Peabody composer wins Pulitzer Prize in music

Kevin Puts, a composer who teaches at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, won the Pulitzer Prize in music Monday for his first opera.

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.

"The work takes a powerful and universal story and tells it beautifully," said Peabody composer and faculty member Judah Adashi. "I think the most successful thing about it is it's a very refreshingly direct and human piece. The story and the music move really elegantly. There's just a very direct, human, unpretentious quality that I think transcends the genre."

Sean Doyle, a doctoral student of Puts, described him playing sections of the opera as a work in progress in order to discuss the composing process.

Even then, Doyle said, it was clear "Silent Night" was special.

"There's always this discussion of whether or not opera is a dead genre," he said. "This definitely makes a case that … there's still contributions to be made and things to be said."

Before tackling an opera for the first time, Puts established a substantial reputation for his instrumental works, which have been performed by orchestras and chamber ensembles throughout the country.

Locally, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra first performed the composer's music — an engaging, minimalist-flavored piece called "Network" — in 2002 in a program conducted by then music-director Yuri Temirkanov. Four years later, guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the BSO in a colorful score called "River's Rush."

The BSO will give the area premiere of Puts' Symphony No. 4 in June, conducted by music director Marin Alsop, a longtime advocate for the composer.

Puts called the Minnesota Opera premiere of "Silent Night" a "pinnacle for me. It is a very supportive, nurturing company," he said. "And this was such an exciting venture that it made me want to do more of this."

The feeling is mutual. Plans are under way to commission another premiere from Puts in Minnesota.

"And we started talking even before the Pulitzer," Johnson said. "I can't announce it yet, but it will be a very different piece, a fast-paced thriller based on a very famous story."

The other finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music were Tod Machover for "Death and the Powers" and Andrew Norman for "The Companion Guide to Rome."

Puts said that "Silent Night" represents "my best work to date, and in many ways I see opera as a genre which truly feels like home."