Saturday, 24 November 2018

Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera 'Silent Night'

Rehearsals for Opera North’s production of Put’s Silent Night, November 2018 - Rupert Charlesworth as Nikolaus Sprink and Máire Flavin as Anna Sørensen - Photo Tom Arber
Rehearsals for Opera North’s production of Kevin Puts' Silent Night, November 2018
Rupert Charlesworth as Nikolaus Sprink and Máire Flavin as Anna Sørensen - Photo Tom Arber
Opera North is giving the UK premiere of Kevin Puts' opera Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall on 30 November 2018. Inspired by the film Joyeux Noel, the opera gives an operatic treatment to the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. It was Kevin Puts' first opera and won at Pullitzer Prize in 2012. I caught up with Kevin, via Skype, to find out more about the opera and his thoughts about creating contemporary opera.


Kevin Puts (Photo David White)
Kevin Puts (Photo David White)
The idea for the opera's subject was not originally Kevin's, the artistic director of Minnesota Opera, Dale Johnson, saw the Christian Caron's 2005 film Joyeux Noel and thought that it would make a good opera. At the time Kevin had not written any opera but Johnson had heard Kevin's orchestral music (which includes four symphonies) and asked Kevin to write the opera. Kevin thought the subject worked very well, not only were two of the characters opera singers, but he felt that he had the musical vocabulary for the subject, both large scale music to depict the scale of the war and music for the more intimate moments.

A cinematic quality to the storytelling


The opera presents a number of challenges to those staging it, not just the depicition of war but the need to present three different fighting groups, the French, the Scots and the Germans. Kevin has seen five or six different productions of the opera, and each had a different solution. At Minnesota Opera, for the work's premiere, they used a turntable which contained the three bunkers (French, Scots and German).


The challenge comes because Mark Campbell's libretto moves very quickly, with quite short scenes, so that there is a cinematic quality to the storytelling and Kevin is not ashamed to admit that there is a cinematic quality to the music as well. So that many of the production of the opera have opted for realism in their depictions of the events.

Kevin Puts' Silent Night at Minnesota Opera in 2011 (Photography Michal Daniel)
Kevin Puts' Silent Night at Minnesota Opera in 2011 (Photography Michal Daniel)
Kevin's music for the opera could perhaps be characterised as eclectic, and he feels that he does not really have a particular musical style. You cannot put on a CD and say that that is him; every piece is different, no one piece embodies his mercurial style.

Silent Night begins with an opera on stage, and for the opera within the opera Kevin wanted to write in an 18th century style that was as authentic as he could, so that the audience felt they might be hearing Mozart. And from this, as the piece went along, he felt licensed to have stark juxtapositions of musical style from scene to scene. A theme does emerge, and this theme returns throughout the piece to give it an over-arching stylistic colour, a certain hue. Within this there are pastiche pieces, a Scottish ballad, Christmas carols, a 19th century operatic aria.

If he had not been asked to write Silent Night he is not sure when he would have moved into opera


Rehearsals for Opera North’s production of Put’s Silent Night, November 2018 - Alex Banfield as Jonathan Dale and Adrian Clarke as Father Palmer - Photo Tom Arber
Rehearsals for Opera North’s production of Kevin Puts Silent Night-
Alex Banfield as Jonathan Dale and Adrian Clarke as Father Palmer
Photo Tom Arber
Whilst Kevin was interested in opera, if he had not been asked by Minnesota Opera to write Silent Night he is not sure when he would have moved into the genre. He admits that his career thus far has been rather passive. Having received his first orchestral commission he discovered that he liked writing for orchestra. Whilst he thought about opera, he was asked to do other things and he did not really know how to start writing an opera. This would have required finding a librettist, finding a story and finding an opera company.

But once he started writing Silent Night he loved it, he loved the idea of storytelling in music, and only really realised this once he had started the opera. But, now he is in his 40s he is less passive and more deterministic in his career with his choice of work.

After Silent Night his next opera was also based on an existing film, The Manchurian Candidate (which was premiered in 2015 by Minnesota Opera), not so much because Kevin likes turning films into opera but because opera companies liked the idea. The Manchurian Candidate was something that people knew and it generated interest from the start. Opera companies are often afraid to do new work unless they feel that audiences have a route in to the piece, which the film connections seem to offer.

