BWW Interview: Composer Kevin Puts, the Pulitzer Prize and Atlanta Opera's SILENT NIGHT

BWW Interview: Composer Kevin Puts, the Pulitzer Prize and Atlanta Opera's SILENT NIGHT
Composer Kevin Puts. Photo: David White

"Art isn't easy," Stephen Sondheim wrote famously in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. While it may be true, some artists make it look simpler than others. Take, for instance, Kevin Puts, composer of SILENT NIGHT, opening at Atlanta Opera on November 5, directed by Tomer Zvulun, the company's General and Artistic Director. Already a force to be reckoned with for his instrumental work, Puts won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for SILENT NIGHT, with its libretto by Mark Campbell--his first try at the notoriously difficult art form of opera.

Easy? Well, looks can be deceiving.

"There has always been a narrative quality in my so-called abstract, concert music--symphonies, string quartets," explains Puts, "so writing an opera was something I wanted to do. People were always saying 'you should really write an opera,' but it seemed so foreign. I didn't know any librettists and I didn't know how to get started."

"I was getting commissions from orchestras and chamber ensembles and that's a kind of simple transaction," he explains. "They say, 'We want a 20-minute piece, we want it delivered by this date and you can't use piano and celesta', for example. You know, it's really pretty straightforward."

Puts told me that he finds having such "givens" in place frees him in some ways. "I think that's just fine--I don't know if I'd do it if I didn't have a date when it had to be delivered. I find that I love the assignment aspect, the problem-solving part of any commission. I know that by a certain date, I have to say, 'this is the best idea I'm going to have' and I'll do it."

A call from Minnesota

But doing an opera was still a distant thought, floating around in his head. Suddenly, there was a call from Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of Minnesota Opera, with a project in mind: SILENT NIGHT, based on a French film ("Joyeux Noel") about a spontaneous one-night truce between French, German and Scottish combatants in World War I, on Christmas Eve 1914.

BWW Interview: Composer Kevin Puts, the Pulitzer Prize and Atlanta Opera's SILENT NIGHT
Atlanta's production at its premiere
at the Wexford Festival. Photo: C. Barta

"I was unsure but excited--and I knew that I couldn't turn it down," he recalls. "In some ways, matters were simplified because they had already determined the subject. I took a look at the film and I thought--with little experience in this realm, of course--I could imagine a lot of it on stage, being sung."

A big plus was that they had librettist Mark Campbell in mind as his collaborator. He is one of the most prolific, and successful, storytellers in contemporary opera, and when he and Puts first got together, Campbell's mind was already working on translating the language of film to opera. One of the first things he suggested, the composer recalls, was "it would be so great to have all the soldiers from different countries singing at the same time, in their own languages, about their mothers. They're cold and they're going to sleeping and singing about home."

"And I thought, 'that's amazing.' So we just dove into it. To be doing something so new for me was really the exciting part--to get the libretto, put it on the piano and start composing. There was a real excitement that I hadn't felt in a long time, bringing a real story to life and knowing, if I did it the right way, it could be powerful and exciting. The architecture was there, the scenes were there, Scene I was this and it had to lead to Scene 2, etc. There was a sense of having to get it right and making it work. I really liked that."

A creative partnership

What makes him and Campbell such a good team? Since SILENT NIGHT, which debuted in 2011, they've done another full-length piece, based on Richard Condon's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (seen in Minneapolis and Austin, TX, so far) and just had the first workshop for a chamber opera, ELIZABETH CREE, based on a Peter Ackroyd novel, which will open next fall at Opera Philadelphia.

BWW Interview: Composer Kevin Puts, the Pulitzer Prize and Atlanta Opera's SILENT NIGHT
Mark Campbell and Kevin Puts.
Photo: Euan Kerr, MPR

According to director Zvulun, who also helmed this production in its European premiere at the Wexford Festival, chemistry between composer and librettist is an elusive quantity--but Puts and Campbell "have it." Says Zvulun, "The score for SILENT NIGHT is completely inspired and magical, while the libretto is cinematic in scale. Together they are a perfect balance between large-scale storytelling--it doesn't get much bigger than a world war--and showing how the war impacts individuals. It conveys a universal truth: that the soldier's worst nightmare is not the war itself but not seeing the people he loves. The opera captures that brilliantly."

"What we both want to do is tell the story in a really clear way," says Puts, "developing characters you get to know and care about. I think there's something traditional about that--certainly, it's not necessarily the aim of a lot of opera these days. Mark and I both still think that's the way we want to do things--so that the audience feels very close to the characters and can understand what's happening."

A close working relationship doesn't always translate into easy sailing--both men are creative and have strong opinions about certain aspects of a project. "Sometimes Mark has an idea because of the way he feels the story needs to be told or I'll say that something has to be a musical moment, or vice versa, but we're respectful of each other and listen to one another. For instance, that soldiers' chorus I mentioned earlier. He felt it should be much shorter, but I thought, no, this has to be an 'opera' moment, where it's about the music and we need to make this happen...and we did."

Related Links
BWW Review: War Is Hell but the Puts-Campbell SILENT NIGHT Is a Wonder in AtlantaBWW Review: War Is Hell but the Puts-Campbell SILENT NIGHT Is a Wonder in Atlanta
by Richard Sasanow - November 09, 2016

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.