Here’s what’s keeping opera alive in 2020
‘Silent Night’ was the first opera Kevin Puts ever composed. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012. There’s an upsurge in contemporary opera across the nation, and over the last decade, the Pulitzer committee has awarded four new operas.
SALT LAKE CITY — Three years after Stephen King wrote “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick’s film hit theaters and introduced a new level of terror, largely thanks to an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson.
Three years ago, the horror story about the Torrance family entered a surprising venue: the opera house.
Yes, “The Shining” is an opera.
And its premiere run in St. Paul, Minnesota, was sold out for weeks.
A year later, an opera about Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs debuted in Santa Fe. Tickets were in such high demand that the opera company ended up adding on a performance. In 2019, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” won a Grammy Award for best opera recording.
“That means that new people — people who have never even thought of opera as an art form before — they’re coming to see opera now,” librettist Mark Campbell told the Deseret News. “It’s a very, very exciting time for contemporary opera.”
Campbell, a busy New York-based librettist currently working on his 37th opera, wrote the text for both “The Shining” and “Steve Jobs.” He’s also the librettist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night,” which Utah Opera is performing Jan. 18-26 at the Capitol Theatre.
Opera has rarely won the Pulitzer Prize (Pulitzer Prizes for music have been awarded since 1943). But over the last decade, the Pulitzer committee has recognized four new operas — including composer Kevin Puts’ and Campbell’s “Silent Night,” which the committee described as “a stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire among Scottish, French and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart.”
There’s an upsurge in contemporary opera across the nation, and Utah Opera’s production of “Silent Night” continues the company’s trend of embracing the new wave — in the last couple of years, Utah Opera has also performed “Moby-Dick” and “The Little Prince.”
“It’s fantastic that there are companies in this country like Utah Opera that are fostering new work and then also showing their audiences not to be afraid of it — that it will appeal to them even more than ‘Aida’ does,” Campbell said. “I don’t think opera will survive unless we make it relevant to the way we’re living now.”
Composing an opera
Since its 2011 premiere, “Silent Night” has been produced more than 20 times. Contemporary opera is finding success because of artists like Campbell and Puts, who together have written three operas and are finding new audiences with the stories they create.
Puts himself was new to opera when he signed on for “Silent Night.” That’s right — the first opera he composed went on to win a Pulitzer.
The New York-based composer spent two years working on “Silent Night,” spreading papers all over the floor as he sat at his piano and wrote out the music with a pencil. When he wasn’t taking care of his newborn son or teaching at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, Puts was at the piano, composing phrases to help tell the story of the World War I Christmas truce.
“I certainly did my best work,” he said. “I have in the past taken on too much work, and I think sometimes the work suffers because of that. But I just cleared my schedule for the two years that I wrote this opera, and I really did give it everything I could.”
That dedication to craft is a lesson Puts learned the hard way. Just two years before “Silent Night,” Puts wrote a concerto for renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As an up-and-coming composer, Puts had a lot on his plate and he rushed to get the piece written, composing it in a month and a half.
“He only played it once,” Puts said with a laugh.
Fast forward a decade and Puts is working on his fourth opera — a work Renee Fleming will debut at the Metropolitan Opera within the next few years. And he’s taking a sabbatical to do it.
“There’s never a single phrase or even a note where these musicians (Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming) are not communicating, there’s not this intention behind what they’re doing,” Puts said. “And that is very inspiring and it’s taught me that I need to be the same way. … There should never be a moment when (my music is) just filling time.”
Puts’ music for “Silent Night” is purposeful. In one scene, the French Lieutenant Audebert sings of loss after a battle, writing down the names of the dead and wounded. He’s also lost a treasured photo of his wife, who is pregnant with their first child, but he visualizes her face and thinks of her. A chorus follows where soldiers from the French, German and Scottish camps try to fall asleep, dreaming of home as the snow falls around them.
Campbell cried the first time he heard Puts’ music, and the librettist, who still gets emotional when he thinks about it, had to assure Puts that his reaction was a compliment.
“Words fail me when it comes to expressing the excitement I first heard in Kevin’s music,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Finally, a composer who is not afraid of the heart.’”
‘Isn’t peace possible?’
When Campbell was writing Act 2 of “Silent Night,” a line popped into his head: “War is not sustainable when you come to see your enemy as a fellow human being.”
“Silent Night” begins in the Berlin Opera House, where opera singers are performing a piece — one Campbell created for the story — about a soldier returning home from war. A German soldier abruptly enters the joyful scene, reading a letter from the kaiser declaring war.
“I just wanted to show that opera ennobles war as much as any other art form, and that’s wrong,” Campbell said. “It’s certainly not anti-veteran, but I like to say that it asks, ‘Isn’t peace possible?’”
That message and the musical styles Puts uses to tell that story made “Silent Night” worthy of the Pulitzer and has helped the opera retain its popularity, said Campbell, who doesn’t physically own a Pulitzer since the prize for music only goes to the composer — something the librettist is actively pushing to change.
Life is different for Puts since winning the big award — mainly, having the phrase “Pulitzer Prize-winning composer” attached to his name in all references — but Puts still approaches his work the same way he always has.
And sometimes, he still struggles to compose. When that happens, he looks at the Pulitzer certificate on the wall of his office at home. It reminds him of why he’s chosen this path: To create music that will continue to prove the necessity of the arts.
“It never really gets easier,” he said. “But that’s what keeps it interesting.”
If you go ...
What: Utah Opera’s “Silent Night”
When: Jan. 18 and 24, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 20 and 22, 7 p.m; Jan. 26, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
How much: $14.50-$106