British and German soldiers pose for a photograph on Christmas Day 1914, as seen in the British newspaper The Daily Mirror the following month. Courtesy photo
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World War I choral tribute plays at Village Community Presbyterian Church

RANCHO SANTA FE — Around a hundred years ago during World War I, soldiers on opposing sides of the conflict climbed out of their trenches to celebrate Christmas with the very men they’d been sent to kill. This miraculous event serves as the inspiration for “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” Peter Rothstein’s choral show.

“All is Calm” intersperses the real-life correspondences of World War I soldiers to their loved ones with various Christmas traditional and folk songs from England, Scotland, France and Germany, such as “Christmas Day in the Cookhouse,” “Will Ye Go to Flanders?”, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Tannenbaum.”

The church in particular was well-suited acoustically for a show such as this, with its cavernous interior and high, vaulted ceiling. Upon the church’s enormous stage, a series of crates, sandbags, faux-vintage lanterns and prop rifles laid strategically about, setting the stage for the upcoming a capella performance.

“We do three or four just music rehearsals,” said Music Director Juan Carlos Acosta on the choir’s preparation. “and then we start to weave things in, and then we hand it over to staging, and then it’s kind of a back and forth from there.”

After senior pastor Rev. Dr. Jack Baca took to the stage to announce that the show would be a single, 75-minute piece without intermission, the lights went down and the show began. Acosta sat conducting in the front row as the choir marched onto the stage, costumed as soldiers. Though they always spoke English for the rest of the performance, they used various foreign accents to match their characters.

Though it was difficult to hear some of the spoken monologues from the far-right pew (and I was not alone in my difficulty to discern what was being said through the fog of a few impenetrable accents) the choir’s impeccable singing was considerably accentuated by their acting. Bass-baritone Christopher Stephens looked particularly choked-up as he read a letter from a soldier writing home.

The performance was divided into a prologue, five parts and an epilogue to tell a sequential story through both song and the reading of letters. In the beginning, the trench-coat-clad soldiers depart home optimistically, confident that the war will end quickly and afford them some martial glory.

But then the grim reality of their situation sets in as the troops are exposed to the truth of trench warfare, singing of their woes in “Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag” and “The Old Barbed Wire.” Then, members of the choir who had only just been dressed as English troops entered from stage right, clad in the greys denoting the German infantry.

Part III: Christmas then segues into Part IV: The Truce, at which point the choir sang more famous traditional Christmas pieces, such as “Silent Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as the soldiers meet one another and bond over Christmas cheer. A truly heartwarming sight, it was.

Alas, the peace does not last, as the soldiers are forced to return to their respective sides in “The Return to the Battle,” marked by the solemn piece “We’re Here Because We’re Here/War Cacophony.”

At the show’s conclusion, the choir was treated to a standing ovation, with cries of “Bravo!” ringing out from the packed audience. The performance certainly deserved it, delivering raw emotion mixed with genuine human compassion aired through the singing of Christmas music.

Proceeds from the production went to benefit the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park, as well as the Village Church Community Theater.

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