Vol. 113 (2022) 

Five Questions for Composer
Kevin Puts



Kevin Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for composing his debut opera, Silent Night. It was commissioned and premiered in November 2011 by Minnesota Opera and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia and has been produced by opera companies across the nation and abroad during the past decade.


Other compositions of his have been commissioned, performed and recorded by leading ensembles and soloists throughout the world, including Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, the New York Philharmonic and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, Fort Worth, St. Louis and Minnesota.


His latest operatic endeavor, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, was co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera and will premiere at the Met in December 2022. The opera stars Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O'Hara.


Puts newest orchestral work, The City, was co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in honor of its 100th anniversary and by Carnegie Hall in honor of its 125th anniversary.


A former Composer-in-Residence of Young Concerts Artists, he is currently a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute and the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.


Naxos Records recently released a three-disc album of Silent Night and it gave Stay Thirsty Magazine a perfect reason to visit with Kevin Puts, one of the most important composers of our day, for a second time in order to learn more about his work, his process and his philosophy of teaching.


STAY THIRSTY: The recording of Silent Night, your first opera, was released by Naxos Records ten years after its premiere by the Minnesota Opera. How does it sound to you today now that a decade has passed? Is there anything you would do differently if you could do it over again?

Silent Night (Trailer courtesy of the Minnesota Opera)

KEVIN PUTS: Well, the cast and orchestra are fantastic in this recording, I think! As far as what I would do differently: almost everything. I have written four operas now and I have learned a lot about the voice, about where the different voice types can be most powerful in their ranges, about how to orchestrate accordingly. And I think very differently about text setting now as well. In my current work, I try to embrace all nuances and aspects of the English language—or any language, for that matter— in a more sensitive way, especially with regard to the way I try to make music of the consonants. I have noticed the more confident and accomplished the singer, the more they are aware of the potential for musicality in every sound they make. I try to set text with this in mind.


I adopted a pretty aggressive poly-stylistic approach when writing Silent Night simply because so much of Mark Campbell’s libretto seemed to cry out for it. And I have to admit, it was fun! I thought I could take the same tack with The Manchurian Candidate, but I was a little glib in thinking so. I will never write an opera that is monochromatic in musical language—I don’t have it in me. I need extreme contrast and breadth of expression. But I do think my current work feels more cohesive with respect to its sound, to the kind of vocabulary I am using. Certainly this is true of my new opera, The Hours.

The Hours starring Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O'Hara

STAY THIRSTY: Recognizing the current instability of geopolitics, the war in Ukraine and the potential for another pan-European war, what message does Silent Night send against future conflicts? How did you conceptualize and strategize the emotions you wanted to embed in the music?


KEVIN PUTS: Unfortunately, the message of Silent Night will probably always be relevant and potent, unless by some miracle we can evolve in such a way that destroying each other seems an absurd solution to conflict, which of course it is. The possibility for peace and diplomacy and is still hamstrung by madmen, as we are seeing currently. For me, it was not difficult to summon the emotion necessary for the situations of this opera or to translate that emotion into music. This is what I live for as a composer. The strategy for me is to save these moments in the libretto for the time I am truly ready to compose them, to intentionally avoid addressing them until I feel I can bring forth a fresh and uncontrived emotional reaction.



STAY THIRSTY: When listening to the recording of Silent Night, how do you feel about an audio-only experience vs. a live stage performance?


KEVIN PUTS: Among many other things including symphonic music, film scores and pop music, I grew up listening to records of entire operas, sometimes knowing very little of the story. I believe an opera should be satisfying and engaging simply to listen to, should transcend the merely functional and be compelling on its own.

Silent Night (album cover) - Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell

STAY THIRSTY: During the past ten years, you have premiered a second grand opera, The Manchurian Candidate, a chamber opera called Elizabeth Cree and will soon premiere your fourth opera, The Hours. How has your process of composing evolved from Silent Night to The Hours? Do you approach projects in the same way, or have you discovered new and better ways of creating long works?


KEVIN PUTS: I am not sure it has changed much. The challenge for me in writing an opera is that so much of the heavy lifting in the storytelling takes place in the orchestra. And since orchestration is necessarily the last step, no one involved in the production experiences this crucial component for months or even years. So I have to find a way to hear and conceive the orchestra’s part from the very beginning but distill what I am hearing into a piano reduction for the purpose of workshops, etc. I take about a year to write this piano version and another year to orchestrate, especially if the orchestral forces are large. This year of orchestrating invariably gets me out of practice with actual composing and the road back can be rocky!

Kevin Puts

STAY THIRSTY: Do you have a primary philosophy in teaching composition to your college students?


KEVIN PUTS: I think the best thing I can do for my students is to support what they are doing, especially if it goes against the grain of current trends. My voice is often curiously described as “conservative,” however I am in fact an outlier among contemporary composers in my approach. Many students who come to me for guidance are in a similar position and I feel it’s my duty to nurture them and encourage their efforts, try to help them find opportunities when in general the current system vis-à-vis academia, etc., is working against them. So my primary philosophy is to “be yourself” and do so with assurance, however never close your mind to the possibility of growth and newfound influence. There is so much music out there these days— experiments in color, timbre and even harmony and pitch—and it’s all fascinating and compelling. The important thing however is not to succumb to the pressure of being “relevant” because, as Caroline Shaw recently said, it might limit you from discovering “how deep your roots can go.”





Kevin Puts            

The Metropolitan Opera - The Hours   

A Conversation with Kevin Puts in Stay Thirsty Magazine (2017)  





All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.