the play suggests, we would realize just how much humanity we all share.

In creating this space to meditate on war, however, the play raises some interesting questions for today's political entanglements. The "Christmas spirit"- staged here as the driving force behind this brief ceasefire - was something shared across both sides of the World War I hostilities; German troops could sing "Stille Nacht" in unison with their English foes' "Silent Night." The seemingly simple gesture of a shared holiday tradition does not translate as easily in the modern-day Middle East, when an invitation to sing carols around a Christmas tree could be read as insensitive - or at worst, culturally imperialistic.

In re-creating of a moment of peace and unity that miraculously emerged in the midst of World War I, All Is Calm expresses the wish that our soldiers could all just lay down their arms and recognize that their common longings for home and loved ones ultimately matter more than the war they optimistically enlisted to fight. But a lot has changed in the last hundred years, and the enemies we are fighting no longer subscribe to a shared set of religious or cultural beliefs. Does All Is Calm's unifying vision extend to those who do not share the same sentiments around Christmas? What songs would the soldiers in Afghanistan have to sing to create their own ceasefire?

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by Peter Rothstein. At Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403. December 15-18, 2011. Tickets $15-35 from 800-982-2787 or online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org.

All Is Calm offers peace on an intimate scale

December 15, 2011.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press.

What happens when something small, simple and straightforward becomes the basis for something big, splashy and spectacular?

Such is the case with the story of the Christmas truce of 1914. It's an inspiring tale, one in which Allied and German soldiers serenaded one another with Christmas carols across a Belgian battlefield, then climbed out of their trenches to celebrate the holiday together.

Twin Cities audiences were introduced to the details of the story four years ago when "All Is Calm" was first staged by Theater Latte Da and the male vocal group Cantus, a production currently being revived at Minneapolis' Pantages Theatre. But, last month, the Minnesota Opera blew the story up to eye-popping proportions with "Silent Night," a new opera by Kevin Puts that gave a sense of the enormity of war, a giant cast making its way around a complex rotating set.

But "All Is Calm" holds its own by offering a distinctly different take on the same events.

The opera did a very impressive job of conveying the chaos of battle and the grand import of the decision to humanize the enemy, but "All Is Calm" makes it much more intimate and individual, the  simplicity of its staging underlining the premise that peace is still a person-to-person thing.

That comes through very clearly when you only have 12 performers, a set of risers and three wooden crates onstage. Starlight, snow and fog are the extent of the technical trickery, so this is a production that must succeed on story and song. And it does so, thanks to Peter Rothstein's judicious selections from letters and documents, brought to life by actors Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson.

But especially thanks to the nine men of Cantus, whose harmonies are the heart and spirit of this work. It is they who vividly convey the combination of excitement and fear as soldiers answer the call to arms, their sadness as death tolls mount, and the hope and wonder as the truce ensues. The stories are strong, but it's the music that makes "All Is Calm" such a touching experience.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at rhubbard@pioneerpress.com.

What: Cantus, Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust's production of "All Is Calm" by Peter Rothstein

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Tickets: $35-$15, available at 800-982-2787 or hennepintheatretrust.org

Capsule: An intimate, involving story well sung.

City Pages A*List

December 15, 2011.By Brad Richason, City Pages.

As a launch to the 2011 holiday season, local arts aficionados received a magnificent gift with the world premiere of Silent Night, the Minnesota Opera's stirring take on a remarkable historic event in which opposing WWI forces set aside their weapons for an observation of yuletide tranquility. The inspiring storyline, however, is not entirely new to area stages. Since 2007, Theater Latté Da and Cantus have pooled their formidable talents into All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Conceived by Theater Latté Da's founding artistic director, Peter Rothstein, the play enlists a trio of performers (Matt Rein, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson) to recite first-person narratives drawn from the extraordinary event, including diary entries, letters from the front, and recorded testimonials. Musical arrangers Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach further amplify the poignancy by alternating the readings with a multinational songbook of Christrnas carols and traditional folk songs. Channeled through the impeccably layered vocals of chamber ensemble Cantus, songs combine with stories in paying solemn tribute to a universal humanity indivisible by dogmatic ideologies and national identities. In these ever combative times, such unbroken harmony represents nothing less than a genuine yuletide miracle. $27.50-$35. 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. 710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.339.7007. Through Sunday.

All Is Calm returns for annual Minneapolis run

December 14, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Over the years, vocal group Cantus and Theater Latte Da have crafted a new holiday tradition with the annual presentation of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. The piece collects music, poems, and remembrances of that singular event, when soldiers from both sides of No Man's Land stopped shooting to celebrate the season of peace.

"It's such a poignant story," says Cantus's Aaron Humble. "So much Christmas programming is saccharine sweet, and this definitely goes deeper. We all appreciate that."

