Ted Simons: The premier production of the Pulitzer-prize winning opera "Silent Night" will be broadcast nationwide this week on PBS's "Great Performances." the opera airs Friday night at p.m. here on Eight/Arizona PBS. Conducting the Minnesota opera's premier performance is the Phoenix Symphony's own Michael Christie, who joins us now. Good to see you again.
Michael Christie: Good to see you too.
Ted Simons: Minnesota opera's premier of “Silent night”. Are you going back to do it? Was it already done? Give me a time line here?
Michael Christie: The performance happened in November of 2011, the Pulitzer was this past year, 2012.
Ted Simons: And this will be broadcast on great performance -- did you know this was going to be a broadcast performance?
Michael Christie: No, but we did understand it was going to be an important opera when we were doing it. We fundraised it a bit more to capture it on HD. The image is amazing and sound capture is out of this world. And then it was a question of whether things would be picked up. But I think the fact that it is this Christmas opera did give it a great opportunity. And so PBS picked it up.
Ted Simons: You said you knew at the time this was an important piece of work and this was a special opera. Why?
Michael Christie: Well, there are those moments when creating something brand new when you just know that a composer, and in this case composer and his team -- they have created this fantastic story. The propulsion, the drama, beauty of the music, and just the topic somehow really worked.
Ted Simons: Talk about the topic. When I read about it, it is like this is -- we have heard this story before. World War I, soldiers laying down their arms during Christmas. But the idea of a song from this bunker, a song from that -- my goodness, that's made for opera.
Michael Christie: That's exactly it. That's the point. When Minnesota Opera commissioned this particular piece, that was the idea that when you have something as upending as war and suddenly music changes it. What is so interesting, reports are that these armistices happened throughout the battle lines. There wasn't just this one. This actually did happen in Belgium and the three armies, the Scotch, French, and Germans who apparently were quite close together, so close were the bunkers that they were shouting at each other often, and apparently in real life, there was a German singer and he started singing and the other people started to sing and they popped their heads over the bunker. Okay. What are we going to do? They got together. There was a soccer game. They did have a service happen. The one thing that we did add in the production, we did have a love interest added. This is opera.
Ted Simons: I never heard that part before, but we will have to wait and watch that Friday night. Scenes sung in the particular languages.
Michael Christie: Yes, this opera has five languages. It starts off in Italian. The love interest is between a soprano and tenor, so they’re singing in Italian because they’re a soprano and a tenor. And then we go into the bunkers and we hear English for the Scotts, French, German, and then the Soprano, she is part of the Catholic service that happens, Scottish priest in the Scottish bunkers -- she sings in Latin, that is our fifth language.
Ted Simons: The music itself, it is atonal, is it modern, old fashioned -- what is it?
Michael Christie: It is a real mix just like the mix of languages. First a harkening back to Mozart with the Italian opera feel. Battle scene, atonal because it is battle. The majority of the music is very beautiful, tonal, rhythmical drive to it. Kevin is a tremendously gifted composer who had been writing for instrumental forces and this is his first opera and it won the Pulitzer. He has navigated all of the hurdles writing for the voice, voice and orchestra.
Ted Simons: What are the hurdles?
Michael Christie: It is interesting. Obviously when we speak to each other, there is inflection in how we stress certain words in a sentence. Composers have made their mark on how they use musical gesture to make that inflection happen and make the stress happen in the way the lines are communicated. I think that is where modern vocal music can get touchy, in the middle part of the 20th century, it was quite disjointed and I don't think it resonated with people and Kevin really has gotten back to that natural stress of the story telling, the communication of that particular line in a very, very clear way right from the beginning.
Ted Simons: Fast-moving opera -- I would imagine maybe a little slower considering the reflective nature of everything, but maybe not.
Michael Christie: It is pretty fast-moving. It is a pretty short evening. I think it comes in an hour and fifty for the whole thing. There are moments of repose for sure. The first act, there’s a beautiful sleep chorus. There are only two women in the show. The rest are men because obviously we are in the bunkers of armies in World War I, no women serving yet. We have the love interest and we do have the wife of the French lieutenant, but we have a beautiful acapella men's chorus. We see the three bunkers, all thinking about sleeping and reflecting on being home with their families and that is wonderful.
Ted Simons: That brings me to my next question. Considering the subject matter, considering how opera -- Hankies can come flying at any moment -- does it get close to schmaltzy at all?
Michael Christie: I don't think so. I think that was one of the key tasks was to be honest to the story and not letting it get to that point. Obviously when those moments happen and a couple of the soldiers die and it's very intense, you have to respond to it. But we didn't dwell on it. It is truly remarkable. And what we're so proud of is the fact that many opera companies have picked it up since. It is only two years old. This year it is showing in Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Calgary -- just this year alone. I'm doing the European premier next year in Ireland. Four other companies are about to announce productions for next year.
Ted Simons: I didn't -- sometimes you hear some of these stories and you know that if you do this the right way, it can really touch a cord. If you do it just a little off it can --
Michael Christie: Right.
Ted Simons: Hallmark card here. Hallmark card --
Michael Christie: That's right. Exactly.
Ted Simons: Last question about this. Challenges for you conducting this kind of music, this kind of production.
Michael Christie: The biggest challenge the fact that we were creating it in scratch. In history, no record. We were creating it together. Original creative team. The director and myself were working closely with the composer and to try to tease out what they were looking for. A lot of feedback. Minnesota opera, which I'm now music director of, this is a long-range project. We commission a new opera every year.
Ted Simons: You’re the music director for the Minnesota Opera and still with the Phoenix Opera, how does that --
Michael Christie: I’m the music director Laureate.
Ted Simons: Okay. Minnesota probably in the summertime, Phoenix in the wintertime.
Michael Christie: Something like that.
Ted Simons: We can't let you go without --
Michael Christie: We start tonight. I'm going to Mesa after finishing the interview.
Ted Simons: Talk about the challenges of conducting that. I'm assuming that you have done this numerous times.
Michael Christie: Many times.
Ted Simons: That is quite a production.
Michael Christie: Funny thing actually. “Silent Night” we had to create from scratch, create our own tradition. And then you have “Handles Messiah” which is bathed in tradition. Handle, who is also a great opera composer gets right to the heart of the matter all of the time. Very concise. Lots of drama, lots of impact, and so I think all one has do in any of these situations, tell the story. Tell the story honestly, as if you were speaking to somebody trying to convey that for the first time and it comes across like gold.
Ted Simons: We can't wait to watch this Friday night. DVR it if you can't watch it live and on the PBS web sites as well. Messiah is always great. I can't let you go though without asking -- I don't know much about it, and I enjoy learning about it. What's new, fresh, interesting? I don't want tone, I don't want atonal -- I want -- what's happening out there? What's exciting you about classical music?
Michael Christie: Very interesting. I think all of the stereo typical modern sound are a thing of the past. This is like 1960s to 1980s. That really is gone. It is more melodic language out there. Beautiful interfaces with electronic enhancements in certain ways. It is a very exciting world. One thing that I think is really special is a lot of orchestras are breaking down into smaller ensembles, sending their people out into bars, into other venues that are more intimate in addition to the large venues and that calls on different experiences. I think orchestras and opera companies are trying very hard to connect with people in new ways.
Ted Simons: A connection Friday night that is for sure.
Michael Christie: You got it.
Ted Simons: Great to see you, Merry Christmas.