By Anne Gelhaus, The Mercury News
Michael Shell is directing “Silent Night” for Opera San Jose. The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell depicts how German, French and Scottish troops on the front lines in World War I negotiated a truce on Christmas Eve in 1914.
“The nationalism of the story it’s telling is relevant to us now,” Shell says. “That’s refreshing because operas are usually telling centuries-old stories. If we’ve done our job, audiences will see how it relates.”
“Silent Night” is set to run Feb. 11-26 at the California Theatre.
The Choral Project’s rendition of “Street Requiem” will see just one performance in San Jose, on Feb. 15 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph. Mezzo-soprano Fredrica von Stade will join the choir in singing the work, composed by Kathleen McGure, Andy Payne and Jonathon Welch to give a voice to the homeless and other struggling communities.
“The piece is quite inspirational even though it addresses a matter that has gravitas,” says conductor Daniel Hughes. “We’re at a time now when the general emotional state of the Bay Area is not particularly happy with the federal government. People are feeling paralyzed. This will remind them of their humanity.”
It’s the humanity of the Christmas truce in otherwise inhumane conditions that Shell wants to get across to Opera San Jose audiences. The director says he’s trying to make sure his singers understand just how extraordinary it was for French and Scottish soldiers to hear German troops singing the Christmas carol of the title.
“They were surprised that the Germans had the capacity to express beauty,” he adds. “They had demonized the enemy to the point where it could seem they’re not human.”
Shell also wants to make sure the production underscores the conditions in which soldiers from all three armies were fighting. To that end, a rotating set piece shifts the action from one army’s trench to another.
Kirk Dougherty, who plays German opera singer Nikolaus Sprink, says “Silent Night” has a “cinematic scope, with quick cuts to different scenes.”
“You see that opposing sides in a world war have seen incredible hardship,” Dougherty says. “We’re trying to depict how difficult it was.”
Some movements of “Street Requiem” are told from the viewpoint of the homeless, challenging audiences to take notice of them and their plight.
“It’s difficult to confront your own humanity when you see someone at their lowest point,” Hughes says, adding that von Stade is the requiem’s “motherly voice.”
“Most of the time, what she’s singing is consoling,” he says.
While the requiem tells a story, it’s not staged.
“It could lend itself to something theatrical, but it’s a concert work,” Hughes says. “It’s modeled after a traditional requiem setting, but most of the text is in English. There’s very little Latin.”
Instead, “Street Requiem” is based more on world music than Catholic liturgy, with African and Celtic influences, as well as hymns such as “Ubi Caritas.”
“It weaves in traditional parts of a requiem Mass and keeps the sense of the sacred and of the honor life holds,” Hughes says. “It’s a universal and not a singular point of view.”
“Silent Night” also diverges from the musical path one might expect, since the opera doesn’t contain the titular Christmas carol or any other traditional holiday melodies.
“The composer made a conscious decision to make everything original music,” Shell says. “We try to match the intention of the carols the soldiers sang. What they were able to do captures the audience’s attention and gets them to feel something.”
On the other hand, says the director, “We’re trying not to over-sentimentalize it, especially since the next day, they went back to fighting.”
“Silent Night” runs Feb. 11-26 at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $55-$175 at operasj.org.
The Choral Project performs “Street Requiem” Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, 80 S. Market St., San Jose. Tickets are $35-$55 at choralproject.org.