The opera after that was Elizabheeth Cree, a chamber piece based on a Peter Ackroyd novel. Whilst this was pre-existing, it was far less well known and the subject was in fact librettist Martin Campbell's suggestion. It appealed to Kevin because it was small scale, and because of the rather macbre subject, so it was an intriguing idea with plenty of situations for him to tackle. So far Kevin has not written an opera from scratch, but he finds it rather exciting to write something with no expectations.

When he was young he wanted to be a film producer


Rehearsals for Opera North’s production of Put’s Silent Night, November 2018 - Alex Banfield as Jonathan Dale with Director Tim Albery  - Photo Tom Arber
Rehearsals for Opera North’s production of Kevin Puts' Silent Night,
Alex Banfield as Jonathan Dale with Director Tim Albery  - Photo Tom Arber
In fact, when he was young he wanted to be a film producer. But, though his parents were not musicians there was lots of music in the house and he loved it and imitated the music he heard on piano, so his interest in music was there from the start. At university (he studied at the Eastman School of Music and at Yale University) he was initially very serious about the piano, playing the big piano concertos mainly because he wanted to live in them. He found them so beautiful yet so difficult, they really sucked him in.

But at graduate school he studied composition and found that he had had enough of practising. Also, he loved the idea of not knowing what was going to come next in a piece. Something that he still finds exciting, the idea that a work might go anywhere. Writing music seemed to come easily to him, improvising at the piano, and he still usually works without a struggle.

The operas of Britten were a huge influence, the realistic nature of the writing for singers, the variety of harmonic worlds, the orchestration and the pace. Whilst he enjoys operas by contemporary figures such as John Adams and Thomas Ades, he is not specifically influenced by them though he is sure that it all filters in.

The need to create dialogue and yet it be singable and pleasurable


When writing his own operas he does not plant himself in front of a stack of scores of other works, he does not want to be close to anyone else's approach. He wants to be able to move from scene to scene in his own way. The challenge was to write for the voice, and he feels that his vocal writing has improved since Silent Night, the need to create dialogue and yet it be singable and pleasurable. It was this, rather than the orchestration, which was the challenge.

Silent Night had its own particular challenges too, it is written in five languages. And the German, especially, was tricky to do as Kevin had never studied the language. He normally writes by playing and singing at the piano, but this was not possible with the passages in German and he describes his method as 'painting by numbers', a very painstaking process matching harmonies, rhythms and text., something far more process orientated than he usually does.

Kevin Puts' Silent Night at Minnesota Opera in 2011 (Photography Michal Daniel)
Kevin Puts' Silent Night at Minnesota Opera in 2011 (Photography Michal Daniel)
He has another opera in the planning stages, but the rights to the subject have not yet been agreed so he cannot talk about it. He is also writing a big concert piece for Renee Fleming, this will be for soprano, baritone and orchestra, a song cycle based on the letters of the artist Georgia O'Keeffe and her husband, the art dealer Arthur Stieglitz, Kevin made his own libretto after reading the letters, and he says that the song cycle is not an historical document but a fantasy based on O'Keefe and Stieglitz's relationship, which Kevin found really fascinating, particularly O'Keeffe's gradual escape into her work and the South West. A female painter turns her back on a painful relationship and turns to her art.



Kevin Puts' Silent Night - 30 November  to 7 December 2018 at Leeds Town Hall - Opera North, director Tim Albery, conductor Nicholas Kok, with Maire Flavin, Rupert Charlesworth, Quirijn de Lang, Timothy Nelson, Richard Burkard, Geoffrey Dolton. Full details from Opera North website

Kevin Puts on disc:
  • Symphony No.2, Flute Concerto - Peabody Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Naxos - available from Amazon.
  • Symphony No.4, To Touch The Sky, If I Were A Swan - Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop, Harmonia Mundi - available from Amazon.
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Puccini premiere:  Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing (★★★★) -  Opera review
  • Long time ago: Samling showcase at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  • Otherwordly concerns: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen and Camillo Radicke in late-Romantic lieder (★★★★) - CD review
  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet  - ballet review
  •  Home
 

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