Silent Night tells the story of the 1914 Christmas Eve truce between Scottish, French and German troops in the trenches, from each of their perspectives and sung in three different languages.
We spoke to Silent Night‘s three Lieutenants (who lead each of the companies) – Richard Burkhard, who plays the German Lieutenant Horstmayer, Quirijn de Lang, who plays the French Lieutenant Audebert, and Timothy Nelson, who sings the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon.
Tell us about each of your characters and how they fit into the story of Silent Night.
Richard: Horstmayer is a career military man who has worked his way up to Lieutenant by saying and doing the right things. As a result, the cease fire is particularly difficult for him, being inclined, as he is, to do everything ‘by the book’. The repercussions of his actions, especially how it will affect his career chances, are not lost on him. So perhaps his journey to agreeing to the cessation of hostilities is the greatest. His attempt to restore order once the ceasefire is over is futile, as the men’s lives, and his, have been changed forever.
Quirijn: Audebert is in charge of the French trench. His father is high up in the French military and he became a soldier, following in the family tradition. His wife Madeleine is pregnant when he has to leave for the front, and he pines for her and the child that he has never yet seen. He is a sensitive man, and I think we see the emotional toll of the long grind of the war most in his character, although all the men in the trenches are severely affected by it. Being in touch with family and loved ones as an anchor of sanity plays a big part in all these men’s stories and reminds us that they were sons, fathers, and loved by people back home.
Tim: Gordon is a Lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He is the officer who proposes the ceasefire on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas Day. I think he is undoubtedly affected by the truce, which is in evidence towards the end of the piece where he is reluctant to obey a crucial order from the British Major (although I can’t say what that order is without giving away the plot!)
What is it like being part of a piece that is sung in three different languages?
Richard: We know that singing in a foreign language is normal in opera. However singing in three different languages in one evening, as my character does, is unheard of. This is one of the reasons I was particularly drawn to this project, from a character perspective. How did the soldiers communicate with their ‘enemies’, without proficiency in each other’s tongues? I think, that they did at all, shows a common humanity that went beyond cultural and linguistic differences.
Quirijn: I enjoy this part of Silent Night specifically. It makes it more realistic, for one, but it also emphasises that this is a story shared by all sides in the conflict. Fundamentally, despite cultural and linguistic differences, people are people with the same thoughts and emotions. The hard part for me is acting like I don’t understand any German or English, since I speak all three languages…
Tim: It definitely throws up some challenges. A lot of the characters are only able to speak their own language so there are moments where people have to communicate via a translator or be present whilst a conversation is happening in a language they don’t understand. But it really gives a sense of what it must have been like when the different troops had to communicate with each other back in 1914.
Do you have a favourite moment in the score, or something special that you think the audience should listen out for?
Richard: Kevin Puts’ setting of this story is very cinematic, both in its story telling, and its musical language. He presents very different ‘sound worlds’ for the different nationalities. For me, the most interesting moments in the score are when these different sounds are combined – an eclectic sonic experience, a coming together of different traditions and cultures.
Quirijn: I am in the lucky position that this is the second time I have performed this piece. I played the role of Ponchel at Wexford for the start of the centenary, so am bookending the Great War remembrance with this piece. I know how powerful and effective this opera is. The orchestration of the chaos of battle in the beginning is incredible. But my absolute favourite, most beautiful part is the aria in which I am recording the fallen in a log book, while I am having a conversation with Madeleine in my head (‘J’ai perdu ta photo‘). This gorgeous piece of music then segues into the soldiers’ ‘Sleep‘ chorus, which is a masterpiece of beauty.
Tim: If you had asked me last week I would have said the battle scene near the start of Act I. It’s an amazing four minutes of orchestral music filled with all sorts of effects that really make you feel like you’re in the middle of a conflict. But the other day we heard the soldiers’ ‘Sleep’ chorus for the first time and it blew me away. The Chorus of Opera North sing it so beautifully, so I think that has to be my current favourite moment of the score.
What does it mean to you to be part of this re-telling of the 1914 Christmas Eve truce, and why do you think it is an important story to tell?
Richard: Acceptance. In the divisive times we find ourselves in today, the message of this opera is almost more about the future than honouring the past.
Quirijn: What this piece shows is that it is only nationalist rhetoric that forces us to see the other as an enemy or different, even bringing us to a point of horrific bloodshed, whereas if you reach out to the other and meet as people, unlikely friendships and respect is what you get.
Tim: It’s a great honour to be part of this production, especially on the centenary of the Armistice. The Christmas Eve truce is a story of incredible humanity in the midst of the bloodiest of conflict and I think that a relatable human story like this one helps us to appreciate the sacrifice that these men made.
See Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall from 30 November – 7 December.