"It speaks to the audience," adds director and writer Peter Rothstein. "I think we underestimate what our audience wants. We don't have to create fluff for Christmas. The success of the show is a testament to the audience who wants something meaningful. They want something that moves them."

The piece merges vocal performances by the eight members of Cantus with a trio of actors (David Roberts, Alan Sorenson, and newcomer Matt Rein), who retell the remarkable events that played out over the frozen battlefield, creating an all-too-brief pause in one of the bloodiest periods of the 20th century. Since its debut several years ago, the piece has become tremendously popular in all of its versions.

Between Thanksgiving and the performances at the Pantages, Cantus tours the country with the concert version of the show. In Minneapolis, the full version -- including the music, actors, and other set pieces -- are brought together.

"Minneapolis is the only place we do the full, staged production with costume and lights, and there's a real satisfying feeling to it," Humble says.

Part of the 2011 edition of the piece is a new actor, Rein. "It's the first time we've had a new actor in it, and I think that's good for the company; to have new blood see it with fresh eyes, and to put their own stamp on it," Rothstein says.

Though the show includes many familiar carols, along with World War I-era favorites audiences may recognize, the events that surround it provide a fresh context. Even a prelude of carols is tied to the Great War. They were arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams for the men he served with in the medical corps.

During each of the recollections, the soldier's name is included. "I love that these characters, who are not names in the history books, have their names said out loud every time the show plays. I love that these names are said aloud across the country as part of this piece of history they were in," Rothstein says.


All Is Calm Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis Thursday-Sunday $25-$35 For information and tickets, call 1.800.982.2787 or visit online.

Declaring a Truce: Bringing World War I Back to Life

December 12, 2011.By Sophie Kerman, Aisle Say Twin Cities.

Twin Cities audiences might notice an interesting phenomenon this holiday season: two different productions of the same story. Both the Minnesota Opera‘s world premiere of Silent Night and the reprise of the Cantus/Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust production of All Is Calmstage the incredible Christmas Eve of 1914, when German, English and French forces laid down their weapons and called a truce. Silent Night, which ran from November 12-20, met with rave reviews both here on Aisle Say Twin Cities and in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Star Tribune; All is Calm premiered in 2007 and has been re-staged every December since. (This year it will be presented in a limited run at Pantages, only six performances from December 15-18.)

So what makes this story so special? And why have these two different companies chosen this particular story to stage during this holiday season?

Although the tale of the Christmas Truce has become legendary, it is based on true historical accounts of an improbable Christmas night when enemy soldiers temporarily joined together to sing carols, eat and drink together, play soccer, and bury their dead. The message of the play is clearly a positive one, but the emphasis depends on which director you ask.

Peter Rothstein, the creator and director of All Is Calm, describes the courage of the soldiers brave enough to cross No Man’s Land:

The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks – the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic – those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place. Their story puts a human face on war, and that’s the story I hope to tell.

Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of the Minnesota Opera, sees in the story our need to connect with each other in spite of differences:

This is also this time of year when we all yearn for signs of hope that things can be better. We are presently in a period in history in which people are demonized because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation, their political beliefs. It is a time of forced and created hatred and animosity. The reason people gravitate towards SILENT NIGHT and ALL IS CALM, is because they tell of one brief period during one of the most brutal wars in history, where people of differing views and histories laid down their arms as well as their misconceptions and hatreds and celebrated together.

The subtle differences between the two productions don’t end with their message. Silent Night andAll is Calm both use music as a way into this story, but they take two vastly different approaches. Silent Night, a full-length opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, will be unfamiliar to audiences except for a very few songs used to powerful effect. As a result, both the words and the music command the viewer’s attention, playing off one another for dramatic effect. As Dale Johnson explains:

[Campbell's] libretto is moving but not verbose. He really allows the composer’s voice to come through brilliantly. Often times these days, new operas are too wordy. That was definitely not the case with Silent Night. We chose an orchestra composer deliberately so that the orchestral moments of the piece were not simply filler but integral parts of the storytelling.

All Is Calm, on the other hand, offers both familiar and historically-accurate Christmas tunes, including well-known French, German and British carols such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as well as patriotic and trench songs that could have been sung at the time. Musical arranger Eric Lichte explains,

All Is Calm allows Cantus to sing Christmas carols that everyone knows and loves, but when set in the context of trench warfare, take on a new poignancy. Music was an important part of life in the trenches and one of the primary factors that instigated the truce.

In the style of a radio play that the WWI characters might actually have listened to, the music is woven together with readings by actors Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson, who present letters, journal entries and official documents from thirty real World War I figures. Rothstein traveled to Europe to conduct the research for the production, and it is clear that he was deeply affected by the experience:

It was incredibly powerful to stand on the very spot where this extraordinary happening took place. For decades, the Christmas truce was considered a romantic fable, however there is no doubt thousands of courageous men took part in this remarkable event.

