“An Honest Desire To Reach Out”: Eric Simonson on the return of “Silent Night”

The Minnesota Opera Chorus in Minnesota Opera's Silent Night // Photo by Michal Daniel

The Minnesota Opera Chorus in Minnesota Opera’s “Silent Night” // Photo by Michal Daniel

One of the most important works of 21st century opera, “Silent Night,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize, returns this weekend to the site of its 2011 world premiere. The Minnesota Opera is remounting the show that sprang from its New Works Initiative, and has since enjoyed a remarkable tour.

Stage director Eric Simonson is a veteran of “Silent Night.” The Oscar and Tony winner conceived the staging for the world premiere and has since toured with the show. We chatted with Simonson about the staying power of this work, how it’s gaining new relevance, and the centenary of the armistice that ended World War I.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

The Growler: How is rehearsal going?

Eric Simonson: No surprises so far, knock on wood. The singers are giving some really grounded and emotional performances.

A battlefield is not your standard opera setting—where are these emotions grounded? How do you get them in the mindset?

It’s a challenge. I’m trying to create a very real circumstance. Despite the fact that opera is essentially a heightened form of art, we’ve gone to great lengths to make this a very realistic setting—that is, a battlefield in World War I, in the trenches. The singers have just followed suit. I’ve worked very specifically with them so they know what they’re going after and that the stakes are very high, essentially life and death. The singers have been very receptive and they’re very talented. I feel pretty lucky about that.

Since the world premiere, you’ve now staged “Silent Night” several times. How have your feelings about it evolved? Are you seeing it differently than you did in 2011?

Every production is a little different. Every production has a different cast, so it’s tailored around their needs and talents. The show hasn’t changed that much, but what has changed are the circumstances around it. Seven years ago when we premiered, our country was pretty divided, and it’s more divided now.

The story of the opera is about finding common humanity in your enemy. The Christmas Day Truce: you have people who were trying to kill each other cross no man’s land one day, and the next day they’re shaking hands and playing soccer, sharing coffee and photographs and stories. The story comes across in a much stronger way than it did seven years ago.

John Robert Lindsey as Jonathan Dale and Troy Cook as Father Palmer in the Minnesota Opera production of Silent Night // Photo by Michal Daniel

John Robert Lindsey as Jonathan Dale and Troy Cook as Father Palmer in the Minnesota Opera production of “Silent Night” // Photo by Michal Daniel

Is that sense of humanity what makes this show the enduring success that it’s been?

I think that anyone who knows about the Christmas Day Truce wonders about it. It’s a moment in time that lives in our imagination. It’s kind of what a lot of us would hope that humankind would be like. It’s what we hope for our future and it doesn’t happen often.

Wars are forever. They’ve been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time and they will be well into the future. But there’s also a part of us that understands that’s not all we’re about, fighting and violence. There’s part of us that has an honest desire to reach out, be friends, get to know each other, and find what’s common among us.

The Great War is a nebulous period of history for a lot of Americans, and the 100-year anniversary of the armistice is coming up on November 11. What would you like people to know about that period in history?

There are no living veterans anymore from World War I, and our connection with it is becoming more and more distant. It’s in danger of being forgotten. There’s no way of getting around that. I mean who remembers the Thirty Years War? We’re only very conscientious of the Civil War here because it happened on our land.

The thing about World War I is that it was the first modern war. It was the first war that introduced heavy artillery, machinery, airplanes dropping bombs, nerve gas, Gatling guns—all these things weren’t a part of war before. Not that they weren’t horrible and deadly, but wars used to be about rite of passage to manhood and honor and bravery, and people fought with swords, and that took skill and courage.

And then World War I came along and recruited a lot of young men who thought they’d go to war and gain their honor, and they were just basically sent to their deaths. They’d climb up from the trenches and get mowed down by the hundreds. It’s a watershed moment in war.

Has anything changed about the show since the world premiere? What will people who saw the premiere in 2011 see this time around?

It’s the sixth time I’ve directed it, and I’ve learned a lot from directing it. And I think that what they’ll find is the performances and the story are more nuanced and it’s reached a greater depth than they may have seen in the first rendering. The first time, it was a brand new opera. We were trying to get it on its feet and see what we had. We didn’t have much time to explore character and depth, and refine the technical aspects of the show.

I never get tired of this opera, and I’ve seen it a dozen times. It’s a rich piece. It has not only the tragedy of the war, but there are some funny moments. It has great characters and a love story in there. If [opera goers] enjoyed it the first time, they’ll definitely enjoy it this time.

“Silent Night” plays at the Ordway Center in St. Paul on November 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, and 18. Purchase tickets.