Kevin Puts’ wakeup call in “Silent Night”

Throughout most of history, artists could have been considered to be activists in society, proving points and pushing for what they hope to be a better tomorrow. Sometimes their activism is more subtle, like writer Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games trilogy. Collins felt that her book was not only to entertain young adults, but to show them the horrors of war. The sister of the protagonist is saved at the very beginning of the trilogy. However, at the end of the final book she is still a casualty in the war, showing that at the end of the war even the winning side suffers loss.

Collins was a believer that there were unjust-wars and there were just-wars. There are other authors that display their thoughts on war from a different perspective. In the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, it is proven that war and conflict are created by misunderstanding and lack of communication. A crucial line from the book states the complications of war-waging:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
The protagonist of this book is expressing how much it hurts him to harm someone that he has come to understand.

In like manner, the opera Silent Night by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell tells the story of war, understanding and humanity. Based on the French film Joyeux Noël (which was based on true events), the opera tells the story of a ceasefire on Christmas Eve between three nations during the world war in 1914. The main characters of the opera all come from different backgrounds and countries that they had left behind. The story takes place mostly on the battlefield in Belgium in the intimate bunkers of the different nations, German, Scottish, and French. Throughout the opera, we are taken inside each bunker and seeing each group, their sorrows, and their true selves. On Christmas Eve, the soldiers celebrate in song and their songs are heard by the men of the three different nations. They end up waving the white flag for the night to celebrate the holiday with eachother in peace.

As the different nations greet one another and they learn more about their lives and cultures, they realize that they could not possibly battle eachother anymore. They understood that they are all the same and that it would be inhumane to harm one another. The following day they were reprimanded by their commanding officers for refusing to fight.

In Tom Mooney’s article regarding Silent Night, Puts is quoted, “If you know that the person you are going to shoot has a daughter or a wife at home, the war machine will not work.” In a way, Puts is humanizing war. War is waged by people who refuse to understand one another and compromise. Once an understanding is made, war can be made unjust.

To help emphasize the concepts of this story Puts and Mark Campbell made the opera text in the native languages of the characters. There are moments where all the soldiers are singing together in their own language but their message is the same. Puts has masterfully harmonized the three languages in sweet consonance.

Puts’ opera not only won a Pulitzer Prize for the music’s emotion but because it also expresses the universal cry for humanity.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:

Card, Orson S. “Chapter 13: Valentine” in Ender’s Game. First edition. New York: Tor, 1985, page 127.

Huizenga, Tom. “Hear The Opera That Just Won The Pulitzer.” NPR. April 23, 2012. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Levithan, David. “Suzanne Collins Talks About ‘The Hunger Games,’ the Books and the Movies.” The New York Times. October 18, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Mooney, Tom. “”Silent Night” at Wexford: How Opera Woke Up to the Great War.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 104, no. 414 (2015): 185-93.

“Official Website: Opera ‘Silent Night’ by Composer Kevin Puts and Librettist Mark Campbell.” Opera Silent Night [Official Website]. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Unison Media. “Kevin Puts on SILENT NIGHT”. Youtube video, 3:50. Posted October 9, 2018.

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