As a singer who has performed in operas across the country, baritone Craig Irvin said nothing had touched him to the core like the musical “Next to Nothing.” It was his hope to be a part of something that touched people on the same deep level, and that’s what he found in “Silent Night.”
Directed by the Atlanta Opera’s Israeli artistic director, Tomer Zvulun, the opera is based on the 2005 film “Joyeux Noël” and tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce along the Western Front during World War I.
“It takes an amalgamation of different things that happened up and down the Western Front in one narrative,” Irvin said. “You see different sides: the German army, the French army and the Scottish army. There are main characters in each army. It’s a story of finding peace in the middle of war.”
The opera begins in the late summer of 1914 when war is declared. It follows the three armies through horrific battles and violence. But on Christmas Eve the soldiers drop their weapons, celebrate the holiday around a makeshift tree and play soccer.
The soldiers are reprimanded by their commanding officers, but their actions show the good in humanity amid the inhumanity of war.
Irvin’s character, German Lt. Horstmayer, who is Jewish and has a French wife, is at the moral center of the opera. He loves his wife but feels that he must fight for his country and against hers.
The fact that Horstmayer has a French wife doesn’t come out until the end of the opera when he tells a French lieutenant that his French is good because his wife is from Marseilles.
“I think of it as a really wonderful layer to the character and to the show,” Irvin said. “They thought they were going off to fight for their country, prove you’re a man and come back home. I think when he mentions his wife is from Marseilles, it humanizes him even more.”
The opera takes the connection of its characters even further when Horstmayer discovers that the French lieutenant lives in his favorite part of France.
“My wife and I went on our honeymoon there,” Irvin said of his character. “Literally, these people might have passed on the streets before, and now they’re fighting each other because they’re being told it’s what they have to do. The background about his wife makes him even more similar to those around him.”
Discovering similarities among enemies is something Irvin said hits home for Americans at a time when the population is split by partisanship. Those who may be at odds politically could have more in common than they realize.
“If you sat down to break bread with someone you fundamentally hate, they might not be the person you think they are,” Irvin said. “As people, we’re more alike than we are different.”
Irvin has performed in many operas throughout the country, including “La bohème,” “The Mikado,” “Gianni Schicchi,” “Le nozze di Figaro” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but he said “Silent Night” is the most amazing opera he has been a part of.
“I’ve never been so emotionally impacted by a show,” Irvin said. “I’m almost moved to tears. This is the sixth company I’ve done this with, and I’m still moved onstage and emotionally drained from it.”
Irvin said he has been approached by people backstage or at bars who said they bought tickets for a second show after seeing “Silent Night” the first time. Seeing stage management crying and audience members’ “ugly weeping” hit him hard.
“It’s so powerful and so gut punching over and over and over to me,” he said. “It truly is a special piece. I love it immensely.”
What: “Silent Night”
Who: Atlanta Opera
Where: Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Cumberland area
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13
Tickets: $35 to $131; www.atlantaopera.org or 404-881-8885