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

By: Oct. 31, 2016
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.

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.

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."

"Recently, on ELIZABETH CREE, we've constantly been in touch--sometimes sending each other 15-20 texts a day back and forth, when I'm working on something, or he's doing a rewrite." He adds, "We also have a good time working together; he's hilarious."

When Puts first saw SILENT NIGHT on stage in Minnesota, he was a little in awe about the way things fell together. Up to that point, he recalls that he was too busy worrying about details, like whether the oboes should double the horns or whether a tempo was too fast for the singers, to quite appreciate what was going on around him. "That human beings could start from scratch--from Dale Johnson watching a film and thinking this could be a good opera, then calling me and Mark, our working together, assembling a creative team, a cast of amazing musicians--and then, suddenly, we have a compelling show. It seemed so significant and overwhelming in so many ways."

The shock of the Pulitzer

Was he totally shocked when he won the Pulitzer for SILENT NIGHT? I asked him. "I would say, yes. It wasn't even my idea to send it to the Pulitzer Committee; it was Minnesota Opera's. It was during a dress rehearsal and the executive director at the time came to me and said, 'So, at what point do you start thinking about the Pulitzer Prize?'

"And I hadn't even thought about it; I was just trying to get the piece to work," he recalls, adding frankly, "I never thought I was the kind of composer whose music wins the Pulitzer. It has changed more recently, but, traditionally, it seemed more academic. I think of composers who had written amazing pieces but hadn't won it until they were like 75 and it was more like a lifetime achievement award.

"It's the kind of thing that if you think about it too much, it'll drive you crazy, because you can't control anyone's taste. We sent it in and I forgot about it. Then, I knew vaguely that they were going to make a decision. I was sitting around the house with my son, who was two at the time, and let the phone ring to voicemail. When I picked up the message, it was a friend of mine, a composer, calling to say 'Congratulations!' Yeah, it was a shock."

(Winning the Pulitzer has had its pluses and minuses for him. The initial reaction to THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, his first post-prize opera, was somewhat muted.

Minnesota Opera. Photo: Michael Daniel

"People have certain ideas about our work and I think if it had been my first opera it would have been received differently," Puts comments. Saying that it has "some of my best writing," he admits "with opera it's all about the entire evening." He and Campbell made some revisions before its September outing at the Austin Opera, and, he says, the reception "was electric.")

Still making changes?

Puts will be in Atlanta for the SILENT NIGHT premiere. I ask him, now that he has seen the opera on stage many times--it has been performed from Fort Worth, TX to Calgary, Canada, from Philadelphia, PA to Wexford, Ireland--whether he still thinks about making changes, or has he "moved on"?

Well, there are things he might do differently, he says. "There are definitely things that I do better now, especially with regard to writing for the voice." What does composing for voice offer him, I ask, that working with other instruments doesn't? "The challenge is different. For example, there's no such thing as a 'soprano' or a 'baritone' that's the same for every singer, every time. On a bassoon, for example, a low b-flat is pretty much the same every time and you know exactly what to expect when you write it.

"But singers...I think I only knew one of the singers in the original cast of SILENT NIGHT before I started writing and couldn't get to know their voices until the workshop. Then, I tried to adjust the music to fit them, depending on where they were really strong, where their 'big' notes were that they sang really well," he explains.

"What it offered me--because I'd worked with singers so little--was that I was amazed by the power. Especially in the rehearsal room when we started, I said, wow, this is unbelievable; the quality and the intensity--the immediacy--of it was something I hadn't experienced. Even now, I'm still learning about the voice."

(One of the voices he has been learning about recently belongs to superstar soprano Renee Fleming, for whom he was commissioned by the Eastman Philharmonia to write a new song cycle, LETTERS FROM GEORGIA, taken from the correspondence of Georgia O'Keefe. It will debut in November, first at the Eastman School of Music [Puts' and Fleming's alma mater] in Rochester, NY, on November 12 and then two days later, at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.)

While Puts has had many notable successes with his instrumental music, working on opera has been eye-opening for him. "In many ways, I think I've found my place, musically," he says. "I can be myself, I can tell stories. I love the idea of following a narrative along and doing what needs to be done musically along the way. It's an amazingly satisfying approach to writing music for me."


Atlanta Opera's production of SILENT NIGHT will have four performances at Atlanta's Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy. Saturday November 5 (8 pm), Tuesday November 8 (7:30 pm), Friday November 11 (8 pm) and Sunday November 13 (3 pm).

Production team: Tomer Zvulun, production director; Nicole Paiement, conductor; Erhard Rom, scenic designer; Victoria Tzykun, costume designer; Robert Wierzel, lighting designer; Peter Mitchell, associate lighting designer; Anne Ford-Coates, wig and makeup designer.


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