Finding Common Ground on No-Man’s Land: Otherness in Silent Night

Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine and Michigan Opera Theatre have collaborated to present unique educational opportunities to medical students, young artists, and audience members.

With the goal of using the performing arts to complement the innovative curriculum of of OUWB School of Medicine, Dr. David DiChiera and Dr. Robert Folberg are working to broaden our understanding of how the arts can influence our education, our relationships, and our careers. Through its implementation in OUWB School of Medicine’s curriculum, and through the sharing of this process with the broader academic community, this inspired vision will further inform the methods used to teach the next generation of physicians.

Finding Common Ground on No-Man’s Land,” by Dr. Amy Michelle DeBaets is a summary of some of the themes brought out in Silent Night, which will now be further explored through lectures and post-performance discussion with the OUWB School of Medicine students. We invite you to use this insightful work to inspire your own discussion of the performance with family and friends.

Thank you Dr. DiChiera, Dr. Folberg, and Dr. DeBaets.  Bravi tutti!

Richard Leech
Director of Resident Artist Programs
Michigan Opera Theatre

Finding Common Ground on No-Man’s Land: Otherness in Silent Night
By Amy Michelle DeBaets, PhD

Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences
Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine

How do we come to see the humanity of those who are our enemies? Otherness is a social function that creates and maintains boundaries between who is “in” and who is “out” of a social group. Groups do not exist without defining their opposition, the Others who are considered lesser and do not belong. When we see people as Other, the specificity and individuality of members of the group are lost. Silent Night traces the difficult processes needed to move from seeing members of a group as a monolithic, stereotypical Other to seeing the same people as valuable human beings to whom we can relate.

The opening scenes of Silent Night can be disorienting: an opera in five different languages, with three very different groups of soldiers finding their way to war. The audience sees an array of uniforms and an ensuing conflict in which it is difficult to tell which side anyone is on. The soldiers come out to clear the bodies of the dead, only to then fight each other and leave more dead on the field.

As the soldiers prepare for Christmas, they find themselves missing the people and lives they have left behind. They receive gifts of Christmas trees, cognac, and packages from home. They respond in different ways to the incongruence between the celebrations of Christmas and the horrors of war. Horstmayer claims that he detests Christmas celebrations, Sprink is visibly distraught while performing for the Kronprinz, and Dale writes to his mother, misleading her into thinking that both of her sons are alive. The Scottish soldiers get a hold of bagpipes on which they play the songs of home. French soldiers, annoyed at the revelry of their ostensible allies, complain about the sound, while the German soldiers, suspecting a trap, respond with music of their own. Sprink begins to sing along to the bagpipes, even as he is ordered to cease.

These soldiers have been taught to view the other side as the enemy, almost inhuman. Their initial ethnically-focused jabs at each other reflect the challenges inherent in seeing someone who is Other as a unique person and not simply a representative of a despised group. They literally and figuratively do not understand each other and need an interpreter who speaks all three languages to negotiate a ceasefire for the night.

Music begins as a point of bonding within, and separation between, the groups; each set of soldiers uses their own music to remember their own lives outside of the war and to bother the other groups. Yet it also becomes a point of contact that bridges the deep divides between them. Even as they fear that the other side is using the celebrations to trick them into giving up their positions in order to kill them, they slowly begin to talk with each other. Using music and humor, they both highlight their profound differences and work to overcome them.

As the parties emerge from the trenches onto the battlefield, they see one another’s faces for the first time. They begin to identify one another as individuals with families, histories, and resources to share. Their differences do not disappear as they begin to celebrate Christmas with their distinctive tokens of home. But seeing the faces of the Others and talking with them allows them to find both what they have in common and what makes them unique. Their mutual suspicions are not immediately overcome, and trust builds with time and continued exposure to one another. They collectively mourn the dead and bond over small joys.

The truce is maintained among the groups, as once they have come to see each other as people they cannot continue to kill each other. But there is a high price to be paid for coming to that peace. Their commanding officers view them as despicable traitors, and the soldiers from each of the groups are reprimanded and sent to the front to die. The truce has upset the status quo and the expectations of the leaders that the soldiers have failed to carry out their orders in war. At the close, the company celebrates the amazing events.