"You could tell right away that this was a very special place."
Eric Simonson is talking about Minnesota Opera, a company he first worked with back in 1991 when he was a young theater director from Chicago.
"The company wasn't doing a lot of new operas at that time, but they took a lot of risks, and there was a devil-may-care attitude," he remembers.
Simonson loved the risk-taking mindset at Minnesota Opera, and went on to direct a dozen new productions for the company, including the world premieres of Ricky Ian Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath and Paul Moravec's The Shining.
But of all the operas he has directed for Minnesota Opera one stands out above all the others — American composer Kevin Puts' Silent Night, which premiered in 2011 and returns to the Ordway Music Theater for a run of six performances Nov. 10-18.
Puts' opera is set during World War I and depicts the unofficial truce between Allied and German troops that happened in the Belgian trenches in Christmas 2014.
Defying military protocol and the wishes of their commanders, soldiers left their bunkers to exchange seasonal greetings with the enemy, in what Simonson calls "a cry against the insanity of war and evidence of our common humanity."
Simonson recalls thinking Silent Night was something special from the outset, and is not surprised that the opera has since been staged by more than a dozen other companies.
"I knew that it was good, and that people were being moved by it," he says. "It's an awesome opera, with a very cinematic libretto by Mark Campbell and a soaring, rich score by Kevin Puts."
Not all directors who come to opera from theater, as Simonson did, enjoy the experience of working in what is a very different medium. Even fewer make a success of it.
But Simonson was an immediate convert and remains acutely conscious of the extra elbow room — "bigger sets, bigger budget, bigger everything," as he puts it — that working in the more expansive medium of opera offers.
"I came from theater, and not many theater directors get a chance to direct opera," he says. "It's really something else; you get to work on a very large canvas, from a bigger toy box. There's tremendous freedom to build a production design which might be beyond everyone's expectations."
But does the large number of moving parts in a production like Silent Night — singers, chorus, orchestra, sets, lighting — mean that opera is more difficult to direct than spoken theater?
"Yes and no," Simonson responds. "The technical rehearsals are more difficult in opera, because you have to do bigger things in a bigger way with less time."
But there are plenty of compensations, he says.
"For one thing your tempo is set for you by the music. You don't really have to worry about the play dragging because an actor is indulgent. I really enjoy working with opera singers. I find them very collaborative and accepting of my vision, however fanciful."
Some of the scenes in Silent Night were particularly tricky to stage from a technical viewpoint.
"Pretty much the entire opera takes place in the trenches on no man's land," Simonson explains. "But about 40 minutes into Act 1, we switch to a fancy chalet outside Berlin with a Christmas tree and a chandelier in it.
"So to show this we have a enormous revolve with a rake on it that turns around by mechanics. I don't know how they did it; I was afraid to ask," he says.
"It breaks into two parts like a cheese wedge, and looks like a big Pac-Man. The chorus had to learn how to open this thing up in the middle of the act and then put it all back together again. It seems impossible the first couple of times you do it."
Silent Night was a runaway success when it was first staged by Minnesota Opera in 2011. But Simonson feels that significant improvements have been made for the revival, which coincides with the centenary of the World War I armistice, which finally brought the war to a conclusion.
"The first time we did Silent Night, we were discovering things for the first time. There were changes being made in rehearsal; we didn't know exactly how it all fit together," he recalls.
"Now, we've had time to really let it marinate, and I think what Twin Cities audiences are going to see is a more fully realized production emotionally, technically and intellectually."
And Simonson argues that the message of Silent Night has increased in relevance in the seven years since its premiere, and become more bitingly topical.
"The opera is about warring factions coming together and discovering each other's humanity in the middle of the most brutal circumstances you can imagine," he says. "And that says something about the world we're living in today. Every day we live with a lot of of divisiveness in our own culture, our own backyard.
"But we forget that when you come to face your enemy and meet them, you realize that you have more in common than you have differences. And that is the heart of this opera."
'Silent Night' performance chat
Classical MPR host Melissa Ousley chatted with the movers and shakers behind Minnesota Opera's revival of Silent Night. Click the player above to hear interviews with composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, along with performances by singers Karin Wolverton and Edward Parks, and pianist Mary Box.
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