Kevin Puts, Mark Campbell and the Creation of Silent Night
Kevin Puts, the composer of Silent Night, was born in St. Louis, MO on January 3, 1972, but spent most of his early life in Alma, MI. He studied composition at Yale University and the Eastman School of Music, as well as the Tanglewood Music Festival. His best-known teacher, and one of the most influential, was William Bolcom, whom he admires “because he is so adept at so many different styles and techniques” – a trait which is prominent in Silent Night. He subsequently was composer in residence at the Fort Worth Symphony and taught for several years at the University of Texas before moving on to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in 2005.
Whereas throughout much of operatic history composers chose their own subjects and put together their own artistic teams, in today’s music world composers are commissioned by opera companies for specific projects. The inspiration for Silent Night came from Dale Johnson, artistic director of Minnesota Opera, who viewed the film Joyeux Noel and immediately saw it as the subject for an opera. “I was so moved by it. The singing of ‘Silent Night,’ the image of Sprink carrying the Christmas tree, the three lieutenants’ struggle with the orders from their commanders, their struggle with themselves as human beings…It felt like a very classical opera plot. They’re all trying to live their lives, and there’s this huge story going on around them that they can’t control.” He realized that the story would call for a strong orchestral writer, and after listening to one of Puts’s symphonies, he determined that he would be the appropriate choice, despite the fact that the composer had never written an opera and had, in fact, composed little for the voice.
Given Puts’s lack of experience with opera, Johnson decided to team him with veteran librettist Mark Campbell, who was cited in Opera News as “one of twenty-five artists poised to become major forces in opera in the coming decade.” Among the well-known composers with whom he has collaborated are Mark Adamo, William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jake Heggie. He has won numerous awards, including a Grammy nomination, a Drama Desk nomination, and the Richard Rodgers Award (twice). At present he is working on four other projects for Minnesota Opera, including an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. The addition of veteran director Eric Simonson completed the creative team for the original Silent Night production.
The opera had its premiere in November 2012 to great popular and critical acclaim, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In the near future Minnesota Opera will present Puts’ second opera, The Manchurian Candidate, also with a libretto by Campbell.
The success of a world premiere is often measured by the number of subsequent performances and productions. In this sense, Silent Night has been remarkably successful. The original production was followed by productions in Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Cincinnati, and Calgary. A Montreal production will follow soon after the opera’s appearance at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. A second production, different from the original, premiered at the Wexford Festival in October 2014.
Puts describes his relationship to music as religious: “I’m not a religious person, so for me the music is the evidence that there may be a something greater than myself.” As a composer, he does not identify himself with any particular style or movement: “I feel interested in a lot of subjects for opera. The interesting thing for me is to approach each of those projects in a different way, and to do whatever I need to do, musically to fit the story.”
While Silent Night is a lush, romantic, and tuneful opera, Puts does not believe in using melody for its own sake. He is primarily concerned with telling the story: “You know, it is very hard to do that and be convincing, especially when you are in the middle of theater and drama, making the opera feel like a story, to suddenly stop and have something which is a melody in the traditional sense and is formally designed like a song….it is difficult to do that and to remain convincing as a story-teller.”
On the personal level, Puts describes himself as an ordinary family man, one who has many interests besides music. His wife is a professional violinist, and they have a young son. For recreation, he enjoys music and sports. He does not attend many concerts, preferring to listen to music when he is alone.