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