Peabody composer wins Pulitzer Prize in music
Kevin Puts honored for World War I piece commissioned by Minnesota Opera
Kevin Puts, a composer and Peabody faculty member, won the Pulitzer Prize for music. (Handout photo, Handout photo / April 16, 2012)
Puts, a member of the Peabody faculty since 2006, was honored for "Silent Night," a two-act work commissioned by the Minnesota Opera.
"I'm still in a state of shock, and I'm trying to get my bearings," the composer said from Minneapolis, where "Silent Night" premiered in November. "It is an enormous thrill."
The opera was inspired by the 2005 film "Joyeux Noel," about the unofficial cease-fire that emerged spontaneously during Christmas 1914, when British, French and German troops socialized during a brief respite before the trench warfare resumed.
Puts, 40, said he knew he had been entered into the competition but did not realize that he was a Pulitzer finalist. He said he first learned of the award when he was contacted by the Associated Press at 3:30 p.m. Monday. He soon heard from friends as well, but not from the Pulitzer board.
"I hope they didn't make a mistake," he said with a laugh.
In awarding the $10,000 prize to Puts, the jury, which included past Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, described "Silent Night" as "a stirring opera … displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart."
Reacting to the Pulitzer news, Peabody Institute director Jeffrey Sharkey said, "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Kevin is one of the easiest colleagues to get along with. He cares deeply about his students, while at the same time juggling a prestigious international career."
The St. Louis-born Puts, who makes his home in Westchester County, N.Y., has degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. He has won several awards, including a 2001 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and a 2001-02 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome.
The idea to turn "Joyeux Noel" into an opera came from Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson nearly three years ago.
"I put a DVD of the film in the player, and I was grabbed so quickly by the piece," Johnson said from Minneapolis. "There is something very operatic about it. One of the characters is even an opera singer."
Johnson did not immediately have a composer in mind for the project, but shortly after seeing the film, he happened to put a recording of Puts' Third Symphony into his car stereo.
"I turned up the volume," Johnson said. "It was some of the most sublimely beautiful music I'd ever heard. What attracted me was the way Kevin knows how to pace a large piece of music like a symphony, the way he could create tension and release it. At a stoplight, I was talking to myself: 'I think this is the guy for 'Joyeux Noel.'"
Johnson soon contacted Puts.
"I had not seen the film," the composer said, "but after Dale called, I watched it and I saw right away that many of the scenes seemed ready for opera."
In short order, Johnson arranged for Puts to meet librettist Mark Campbell. "Mark had the vision to bring a lot of those scenes from the film to life onstage," Puts said.
All of the Minnesota Opera's performances of the work in November sold out.
"We're used to contemporary stuff out here," Johnson said, "and I was hoping people would respond to his musical language, which is atonal and tonal. People went crazy on opening night at the end of the first act."
Reactions from critics were just as enthusiastic, which is not always the case with new operas. And other companies quickly expressed interest; "Silent Night" is scheduled to be performed next season by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.