Will Ye Go to Flanders?

The following post was written by Minnesota Opera’s former Head of Music Mary Dibbern, who is currently Music Director of Education and Family Programs for The Dallas Opera. She will be language and music coach for the co-production of Silent Night with the Fort Worth Opera in 2014. Her travels around France the winter before the premiere of Silent Night took her to the French-Belgian border near Ypres, the site of the Christmas truce that inspired the movie and the opera.

Stories surrounding the opera, Silent Night.

Part One

“Will ye go tae Flanders” is a traditional Scottish folksong from the beginning of the 18th century. In the version below, photos of the unspeakable horror of the WW I battlefields in and around Ypres (“Ieper” in Flemish) and Passchendale are shown so quickly that one can barely keep up with the details. The sadness, the waste, the unspeakable horror of what happened in Belgium…a country that has such a long history of being invaded and devastated.

Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative production of Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell is set mainly in “the bunkers of a battlefield near the French-Belgian border around Christmas, 1914.” The libretto, an adaptation of the French film Joyeux Noël, is a compilation of true stories, all of which occurred wholly or in part, during the various Christmas truces of 1914. In December of 2010, I traveled to northern France and Belgium in order to find out more about the locations of the truces, hoping to see some of them with my own eyes. As luck would have it, I was able to contact a battlefield tour guide who is a specialist on the Christmas truce, and was one of the consultants for the BBC documentary The Christmas Truce.

I was in Texas, rather desperately sending emails to all of the battlefield guides for that area, knowing that I would arrive in France in a few days, and wanted to make sure I found the right person. Sending as many emails as possible was a bit of a “Hail Mary” pass into cyberspace. Two days before my flight, I awoke in the middle of the night and went online. “Dear Mary, I am Annette Linthout. I am the person you need for your battlefield tour.” She went on to explain that she and her husband, Christian Delplace, had a B & B near Ypres, Belgium, the site of some of the Christmas truces, and that she was an expert in the subject. Not knowing much more than that, I told my trusty friend and travel companion Margaret P. to get ready for an adventure. We met in Normandy and a few days later were on the train for Lille, France, where Christian had arranged to pick us up.

To be honest, I did not even know where Ypres was . . . just that it was somewhere north of the French border. I was not aware of its proud and sad history. My eyes were opened by this two day trip and I found the key to unlock many of the questions I had about the Christmas truce as it related to Silent Night. When Annette told me in her next emails that she would outline a battlefield tour that included the sites of the Bruce Bairnsfather truce, Hill 60, the museum of Ypres and sites in France near Fromelles and Frelinghen, I had to take her word that this was what I was looking for. And it was!

There followed two intense days of visits to truce sites, discussion with archivists in the museums in Ypres and Messen, an amazing moment in the Menin Gate memorial while three buglers played The Last Post, a visit to the Irish Peace Project, a chance meeting with archeologist Martin Brown as he led the team to excavate trenches in frozen fields, and hours of discussions about the Christmas truces. Where did they take place, what do they mean for us today?

I will explore several of these themes in subsequent posts. Below is a very important scene from the film Joyeux Noël. This is a key scene in our opera, Silent Night. It is December 24, 1914. The weary and wounded soldiers from Scotland, France and Germany are in their cold, wet trenches, trying not to think too much about Christmas celebrations taking place in their respective homes all over Europe. Suddenly, music is heard across No Man’s Land. A German opera singer, now a soldier, starts to sing along with the bagpipes of Father Palmer, a Scottish pastor. Barely daring to believe that they are making music together, they eventually crawl to the edges of the trenches. The Scots and French see the small Christmas trees (Flammenschwert) that Germans have sent to their soldiers and that are now posed on top of the trench walls. These trees, with lit candles, frighten the opposing soldiers at first. They did not know what a Christmas tree was, this was a German tradition. Some soldiers thought it was a new kind of weapon, or some kind of trick. However, the German opera singer, Nicholas Sprink, who will be played by American tenor William Burden, takes his courage in his heart and crawls out of the trench, walking into No Man’s Land with the tree held high, singing a Christmas song. Gradually the other soldiers venture out of their trenches to meet him, and the Christmas Truce of 1914 has begun.

There are two real stories of opera singers in the trenches during Christmas 1914.

Our character, Sprink, is based upon the German heldentenor, Walther Kirschhoff, who was not enlisted, but was sent by the Crown Prince to the German trenches to entertain the troops for Christmas Eve. A soldier on the opposing side recognized the famous tenor’s voice, and started to applaud. This began an exchange which resulted in Kirschhoff climbing up to the top of the trench to see who was applauding him, and a truce began.

Another operatic tenor who was an enlisted soldier started a Christmas truce on his part of the front. This was Victor Granier of the Paris Opera. German soldiers, the Wurttembergers of the 246th Reserve Regiment of Infantry filed their official report as follows:  “Was it possible? Were the French really going to leave us in peace today, Christmas Eve?  Then from across the way came the sound of a festive song – a Frenchman was singing a Christmas carol with a marvelous tenor voice. Everyone lay still, listening in the quiet of the night. Was it our imagination or is it maybe meant to lull us into a false sense of security? Or was it in fact the victory of God’s love over all human conflict?”

I leave you with one more clip from a dramatization of the Christmas truce. This is a version without music from the film Oh, What a Lovely War.

This entry was posted in Music Monday. Bookmark the permalink.