Friday, December 13, 2013

5Qs on Friday: Kevin Puts

Silent Night's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Kevin Puts

On Christmas Eve in 1914, during World War I, troops from Scotland, France and Germany briefly put down their weapons and, improbably, joined together for a Christmas celebration that lasted from night to morning. The true story was the subject of Christian Carion's 2005 film Joyeux Noel. And, in turn, Joyeux was the inspiration for composer Kevin Puts' and librettist Mark Campbell's opera Silent Night, first performed in 2011 by the Minnesota Opera.

Kevin, a composer to that point of mostly orchestral works, in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for music for Silent Night, his first opera.

On Friday at 9pm, the fantastic Silent Night - staged by Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Eric Simonson, makes its national TV debut on PBS. Kevin spoke with TVFirstLook about Silent Night - the opera and the TV special, and how it feels to win a Pulitzer.

TVFirstLook: PBS's Silent Night is absolutely great. How does the TV production compare to seeing it on stage?

Kevin Puts: It's a first-rate recording of the piece. It captures the opera very well. The filming is so good, and all aspects of the recording are so good that you really get a good sense of the opera.

TVFirstLook: Writing an opera seems daunting. What made you decide to write one?

Kevin: Dale Johnson, the artistic director of Minnesota Opera, was looking for some new voices. He contacted my publishing agent, Bill Holab. Bill sent him some of my music. Dale listened to a couple of my symphonies and he thought it had the sound that he wanted for an adaptation of Joyeux Noel. He had imagined it would make a great opera and thought I had the type of voice he needed for it.

He flew me out to Minnesota. And, it seemed in a matter of days that I was writing a large-scale opera in five languages (English, French, German, Italian, Latin).

It was intimidating. But, at the same time, it was so exciting. Storytelling was something I had always wanted to do. It was so exciting to sit down with a libretto (Mark Campbell) and dream up this scene, that scene and transitions in between.

I took to it immediately and I want to continue doing it.

TVFirstLook: Can you explain the story that takes place in Silent Night?

Kevin: It's centered around the true story of the Christmas armistice of 1914, the first Christmas Eve during World War I. The soldiers from opposing sides spontaneously got out of their trenches to have a party. They shared chocolates and champagne and whiskey. They played soccer the next morning.

The filmmakers thought it would make a great film. They added some fictitious elements on top of that, including the story of a professional tenor and his girlfriend, a Danish soprano. There is some evidence that there was a tenor enlisted on the German side.

In the opera, [his girlfriend] comes to the front and sings for the troops. It's one of the most important moments in the opera.

TVFirstLook: It's a fitting story for this time of year.

Kevin: Yes, but we didn't think of it as a Christmas opera. It's not about Christmas. If there's a theme, it's that once you know your enemy, you can't go back to killing each other. Familiarity is something that prevents you from having warlike instincts.

TVFirstLook: Last thing. How did it feel to win a Pulitzer Prize?

Kevin: It was totally a surprise. It gave me a sense of validation about the opera and my work, in general.

I never thought of winning this award. Once I did, it changes for better and worse, mostly the better, having this attached to your name.

It was incredibly exciting for everyone who worked on the opera. The Pulitzer for music is given to the composer. But Mark Campbell deserves it, too, as does everyone who worked on it. An opera is a collaboration, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

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