This year as the United States observes the 100th anniversary of its entrance into the Great War, Piedmont Opera will produce a new opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, the Pulitzer prize-winning contemporary opera Silent Night. The opera is based on the true story of the 1914 Christmas truce which was also the inspiration for the 2005 French film “Joyeux Noël.” The production examines the experiences the men had in the trenches of WWI and poses questions of why we go to war, who benefits, and ultimately, the emotional cost.
Last season Piedmont Opera celebrated strong women in opera. Due to the nature of war, Silent Night is an opera rich in male roles, especially for baritones. Piedmont Opera sat down with two of its principals who sing the roles of the French Lieutenant Audebert (Gabriel Preisser) and Scottish Lieutenant Gordon (Gregory Gerbrandt) to learn more about the strong and not-so-silent men of Silent Night.
Gabriel, you created the role of Lt. Gordon in Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night at Minnesota Opera with subsequent performances at Opera Philadelphia, Cincinnati Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre. You are “known” for this role but are cast as Lieutenant Audebert in PO’s production. How to you feel about assuming a new identity in Silent Night? What are some of the pros and cons?
Preisser: Silent Night is very near and dear to my heart. I actually covered (the role of) Audebert in the premiere at Minnesota in addition to singing Gordon so I have been eager for the chance to do Audebert. The truth of the matter is any role in Silent Night is a special one because the opera is so special. The combination of an actual piece of history replicated on stage that celebrates pure humanity amidst abject brutality and composer Kevin Puts’ rich, expressive score makes Silent Night an instant classic in my humble opinion. It is truly a masterpiece.
What challenges will you face in preparation for this role?
Preisser: The tricky thing for me will be making sure I don’t start singing the wrong part! I promise I won’t step on Lt Gordon’s lines. I promise! The other challenge with Silent Night is there is an added layer of expectation to be true to the characters as they really lived, really existed, and what they experienced in those trenches really happened. It is an exciting challenge as a singing actor.
You have been active in several new operas. What draws you to contemporary opera? How do new works fit into the future of opera?
I have been very fortunate to be involved with several contemporary operas and I continue to be drawn to them because in many ways they are our living legacy and the music and stories have an immediacy and relevancy that instantly draws me in. They are also just plain fun. Quite often the musical language is eclectic and challenging, which stretches and challenges me as a singer/artist, and the characters are often contemporary or from recent history, so as to be more familiar and interesting to recreate. It is a rewarding experience and Silent Night especially so with it being such a special, beautiful, and tragic moment in our history.
What do you do when you aren’t performing/rehearsing?
Aside from performing, I just so happen to run a little opera company back home – Opera Orlando. It keeps me busy, but my biggest joy is spending time with my wife Christina and two kids Grayson and Cora. Of course, my three-year-old son Grayson has now gotten in the habit of saying “Dada, no singing!” Everyone is a critic.
Gregory Gerbrandt, who will perform the role of Scottish Lieutenant Gordon, has created the lead baritone in four World Premieres. He is frequently asked to sing contemporary opera and has performed most recently the lead role in new productions. He now adds Silent Night to that list.
How are you preparing for the role of Lieutenant Gordon?
Gerbrandt: I’ve found out as much about the piece and history surrounding the event as possible. Gaining a contextual knowledge of that time in history really helps me visualize these characters and events. Then I start on the music and text. As Gordon interacts with many individuals who are speaking languages other than my own, I make sure I know the translation of each word for literal, idiomatic, and phrasal meaning. Only then do I start to learn the music and how it lives with each statement I, and every other character, make. Then there’s the whole Scottish thing…I’m still working on that!
What has been your most memorable stage moment – good or bad?
Gerbrandt: I’ve experienced so many wonderful, fulfilling, scary, and never-to-be-repeated moments I don’t even know where to begin! Let’s just say these moments will live in my mind and heart until I can get them down on paper, and then you can experience all of them with me!
What do you like to do when you’re not performing?
Gerbrandt: I love to fish, and have caught nearly every fish in my home state of Colorado this summer….twice! I also really enjoy traveling, sports (both playing and observing), songwriting on my guitar, staying active physically and in the community, reading, and scratching behind the ears of each fuzzy dog I come in contact with on the streets.
Silent Night makes its North Carolina premiere on October 27th at 8:00 PM and runs on October 29th at 2:00 PM and on October 31st at 7:30 PM at the Stevens Center of the UNCSA. Piedmont Opera offers half price tickets to students and has Student Night on October 25th at 7:30 PM during the final dress rehearsal. Crosby Scholars are invited to attend Student Night for free by calling the box office.
Tickets are available by calling 336.725.7101 or PiedmontOpera.org.