Vocal ensemble explores forgotten war history at Opera House

It’s not easy to put a human face on war. Perhaps that’s why very few of us have heard about an amazing truce in the trenches along the Western Front on Christmas, 1914.

But a Minneapolis-based men’s vocal ensemble — one of the nation’s two full-time male vocal groups — is doing its best to inform the world about an incident that might have brought a halt to World War I.

Writer Peter Rothstein learned about this unheard of Christmas truce and, working with the members and directors of Cantus, put together a riveting musical and spoken performance titled “All Is Calm.”

Last Friday night, Cantus held a Napa Valley Opera House audience spellbound as the details of this remarkable calm in the trenches were laid out.

The incident began in the still of Christmas Eve, when a young German soldier stepped into No Man’s Land to sing “Stille Nacht (Silent Night).”

Thousands of men put down their guns, leaving their posts to meet their enemies just across the barbed wire. They exchanged gifts of tobacco, rum and chocolates, even shared photos of loved ones. They sang songs, played soccer and, respectfully, buried one another’s dead.

When the brass found out what was going on, the soldiers were ordered to return to the trenches and carry on with a war that would last four more years.

“If we had all walked away, would it have been a truce?,” one of three Cantus actors asked rhetorically.

For about an hour, Dashon Burton, Eric Hopkins, Aaron Humble, Michael Jones, Tom McNichols, Adam Reinwald, Gary Ruschman, Shahzore Shah and Timothy C. Takach — buoyed by the dramatic storytelling of John Canon, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson — offered insight into what it’s like along the battlefront.

The text for “All Is Calm” is taken from letters, journals, poetry, gravestone inscriptions, radio broadcasts and official war documents. Music for the program ranged from trench songs to recruiting songs, patriotic songs of war to sentimental songs sung by the folks back home, as well as yuletide music from involved countries.

At first, there were German, then English voices filling the cold night air, finally the French soldiers added to the harmony of the unexpected holiday.

Everything from “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” to “Pack Up Your Troubles in an Old Kit Bag” was offered with remarkable vocal timbre. And it was difficult not to shed a tear with the heartfelt “Auld Lang Syne.”

We get our history in many ways. The presentation of “All Is Calm” proved to be one of the most informative, touching and honest ways to bring Americans up to speed on an important moment in world history — when men put good will ahead of pomp and pride on the world stage. Thanks, Cantus.

L. Pierce Carson, Napa Valley Register
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