Both All Is Calm and Silent Night spring from their creators’ deep personal connections to the material, so your choice of which performance to see would depend only on whether you are more excited by the prospect of a live-action radio play or by the complex layering of sound in Puts’ opera. But given the appearance of these two productions in the same year, you’ve got to wonder about the present-day resonance of this almost century-old story. As Johnson says:

I think we all want peace. We are tired of the animosity and hatred. We are tired of being told what to think, what to believe, who to hate. The Christmas season purports to be about peace on earth. Oh, if only that could happen.

If only.

Stage spotlight: All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

December 10, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Cantus and Theater Latte Da return with this beautiful little classic -- one of the best ways to mark the holiday season. Director Peter Rothstein first brought this story of the 1914 Christmas truce to the stage in 2007. Spontaneous outbreaks of peace occurred along the front lines of World War I as soldiers on both sides exchanged gifts, retrieved their dead comrades and sang together. Cantus fills the 90-minute show with historic military songs and Christmas carols.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. Tickets:$25-$35. 1-800-982-2787, or ticketmaster.com

All Is Calm is a 'sure thing' and 'must see'

December 2011.By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

The Culture Meter: Sure Thing All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 The Cantus men's vocal ensemble has honed this show -- a musical retelling of the remarkable Christmas in World War I when soldiers agreed to stop fighting and bury each other's dead -- into a heart-wrenching gem. Bring lots of Kleenex.

Three to See All Is Calm Theater Latte Da and Cantus revive the new holiday tradition All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, about a day of peace amid the carnage of World War I.

Opera toy drive, theater discount for veterans

November 11, 2011.By Kathy Berdan, Pioneer Press.

During the Minnesota Opera's run of the new opera "Silent Night," which is based on the Christmas Eve truce of 1914, the opera is asking audience members to help support military families by bringing a new, unwrapped toy to a performance at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

"Silent Night" runs Saturday through Nov. 20. For more info on the toy drive, go to mnopera.org/toys4military kids or call 612-342-9565.

Theater Latte Da and the chorus Cantus are performing "All Is Calm" at Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. It's based on the same World War I event as the Minnesota Opera's "Silent Night," and veterans can get a special discount.

"All Is Calm" runs Dec. 15-18. Ask for special military pricing when ordering tickets at 800-982-2787 or HennepinTheatreTrust.org.

'Silent Night' and 'All Is Calm' depict Christmas truce of 1914

November 9, 2011.By Michael Anthony, MinnPost.

"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 until1918 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 lain 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 Noel," 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 Theatre in Minneapolis, Hennepin Theatre Trust, Theater Latte 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 fiancee, 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 Noel" 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 Noel"; 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 "Amah I 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. 7:30p.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 Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust. 7:30p.m. Dec. 15 and 16; 2 and 7:30p.m. Dec. 17; 1 and 6:30p.m. Dec. 18. Pantages Theater, 710 Hennepin Av., Minneapolis. Tickets $27.50-$35. 1-800-982-2787.

When the guns were silenced, it was music that filled the air

November 4, 2011.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press.

They were supposed to be home by Christmas. At least that's what the soldiers had been told. But Christmas Eve 1914 arrived, and they were huddled in burrows in Belgium, entrenched within a city block of the enemy, so close they could hear them singing carols.

Experiences vary as to who stepped out first, but soon several battlefields along the western front were filled with unarmed men singing songs with the soldiers they had been firing at hours before. They exchanged handshakes, gifts, conversations. Some played soccer, chaplains presided over Christmas services. They buried their dead. Some of these impromptu truces lasted hours, others up to a week.

Then the battles began again.

The soldiers' governments tried to keep things quiet about the Christmas truce of 1914, and it remained largely a part of oral tradition until the past decade. Then there were books, museum exhibits and parallel efforts to create a dramatic work out of the stories. Poring over documents in European archives almost simultaneously were French filmmaker Christian Carion and Minneapolis-based theater artist Peter Rothstein. Their research resulted in Carion's 2005 film "Joyeux Noel" and a musical theater piece called "All Is Calm" that Rothstein created with the male vocal group Cantus. It premiered in 2007 and has been restaged every December since.

In 2008, the Minnesota Opera commissioned composer Kevin Puts to write an opera based on Carion's film. "Silent Night" premieres Saturday at St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

What makes this story so powerful that it inspired artists in three disciplines? We had conversations with Carion (movie), Puts (opera) and Rothstein (stage) and asked each to talk about why and how they wanted to tell the tale.

