‘Silent Night’ offers up new look on traditional opera

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

The opera “Silent Night,” which recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire on Christmas Eve during World War I, is another of the contemporary works “that reflect our times” and David DiChiera has been striving to bring to Detroit.

“I started a series several years ago called Opera of Our Time. Each season we include work that is modern,” says DiChiera, artistic director of the Michigan Opera Theatre. “These last few decades, we have had a lot of war, and so, you know, ‘Silent Night’ fits into (the times). This is a work that has a message and is very musical — it’s really a theatrical work in many ways.”

“As we celebrate Veterans Day and enter in to the holiday season, we are extremely proud to offer this touching opera on what it means to be human, especially against the backdrops of wartimes and Christmas,” DiChiera says.

The opera fits in the series that also included “A View from the Bridge” a few years back.

“I think of opera as an art form,” DiChiera says. “If it’s going to be successful, if it’s going to have a future, it cannot sit squarely on the shoulders of past centuries, but has to demonstrate something of our own time and to continue to add the repertoire.”

“Silent Night” differs from traditional operas in that it’s not just a “French opera or a German opera,” using one language, he says. Multiple languages are used, reflecting the nationalities of the French, German and Scottish soldiers on the European battlefield, and the production moves with a rare fluidity for an opera, something akin to the narrative flow of a film.

“In this work, within each act, you find these fluid movements between the French, German and the Scots, and I think it’s very theatrical, something opera sometimes does not achieve,” he says, noting that English subtitles for each of the languages will be projected above the stage.

The cast includes Muskegon native Chad Johnson, a tenor who will make his Michigan debut in a leading opera role. Johnson plays Nikolaus Sprink, a German opera singer who is called to the front to perform for the crown prince. It’s his operatic voice that sparks the unexpected pause in the battle.

“He starts singing from the bunker and it creates this atmosphere for the truce,” says Johnson. “He facilitates the truce. He leaps out into no man’s land, an area between the three bunkers — a move that is guaranteed suicide. But because he’s singing from the top of his lungs, they don’t take him out.”

Johnson, who attended Western Michigan University and starred in the same production in Fort Worth, Texas, calls “Silent Night” a great spectacle, “a realistic, graphic telling of a war story.” He also notes the production, which he will sing in German, Italian, French, Latin and English, features a variety of musical styles to reflect the various nationalities and war.

To complement the opera’s run in Detroit, a series of related events are being held, including a screening of the French film, “Joyeux Noel,” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Detroit Yacht Club. The event is free.

DiChiera, who is serving his last season as artistic director, is anxious for the public to experience “Silent Night.”

“I think audiences will enjoy this work, not only for its messages but for how the libretto and composer have brought everything together,” DiChiera says. “The very fact that enemies came together on Christmas Eve and celebrated gives you hope that people will, that this is possible, that war is useless.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

‘Silent Night’

7:30 p.m. Nov. 12, Nov. 16 and 19, and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 20

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $29-$165

(313) 237-7464