Craig Irvin, Andrew Wilkowske and Gabriel Preisser are enjoying a career arc that any opera singer would kill for. All three performed in the world premiere of Silent Night, an opera that garnered rave reviews, a Pulitzer Prize, a PBS broadcast and subsequent productions, including this weekend’s from the Cincinnati Opera, in which the singers reprise their original roles.
Based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, Silent Night tells the story of a 1914 Christmas Eve truce along Europe’s Western Front during World War I. Sung in five different languages, the singers and director Eric Simonson say Kevin Puts’ powerfully emotional score propels the drama.
Simonson staged the original 2011 Minnesota Opera premier. After discussing the opera’s musical language with Puts, Simonson was relieved to know the composer was determined to write music that didn’t go against the natural flow of speech.
“You almost forget people are singing,” Preisser says. He and his colleagues agree that revisiting the score helps to intensify their characters and interactions on the stage, and the singers’ deep affection for their characters was evident throughout our conversation.
Simonson also credits Mark Campbell’s multi-lingual libretto, a remarkable achievement for its compelling personalities.
“Kevin and Mark did a good job at staying away from the film’s sentimentality and emphasized the humanity in each character,” Simonson says.
Pressier plays Lt. Gordon, a Scottish officer who effectively brokers the truce. “Gordon gets the truce going out of loyalty to his troops, and because he feels it’s the right thing to do,” Preisser says.
“With each new cast, there are opportunities to add new interactions that make it real. It might not be obvious to the audience but we know it.”
Irvin has sung his part of German officer Horstmayer in three previous productions and he says that the role acquires new depth and meaning with each performance. “The audience starts out thinking he’s the villain but then they realize no one is the villain here,” he says.
“What’s most important to him are the lives of his men,” Irvin continues. “He’s furious at the Crown Prince for sending Christmas trees instead of food or more troops.”
CCM alum Wilkowske portrays the French barber Ponchel, an officer’s aide, who Simonson calls the opera’s soul. “Ponchel is comic relief in an opera that’s really dark,” Wilkowske says. “Like many of these characters, he thinks the war is pointless. He’d rather be at home, having coffee with his mom. He reminds me of Radar O’Reilly from M.A.S.H.”
Cincinnati Opera is using the production that premiered at Minnesota Opera. The set features a double turntable that takes the audience into the trenches and onto the battlefield. Simonson worked with the 38-member chorus, assigning actions and interactions to “breathe spontaneous life into the show,” he says.
“The chorus,” Simonson says, “is magnificent.”
It’s been two-and-a-half years since the opera’s premier and the three baritones still marvel at what can only be called amazingly good luck. The men are thrilled to return to the roles they created.
Irvin recalls starting rehearsals in Philadelphia and seeing the printed score that listed the original cast. “I was giddy — it was such a cool feeling,” he says.
“To create a role and repeat it in the same production is unbelievable,” Preisser adds. Wilkowske says different casts create new emotional responses for his character: “I’m starting at the level I finished, and with this cast, I think, oh, I didn’t realize this conversation had that kind of tone.”
In every venue where Silent Night was performed, the singers describe the responses to the music in emotional terms. “I hear the chorus say, ‘Oh God, isn’t this music awesome?’ and yeah, it is awesome,” Wilkowske says.
Irvin recalls watching the “maestro cam” backstage during the run in Fort Worth, Texas, and seeing two women seated in the front row weeping — so was he. “It’s that kind of show,” Irvin says. “Everyone backstage was tearing up.”
Like many recent operas, Silent Night is based on an historical event, but unlike Dr. Atomic or Nixon in China, its appeal is universal. “It was a miracle that the truce happened, but it couldn’t have happened after 1914,” Simonson says. “War is there forever but mixed in is our ability to see the person on the other side of the trenches.”
“If you’ve never seen an opera, this a great first one,” Irvin says. “Except that what you see next might let you down.”
Cincinnati Opera presents SILENT NIGHT with performances Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall. Tickets: 513-241-2742 or cincinnatiopera.org.