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BCT / Opera Idaho’s ‘All is Calm’ reveals ‘what human beings are capable of’ when war and peace intersect

"All is Calm" chronicles the Christmas Truce of 1914
Boise Contemporary Theater
"All is Calm" chronicles the Christmas Truce of 1914

The so-called "Christmas Truce of 1914" is nearly mythological. But indeed, on Christmas Day, 1914 a German soldier stepped out into what was known as “No Man’s Land,” the narrow patch of battlefield between the many trenches, holding opposing troops, and began to sign “Stille Nacht (Silent Night).”

What followed was remarkable and is the subject of a unique co-production for the holiday season, from Boise Contemporary Theaterand Opera Idaho.

“I think it’s a healing piece,” said Mark Junkert, general director at Opera Idaho. “I’m very grateful and thankful for this moment of communion.”

Junkert and BCT’s Tracy Sunderland, All is Calm’s director, visited with Morning Edition George Prentice to talk about the production and it emotional resonance.

“War is present at the beginning and end; but it’s a cease fire with gifts, poetry and melody. And I think it shows us that we as human beings are capable of this.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. There are… well, quite a few stage productions for the holidays, most of them familiar, but Boise Contemporary Theater is co-producing something....along with Opera Idaho… something unique for this holiday season. The production is titled All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Tracy Sunderland is the production’s director at BCT and Mark Junkert is the General Director at Opera Idaho. Tracy. Mark, good morning.

MARK JUNKERT: Good morning.

TRACY SUNDERLAND: Morning. For having us.

PRENTICE: So let's talk about this unique collaboration. Mark, how? How did this happen?

JUNKERT: I came across the work, All Is Calm, when opera companies started presenting it and probably sometimes in collaboration work was written in 2007 by Peter Rothstein, who runs theater Latté DA in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I had known him before I came to Idaho here. I was intrigued by his work. One, when I came across the work and saw that opera companies were doing it, I realized that we needed help if we wanted to produce it because it had… while it does have singing in it, which we can accomplish quite easily. It also has a lot of text. These are letters written by soldiers writing to home and texts… and not only texts, but texts in a variety of dialects. And this is not something that we do traditionally in the opera world. So, I thought I'd approach Ben with this idea of collaborating on this. And he liked the idea.

PRENTICE: Tracy indeed, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a true story. I remember my grandpa telling me this story, but I still don't think many people know this rather amazing story about Christmas. So, what can you tell the audience about it?

Brett Johnson
Boise Contemporary Theater

SUNDERLAND: Well, it is certainly a true story, and the production is based on this true moment. And during World War I, very early on in the first year in which the soldiers… in this trench warfare, which dominated this particular war, sometimes the trenches were so close together that on quiet evenings or in still moments when they weren't fighting, the soldiers could actually hear each other, the Germans and the English. They were close enough to be able to hear each other across no man's land. The space separating these two camps are the two armies and one Christmas Eve, the Christmas Eve of 1914, the English soldiers heard…and they would often sing songs normally but to keep their morale up. But they heard the German soldiers singing their Christmas carols like O Tannenbaum and Silent Night in German, and the songs drifted up over no man's land. And the English soldiers heard them singing those songs, and they began to join in in English, and the singing together prompted them to take a risk and put down their arms and step into no man's land and declare kind of a de facto truce for a moment. And they spent the night together in this place of war, singing songs and having a bonfire and sharing mementos and time together and even playing a game of football as research has… the record has it, that before headquarters got a hold of it, before HQ got wind of it and called an end to this truce. This moment of peace between the armies and sent the men back to the trenches the next day.

PRENTICE: I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about this. So, Tracy, this has to be a pretty emotional project for the participants.

SUNDERLAND: Yeah, it is. I mean, it's certainly a special project… and we feel it deeply in the sense that it is probably one of the more truly ensemble based pieces that I’ve worked on. So I think they feel deeply connected to the material, as do I. But we also have to keep it aloft and share it with the audiences, so we try not to cry too much during the actual rehearsals. But yes, it was a very, very tender, wondrous, miraculous moment in the middle of the war.

PRENTICE: Mark, I'm thinking of some of these songs being sung by professionals in your company… my goodness.

SUNDERLAND: Yeah, it's a combination of singing and acting, and it's been very fun to watch the performers who have different strengths in those areas come together and  manage the music, which is difficult music, actually. It is choral music, essentially, the work was written for a group called Cantu's, I don't know if you're familiar with them, but many people know Chanticleer, which is a San Francisco based male singing group contest, similar Minneapolis based singing group. And it was originally conceived for them almost as a radio play. And in fact, it was broadcast nationally over Minnesota Public Radio in the first year of its being in 2007, and they basically stood there and sang and delivered the spoken parts without much acting, and the rights reverted back to the theater in 2014. And since then it's become a theatrical production. So you have this mix of these worlds. It's been fascinating to watch.

PRENTICE: When it played off Broadway, the New York Times called it “beautiful,” and Broadway World said it was quoting here, “extraordinarily moving and beautifully realized.” Tracy, when can we see this? What are the remaining dates of the production?

SUNDERLAND: We pick up again on Wednesday, and performances run Wednesday through Saturday, with a Saturday matinee, through December 19th, and you can get tickets at BCTheater.org or just call the box office.

PRENTICE: It's so interesting that it is about war… and yet I'm thinking it's very appropriate for families.

SUNDERLAND: It really is. There's much that will appeal, I think, across generations.

JUNKERT: You know, I think it's interesting because it's a Christmastime thing, but it's not a normal… I mean, it's in the middle of war. So, war is present at the beginning and end. But it's a cease fire with gifts, poetry and melody. And I think it shows us that we as human beings are capable of this.

PRENTICE: Mark, I'm thinking of Christmases past with your company and productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors;  and Tracy. All of the different Christmas productions over the years at BCT. And here you are at this crossroads. Here we all are at this crossroads. This sounds, Tracy…maybe it's serendipitous… but maybe the show we need to see to.

SUNDERLAND: Yeah, I think it's a healing piece, I guess. And certainly I'm very grateful and thankful for this moment of communion, and I hope people that can come share that communion of the story… and being able to be together in the theater space and listen to some beautiful acting and beautiful music…I hope so.

PRENTICE: Tracey Sunderland, Mark Junkert:  Happy holidays to you both. And they bring us All Is Calm at BCT, and performances pick up again on Wednesday. They run Wednesdays through Sundays through Sunday, the 19th. Thanks so much for giving us some time this morning.

SUNDERLAND: Thank you so much.

JUNKERT: Thanks, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter@georgepren

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