In one stunning moment during World War I, all was quiet on the Western front and a spontaneous moment of peace transformed foes into friends. Based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, this Pulitzer Prize-winning opera recounts the historic impromptu cease-fire between Scottish, German, and French soldiers on Christmas Eve 1914, when each man laid down his arms and joined together to bury the dead and honor the holiday.
Brought to life by a mix of characters—Nikolaus Sprink, a German opera singer; William and Jonathan Dale, Scottish brothers filled with patriotic fervor; Lieutenant Audebert, a French officer; Lieutenant Gordon, a questioning Scottish solider; and Lieutenant Horstmayer, a German officer torn between duty and his conscience—their personal stories intermingle, highlight the global character of conflict, and add a remarkable depth to this glimmering moment of humanity in the face of war. However, when the sun rises on Christmas morning, how will each man react to resuming the bloody fight?
Language: English, French, German, Italian, and Latin
Prologue: Late summer, 1914. War is declared. At a Berlin opera house, the announcement disrupts
the careers and personal lives of international opera singers Anna Sørensen and Nikolaus Sprink. In a
small church in Scotland, it inspires dreams of heroism in William, who demands that his younger
brother Jonathan immediately enlist with him as their priest, Father Palmer, looks helplessly on. In
the apartment of the Audeberts in Paris, it angers Madeleine who excoriates her husband for leaving
to fight while she is pregnant with their first child. Amid the fervor of nationalistic songs, the men
prepare to leave for war.
In and around a battlefield in Belgium, near the French border, around Christmas
Scene One: December 23, late afternoon. A horrific battle is fought between the Germans and the
French and Scottish. An attempt by the French and Scottish soldiers to infiltrate the German bunker
fails miserably; corpses begin to pile up in the no-man’s land between the three bunkers. Nikolaus is
seen violently engaging in combat—stabbing a man to death and growing in despair at the violence.
William is shot and Jonathan must leave his brother behind to die.
Scene Two: December 23, evening. In the Scottish bunker, Lieutenant Gordon assesses the casualties
after the battle. Father Palmer attempts to offer solace to Jonathan in prayer. In the French bunker,
Lieutenant Audebert discovers the French General waiting in his makeshift office, who reprimands
him for surrendering and threatens him with a transfer. The General leaves and Audebert laments the
loss of his wife’s photograph to his aide-de-camp, Ponchel. When he is alone, Audebert tallies the
casualties in the last battle, while missing Madeleine and their child who he has not yet seen. He sings
of needing sleep, a sentiment echoed by all of the soldiers. As it starts to snow, covering the corpses in
no man’s land, the soldiers slowly begin to sleep. Alone in the German bunker, Nikolaus reveals his
despair about war to an imagined Anna.
Scene Three: December 24, morning. In the German bunker, crates have arrived, and little Christmas
trees from the Kronprinz. Lieutenant Horstmayer castigates the Kronprinz for not sending them
more useful presents, like ammunition and reinforcements. He receives a directive from headquarters
that Nikolaus has been ordered to sing at the nearby chalet of the Kronprinz, along with one Anna
Sørensen. Nikolaus departs for the chalet, excited that he will be reunited with Anna again after many
months apart. The French soldiers have received crates of wine, sausages and chocolates from the
quartermaster and open them jubilantly. Ponchel, a barber by trade, brings coffee to Audebert and
sits him down for a haircut. He is reminded of having coffee every morning with his mother who
lives only an hour away by foot. The alarm clock he carries next to his heart at all times (which
shielded him from a bullet in the last battle) rings at ten o’clock every morning to remind him of
their daily meeting. In the Scottish bunker, crates of whiskey have arrived from home. Jonathan
writes a letter to his mother, not mentioning his brother’s death.
Scene Four: December 24, early evening. At the chalet of the Kronprinz, Anna and Nikolaus perform a
duet. Following the performance, they steal a few moments on a terrace outside. Anna notices the
cruel effect war has had on her lover’s spirit. She has arranged for Nikolaus to spend the night with
her and is angry when he says he must return to his fellow soldiers. She vows to accompany him back
to the battlefield.
Scene Five: December 24, night. In the French bunker, Gueusselin volunteers to infiltrate the German
bunker, and with several grenades, sidles onto no man’s land. The Scottish soldiers drink whiskey and
play a bagpipe that another unit has sent them, as Father Palmer sings a sentimental ballad about
home. The men in the other bunkers hear the song and react to it with sadness, caution and
annoyance. Nikolaus arrives; his fellow soldiers greet him with cheers and applause and gasp in
amazement at seeing Anna with him. When the song in the Scottish bunker is finished, Nikolaus
sings a rousing Christmas song loudly in response and midway through the bagpiper begins to
accompany. Emboldened, Nikolaus stands atop the bunker raising a Christmas tree as a gesture of
friendship. Against the protestations of their superiors, the soldiers from all bunkers stand. Nikolaus
bravely moves to the center of no-man’s land. Gueusselin abandons his plan to grenade the German
bunker. Eventually, the three lieutenants, waving a white flag of truce, agree to a cease-fire…but only
on Christmas Eve. The soldiers slowly and cautiously move toward each other. They share their
provisions, their photos and their names. Anna appears and the soldiers are all awed by the sight of a
woman. Father Palmer has set up a makeshift church and celebrates mass with the men, while
Jonathan finds his brother’s body and vows revenge. Father Palmer finishes the mass and urges the
men to “go in peace” as bombs explode menacingly in the distance.
Scene One: December 25, dawn. The following morning, Jonathan tries to bury his brother. Because
the truce is officially over, two German sentries are prepared to shoot him, until Father Palmer and
Lieutenant Gordon intervene. Looking on, Horstmayer proposes that it may indeed be time to bury
all of the dead. The three lieutenants meet and decide over Ponchel’s coffee that the truce will be
extended until after the dead in no-man’s land are buried.
Scene Two: December 25, late morning, early afternoon. The soldiers pile up the corpses, Father Palmer
delivers last rites and the soldiers form a processional bearing the wagon of bodies away. Anna looks
on with Nikolaus and promises that he will not suffer the same fate.
Scene Three: December 25, all day. In the meantime, news of the cease-fire has reached headquarters,
and the British Major, the Kronprinz and the French General all react in anger and disbelief. They
declare that they will punish the soldiers for their betrayal.
Scene Four: December 25, evening. Lieutenant Horstmayer prepares to return to war and Nikolaus
berates him for his allegiance to the Fatherland. Horstmayer arrests Nikolaus for insubordination, but
Anna takes his hand firmly and leads him across no-man’s land as Horstmayer orders his men to
shoot, but no one moves. Reaching the French bunker unharmed, Nikolaus regains his voice and
demands asylum for he and Anna.
Scene Five: December 26, late morning. The British Major admonishes the Scottish soldiers for
participating in the Christmas truce. They are to be transferred to the front lines. When a German
soldier is seen crossing the battlefield, the Major orders him killed. Jonathan complies and
dispassionately shoots the man. Lieutenant Audebert returns to his small office and discovers the
French General there. The General tells Audebert that he will be transferred to Verdun as
punishment for consorting with the enemy and that his unit will be disbanded. Audebert informs the
French General—his father—that he has learned he has an infant son named Henri. They vow to
survive the war for the child’s sake. The Kronprinz angrily announces that the German soldiers are to
be deployed in Pomerania as punishment. As the soldiers are taken off in a boxcar, they hum the
Scottish ballad they heard in the bunker on Christmas Eve. The battlefield is now completely empty.
Snow begins to fall again.
*Denotes Fort Worth Opera Debut Season