On the front lines of World War I in Bulgaria, it is about as dark as a night can get.
Then a voice emerges from the German bunkers, a soldier stepping into plain sight holding a Christmas tree aloft. Soon, a priest steps out from the Scottish bunker holding up his Bible, and a Frenchman comes forward with a white flag.
Who knows if this was actually the scene when the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 took place? But it is the way composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell imagine it in “Silent Night,” their Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 opera that makes its Lexington debut this weekend in a production by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.
Sunday’s 2 p.m. performance actually falls on Veterans Day, which is also the 100th anniversary of the Allies signing of the armistice with Germany that brought the war to an end.
But “Silent Night” tells the story of the war’s first peace, when soldiers from opposing sides laid down their arms and shared stories, food and drink, and fun, including a soccer match. The tension emerges when the soldiers are supposed to go back to battle.
“The true emotional friction is after the truce when it’s, ‘Well, now I don’t want to shoot my friends,’” says singer Lloyd White V, who plays Scottish soldier William Dale.
That’s in large part because the opera’s creators made a point of not picking good guys and bad guys.
“One of Mark’s goals for this opera was that by humanizing all of these characters, by really saying there are no victors here, everybody is a victim of war and everyone is hurt — either they die or there’s a large change spiritually or emotionally for them — they show that no one’s a winner,” says singer Mark Pandolfo, who is in his third production of “Silent Night.
“If you see what war does to people with such human regard, with fairness and equality to all sides ... you see war is not a sustainable thing. There is no good outcome.”
The message was powerful enough to change the perspective of one of the show’s two women, soprano Hyeonjeong Kim, who hails from South Korea. She said that growing up, she had accepted that war with North Korea may someday be a necessity.
“After working on this opera, I changed my mind,” Kim says. “It’s really a tragedy. This opera taught me a lot.”
In addition to the costs of war, the opera opens a window to Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, when, say, a German could marry someone from France as easily as a Kentuckian could marry someone from Indiana.
“Us Americas tend to think of Europe as all these different countries, versus states that are so close to each other,” says Jeremy Kelly, who sings the role of German soldier Lt. Horstmeyer.
Pandolfo says, “There’s a lot in the libretto that indicates these subtle suggestions of what Europe was like, pre-World War I, and really, the multi-cultural space that it was. People had relatives all over the place.”
One of the interesting twists to telling this story in an opera is language.
“A lot of us are singing three languages,” Kelly says. “The majority of operas you see are going to be in one language, primarily, usually a foreign language.
“Singers live in the world of vowels, so when you sing one language, you get a certain set of sensations and get used to it. When you switch in a matter of five minutes, and you’re going from French to German to English, that’s a very odd experience, particularly in singing.”
Overall, the singers and UK Opera director Everett McCorvey say the opera is one of the most musically challenging shows they have taken on, and they have the distinction of being the first collegiate company in the United States to do it.
“I can say this is one of the best shows we have ever put on,” says Michael Preacely, who has been with UK Opera since 2010. “When you come in, you say, ‘Wow, this is a nice set,’ and then it changes. It’s breathtaking. And the music — for me, personally, this has been an amazing journey from the beginning to the end.:”
IF YOU GO
What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of the 2012 opera with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 and 10, 2 p.m. Nov. 11
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.