Where did you first come into contact with the story?

Carion: I was born on the battlefield but not during the first war. That's why I always read books about this conflict. In 1991, I discovered by chance, in a book, one page about the fraternizations of Christmas 1914. Reading this page, I hardly believed it could have happened! I contacted the writer, a historian. Looking at the pictures taken by the soldiers themselves, tears came that I couldn't stop.

Rothstein: I first heard about it through singer-songwriter John McCutcheon, who wrote a song called "Christmas in the Trenches." I liked the song but always thought that it was kind of a piece of fiction. And then a book came out called "Silent Night." I bought it immediately and was quickly trying to figure out a way to turn it into a piece for the stage.

Puts: I have to credit Dale Johnson, the artistic director of the Minnesota Opera, with the birth of the project. It was his idea, and he was basically looking for someone to write an opera based upon the film "Joyeux Noel," which he saw and was extremely moved by. Dale said that he listened to my music and immediately knew that I was the guy to do the project. I watched the film and thought that this would make a great opera and that what I do compositionally would be a good fit for it.

How much of what you created is fact, and how much is fiction inspired by fact?

Carion: All these true stories happened in different places along the front line. I decided to imagine they all happened in one place, where the three armies (French, German and British) were together. I discovered a story about an actress who succeeded in coming and seeing her man on the front line. I decided to give more importance to that story.

Rothstein: We use carols that we know they sang in the trenches but also parodies of songs popular at the time, like "Lord Kitchener's Army" sung to the tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band." And after the truce is over, the soldiers singing the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" with the only lyrics being, "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here." I thought that articulated the soldiers' perspective so well.

Puts: There were carols exchanged between the soldiers, but we decided to compose our own Christmas carols. Every piece of music in the opera is original. I wrote a slice of opera a la Mozart, a bit of lieder in the Schubert style that they sing for the German crown prince, some battle songs for the German, Scottish and French that you hear in the prologue.

Could you talk more about music's place in telling the story?

Carion: A bagpipe or a harmonica always started the fraternizations. And "Silent Night" was a hit in every country.

Rothstein: I don't think that there's any way the truce would have happened without song, without music. We know that it was the singing of "Silent Night" that brought the men out of the trenches, but in the weeks leading up to that, we know that the men had been singing to one another, kind of giving impromptu concerts. It was music that ended up building a common language.

Puts: There are scenes in the film like Anna Sorensen, the Danish soprano, going to the front and singing to the troops. I could just imagine her singing to them and them perhaps singing in response. And I thought of orchestral interludes, much in the manner of what Benjamin Britten did in "Peter Grimes." There's something about the tone of the film. It's sad, it's tragic, but tragedy interrelates to beauty and hope, and I think that kind of harmonic sound palette is a big part of my music.

What would you like to be the greatest legacy of this work you've created?

Carion: My deepest pride is that fraternizations are learned at school in France, by the children, since the release of the movie. Cinema can sometimes help people to know their past better.

Rothstein: At the Flanders Field Museum, you walk in and there's a song playing, "Will You Go to Flanders?" which is the opening piece of "All Is Calm." And there's this gigantic mural of these faces staring you in the eye. Unlike war museums I visited in London and Brussels, that one is much less about strategy, generals, war heroes....Their goal is to put a human face on war, and you can't put a human face on war without being anti-war on some level.

Puts: When I was in high school, I had a dream about soldiers laying down their arms because they heard music that was so beautiful. The way that war is fought today, there's no room for music. There's so much distance between the forces fighting one another. But I still think that music is a kind of common denominator between all people.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at rhubbard@pioneerpress.com.

What: The Minnesota Opera's production of "Silent Night" by Kevin Puts When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12, 15, 17 and 19; 2 p.m. Nov. 20\ Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul Tickets: $200-$18, available at 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org

What: Cantus, Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust's production of "All Is Calm" by Peter Rothstein When: Dec. 15-18 Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. Tickets: $35-$15, available at 800-982-2787 or HennepinTheatreTrust.org

What: "Joyeux Noel," a 2005 film written and directed by Christian Carion Available: On DVD. Trylon Microcinema is showing the movie at 4:45 and 7 p.m. Nov. 6; 3258 Minnehaha Ave. S., Mpls.; 612-424-5468

Holiday Arts Guide

November 27, 2011.By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 Opens Dec. 15: This collaboration of Theater Latte Da and the men's vocal ensemble Cantus has rapidly earned a place in the hierarchy of local holiday classics. As the title implies, the story is a temporary and unlikely wartime armistice: A German soldier steps into No Man's Land singing "Stille Nacht," which begins an extraordinary night of camaraderie, music and peace. Creator Peter Rothstein's tale is told in the words and songs of the men who experienced it.