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This is the Story of the 1914 Christmas Truce Told as Never Before

· Ali Turner · Culture

A gruelling battle, a simple gesture, an unexpected truce.

Opera North Silent Night

Inspired by real events, Silent Night tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when peace spontaneously broke out in the trenches during World War I. This new opera has a cinematic twist that brings the story to life – and it’s a must-see. Book now...

It’s not often that you get the chance to see a new opera and this one is absolutely unmissable…

This winter, Opera North will bring one of the most touching moments in history to life as they present the UK premiere of Silent Night. It’s a contemporary opera, never before seen in the UK, and it will tell the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when soldiers put down their arms and music broke out in the trenches. With a Pulitzer Prize-winning score by Kevin Puts and a multi-lingual libretto that will take you behind enemy lines, this new production will remind you that beneath the helmets and the uniforms, soldiers are people, just like us.

This was the day music stopped the war

Opera North Silent Night

Credit: Tom Arber

Inspired by real-life events, Silent Night weaves together three different but equally moving stories of the soldiers who fought in World War I. A German opera singer, two Scottish brothers and a French lieutenant find themselves on different sides of the battlefield, but as one man’s voice rises over no man’s land on Christmas Eve, they come to an unlikely truce. This is a very personal side of war, one that will bring history to life and make you believe in humanity again.

It brings together stories from all sides of the battle

Sometimes the telling of history can be one-sided, but not here. Silent Night takes you into the trenches with the French, the Scottish and the Germans, so you can see that every soldier has a story, no matter what side they’re on. It switches from one army to another with surprising ease. “I didn’t want to let go of the audience, I wanted to keep a grip on them for the entire duration. I wanted to create a sense of dreamlike continuity as you move from bunker to bunker. And that is a sort of cinematic influence,” Puts explained.

But this is no Hollywood glamorisation. The story, the music and even the libretto will ground you in the harsh realities of war. Mark Campbell decided very early on that he wanted to write Silent Night in three languages, so even though they all share the same hopes and desires, you’re constantly reminded what side they’re on.

“In several moments in the score you hear all three languages at once, from three different countries but all with the same perspective. It is what the Christmas Eve armistice was all about – these normal working men, with wives and children at home, all just trying to get through this horrific war. The commonality across these different nations, across the language barrier, is so moving and relevant today,” Máire Flavin, who plays opera singer Anna Sørensen in Silent Night, told us.

It’s a contemporary opera with an edgy cinematic feel

Throw away your preconceptions, because Silent Night isn’t like other operas. First performed in 2011, it’s a new-age opera with a cool, contemporary feel that’s more akin to the movies than the stage. It will be brought to life by the Orchestra of Opera North, who will recreate the sounds of war with their instruments. We’re talking artillery fire, bombs dropping and more, all told through the magic of music, and accompanied by 100 male voices.

It makes war impossibly personal

Opera North Silent Night

Credit: Tom Arber

On the front lines, it was ‘them versus us’. The enemy weren’t people, they were targets – but once you realise that your foe is as frightened and homesick as you are, the killing becomes almost unbearable. “War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person. When you see that the person you might be shooting has a child or a wife or has this life at home and they’re just not the enemy, then it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain war,” Campbell explained.

It’s something that becomes abundantly clear when word of the armistice gets back to headquarters. Distanced from the war and the people fighting it, they see the soldiers’ actions as a betrayal that must be punished, but sat in the audience, watching the story unfold, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

“The heart of the story is about how people of different nationalities who had been told, taught and ordered to hate, fear and kill each other were able to shed that fear and forget all that supposedly separated them, to discover again that we are all just human,” Rupert Charlesworth explained, he plays opera singer Nikolaus Sprink in Silent Night. “In this world of Brexit and Trump and ever more hateful and divisive public discourse, this is more important than ever. If we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them.”

It’s inspired by history, in more ways than one

Opera North Silent Night

Credit: Tom Arber

On 25th December 1914, a series of small, unofficial ceasefires took place on the Western Front. In some places, the soldiers simply sang carols, in others, they stepped out into no man’s land to exchange gifts, play football and recover their fallen brethren. At about the same time, the German Crown Prince sent the lead singer of the Berlin Imperial Opera company to perform on the front line.

Silent Night is based on these real-life events, but that’s not the only homage to history in the production. Illuminos, of Leeds Light Night fame, will be projecting original black and white images from the war onto the Town Hall organ, and the cast have brought their own personal experiences of the war into their performance.

“Two of my great grandfathers served and my great great grandfather was in the British Expeditionary force,” Flavin explained. “We have my great grandfather Lance Corporal Joseph Bohan O’Shea’s diary from the year he died at the Battle of the Somme 1916. Having these personal connections has heightened my experience of this piece and made me extremely proud to be involved.”

This is an unflinching depiction of the grim realities of war

Opera North Silent Night

Credit: Tom Arber

In many ways, Silent Night is an uplifting tale. After all, it gives us peace in the midst of war. But they don’t shy away from the realities of the front line. You’ll see soldiers die, men left behind and entire regiments punished for showing their humanity. Even the man who starts the ceasefire stabs the enemy on the battlefield. It’s touching and horrifying in equal measure, and the music really brings it all home.

It’s only here for 4 nights and tickets start at just £10

Opera North Silent Night

Credit: Tom Arber

Silent Night comes to Leeds Town Hall for four nights, from Friday 30th November to Friday 7th December 2018 – and believe it or not, tickets start from just £10. So if you’re quick, you can enjoy a rare and humbling night of entertainment for a bargain price.