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The Globalism of Modern Opera

Josh Borths – February 6, 2019

Opera is a global art form and throughout its 400-year history, opera has crossed cultural boundaries through the universal power of music. * And yet, something new is afoot. In our current operatic era, opera’s global impulses have been elevated creating new and exciting trends in the musical dramas of our time. Silent Night, the award-winning masterpiece of the 21st century, epitomizes the best of these modern ideas and opens new ways to create and experience this global art.


The subject matter of the opera itself—like many modern operas—brings a searing and intensely relevant story to life. Today, most new operas deal with difficult questions and confront contemporary headlines head-on, but in other musical eras, these contemporary parallels and direct explorations of timely subjects were censored or even outright banned. However, Silent Night is does not shy away from conflict. It leans in, and through the Christmas Eve truce during WWI, Silent Night grapples with questions about the price of war and the true cost of peace.


Silent Night is a multilingual opera that uses our current experiences in the opera house to tell its story. Beginning in the 1980s, supertitles became a fixture of operatic performance. Before them, audiences either needed to know the show in advance or resign themselves to not understanding the work. After the advent of supertitles, audiences were able engage with the drama through translation. Silent Night embraces translation (and therefore supertitles). In fact, Silent Night requires it. Silent Night is sung in five languages—Italian, English, French, German, and Latin—and puts the audience directly into world of the opera’s characters. Like the soldiers depicted onstage, we too are divorced from one another through language and misunderstanding. We too are alienated by our inability to communicate. It is only through recognizing our mutual humanity that these linguistic trenches are traversed, and in Silent Night, it is music that unites everyone onstage. Music is the metaphor for our shared humanity. Music overcomes linguistic and cultural divides and unites warring nations in peace—no matter how short. Silent Night is about the forces that divide us and how we come together once more.


Throughout much of the 20th century, classical music retreated into the academic circles where increasingly obtuse, alienating compositions left many audience members behind. However, most contemporary artists, like the creators of Silent Night, are rediscovering the power of musical beauty. Silent Night is not afraid to move you. It is not afraid to be engage and this newfound approachability—while still being rigorously intellectual—connects audiences through the music instead of dividing them.


With a gorgeous libretto by Mark Campbell, Silent Night is based on the film Joyeux Noël, and the opera uses this modern film as its inspiration to create a kaleidoscopic experience for the audience. Structurally, there is little in common between Silent Night and the great operas of the past. Instead of unit sets and static scenes, Silent Night weaves its story through a series of interconnected vignettes. Like many Oscar award-winning films of our time, Silent Night creates a dramatic collage that takes hold and never lets us go. Silent Night won the Pulitzer Prize for music, and since its premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2011, it has been performed around the world, representing the best of modern opera. It uses music of arching beauty to fully embrace audiences. It utilizes other artistic techniques to create a cinematic experience. It focuses on relevant questions that directly speak to audiences, and it uses language itself—through supertitles and translation—to bring the story to life. Silent Night is truly a global, accessible, multilingual, multicultural opera. It is a specific experience with global implications, and through this masterpiece, we are confronted with what divides us, what pushes us apart, and the universal forces that can unite us once again.


*For example, Arizona Opera’s 2018/19 season concludes with The Marriage of Figaro: composed by an Austrian, sung in Italian, set in Spain, based on a French play, performed in the American West.

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