San Diego Opera's 'All Is Calm' Looks To Christmas Truce Of 1914
A cappella opera uses the choral voice, the solo voice, and the spoken word
"Oh! What A Lovely War" (1969)
"Joyeux Noël" (2005)
"The Christmas Truce" (2007 documentary)
In 1914, in the midst of a violent war, British, French and German soldiers engaged in an unofficial ceasefire to celebrate Christmas. San Diego Opera’s production of "All Is Calm" looks to the role song may have played in creating this moment of peace.
In 1914, Allied forces thought they would already be home and done with war by Christmas but reality was very different. The Germans were years from being defeated and more soldiers were dying from trench conditions and influenza than on the battlefield.
As one soldier in "All Is Calm" said, "I suddenly realized this was warfare and I might not return."
But not even war and winter weather could keep some enlisted men from singing to pass the time.
On Christmas Eve of 1914, a British soldier tells us, "I have a select little party together who, led by my stentorian voice, are going to take up positions in our trenches where we are closest to the enemy, about 80 yards away, and from 10 p.m. onwards we are going to give the enemy every conceivable song."
"I don’t believe that the Christmas Truce would have happened were it not for song," Peter Rothstein explained.
The real story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 fascinated Rothstein for years and he eventually decided to turn it into a choral opera called “All Is Calm.”
Alan E. Hicks directs the San Diego Opera production. He is the newly appointed Director of Opera Theatre in partnership with San Diego State University.
"There is a kind of beauty in the idea that music will draw people in," Hicks said. "The way [the truce] started historically, was not with someone coming over and starting a conversation, but with the British hearing the German singing tunes and wanting to be part of that."
A British soldier in the production describes the scene: "There was a lot of commotion in the German trenches. And then those lights and then they sang."
"And that is what drew them to no man’s land and that is what actually got them to shake hands and say let’s not shoot at each other and let’s celebrate this beautiful day together," Hicks added. "It was the music that did that."
“All is Calm” is presented as part of the dētour Series created by San Diego Opera’s general director David Bennett. The dētour series showcases works that fall outside of traditional opera with an emphasis on discovery.
"If you think about what the essence of opera is, it is really telling a story through music," Bennett explained. "Every aspect of this piece really exploits the expressive potency of the human voice."
The dētour series is meant to offer something different from Grand Opera.
"But what is grand about this is you are going to have six of the best male voices that San Diego has to offer singing absolutely a cappella all night long. There’s no orchestra. There are no instruments," said singer Walter DuMelle.
DuMelle is also co-founder of Bodhi Tree Concerts, which is one of the co-presenters along with SACRA/PROFANA of “All is Calm.”
"It’s storytelling by the choral voice, the solo voice, and the spoken word," DuMelle said.
There is no other instrumentation, just as it might have been for the soldiers in the trenches.
"It’s a bunch of soldiers on different sides of the line who come together and find commonality and common ideas through the music," said Juan Carlos Acosta, conductor. "So that pulls our singers together to all work together for the same goal and really tune their voices one to another for the end product."
Just as the soldiers of these opposing armies came together to form a single bond of humanity.
"If I think of the moral to this story, it’s that each of us as an individual has the capacity to create peace because the soldiers did that. They stopped war for a moment and created peace," Bennett said.
But it was bittersweet because it was short-lived.
"And we all leave going back to our own sides of the aisles but hopefully our hearts are left a little bit more open," DuMelle said.
Perhaps the soldiers of “All is Calm” will inspire individuals today to reach out across the aisle in ways that their leaders may not be willing to do.
"For a single night, no man’s land was every man’s land," a soldier explains in at the end of the show. "And we, the lowest of the ranks achieved what the Pope himself could not, in the middle of the war, we had ourselves a merry Christmas."
"All Is Calm" has three performances Friday through Sunday at the Balboa Theatre.