By Susan B. Apel
All Is Calm juxtaposes the gravity (some might say the idiocy) of war with the simple human gestures that the opposing sides extended to each other during a remarkable ceasefire.
In an unusual but powerful choice for the holiday season, Opera North is staging All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, an opera that details a remarkable occurrence during World War I. Warring forces called a temporary truce on Christmas. The opera’s creator, Peter Rothstein, describes the ceasefire that inspired his work: “This extraordinary event took place in 1914, the first year of the war, and was never repeated. Thousands of men put down their guns and left their trenches to meet their enemies in No Man’s Land. They exchanged gifts of tobacco, rum, and chocolates, even photographs of loved ones. They sang songs, played a game of soccer, and buried each other’s dead. Upon orders from above, they eventually returned to their trenches and re-instigated a war that would last four more years.” The production of the opera at this time provides an ironic juxtaposition with Sam Mendes’s epic film 1917, which opens on Christmas Day. It is the story of two British soldiers who “embark on a dangerous mission to save 1,600 men from certain doom during World War I.”
All Is Calm is sung in French, English, and German. Its text is drawn from soldiers’ letters, news reports, and other documentary memorabilia from the era. The staging is intentionally spare, with a set as desolate as the foggy No Man’s Land near Ypres, Belgium, where a German soldier began the temporary peace by stepping forward and singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
Reviews of previous productions, including an off-Broadway run by Theater Latté Da in 2018, note that the characters are predictably representative: the young, idealistic recruits with their tenor voices mixing in with lower baritones, then eventually melding into the bleaker bass notes of seasoned veterans. Audiences can expect to hear familiar tunes, like “It’s a Long Way To Tipperary,” “Will Ye Go to Flanders,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” The music juxtaposes the gravity (some might say the idiocy) of war with the simple human gestures that the opposing sides extended to each other.
With All Is Calm, Opera North is expanding its temporal footprint and its physical location in the Upper Connecticut River Valley. In the previous 35-plus years, this professional opera company has presented three fully staged operas each summer at the Lebanon Opera House in downtown Lebanon, New Hampshire. It has now partnered with Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park and the United States Park Service to lead the revitalization of the Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, New Hampshire, a property that has deep connections to the historic Cornish Artists Colony of the late 1800s and early 1900s. For the past two summers, Opera North has presented two less than traditional performances outdoors at the Farm, pairing opera singers and circus artists in Singers and Swingers. In more recent years, Opera North has also expanded its season beyond the late summer months. In the fall of 2018, it presented the chamber opera Scalia/Ginsberg. All Is Calm is its first Christmas season production.
Rothstein says the coming together of soldiers on both sides “puts a human face on war.” Is there a better time to see All Is Calm than during a season dedicated to prayers for world peace and goodwill?
All Is Calm is scheduled for two performances only, on December 14 at 5 p.m.and December 15 at 2 p.m., at the Briggs Opera House, 5 South Main Street, White River Junction, Vermont.
Susan B. Apel is a freelance writer and retired law professor whose work has appeared in various online and print publications such as the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Literary Mama, and Persimmon Tree. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, in which she writes about the arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly at Herecast.us. She is an art correspondent for The Woven Tale Press and a columnist for the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.