St. Louis native Kevin Puts wins music Pulitzer for World War I opera 'Silent Night'
New York-based composer and Peabody Institute faculty member Kevin Puts has won the Pulitizer Prize for music with Silent Night, his first opera. The work received its world premiere in November in at Minnesota Opera in St. Paul.
Pulitzer officials described Silent Night as "a stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire among Scottish, French and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart."
Minnesota Opera commissioned Puts to write Silent Night with librettist Mark Campbell and came up with the idea of basing it on the Oscar-nominated 2005 French film Joyeux Nöel, which dramatized actual events. The 40-year-old composer says it's his first opera.
"I'm still learning about the voice and how to write most idiomatically for it," Puts said in a phone interview today. "My music has become more and more lyrical over the years, so it wasn't too much of a stretch."
What was a challenge for Puts was the variety of tongues — there are scenes in Silent Night sung in German, French, English, Italian and Latin. "Getting my head around the language was the biggest challenge of the opera," he said.
Much of the opera is set in the trenches of a Belgian battlefield during the days before Christmas 1914. On Christmas Eve, music comes from the French and Scottish bunkers as soldiers celebrate the holiday. An opera-singing German soldier responds with a Christmas song, and before long white flags wave and a temporary truce is brokered. In the end, generals admonish their soldiers for giving in and the battlefield is emptied as snow begins to fall.
As soon as Puts watched the film, he could envision the scenes unfolding on stage. His love of cinema affected the rhythm of his opera.
"I didn't want to let go of the audience," Puts says. "I wanted to keep a grip on them for the entire duration. Some scenes overlap. I wanted to create a sense of dreamlike continuity as you move from bunker to bunker. And that is a sort of cinematic influence."
A native of St. Louis, Puts studied at the Eastman School of Music with Samuel Adler and Pulitzer winner Joseph Schwantner, before moving on to Yale for a master's degree, where he studied under Jacob Druckman and David Lang, who have also won Pulitzers. Puts returned to Eastman for his doctorate.
Puts teaches composition at Peabody and has composed an impressive body of work including symphonies, concertos and chamber music performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. He began working on Silent Night with Campbell in 2009.
"The first thought I had when I started writing measure 1 was that it is was so exciting that I wanted it to go well enough that I could write another opera," Puts says. "The medium is so exciting to me."