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Veterans flock to Christmas gift -- free tickets to "All Is Calm" from Opera Orlando

Orlando Sentinel - 12/9/2019

Dec. 9--Free tickets for veterans to Opera Orlando's production of the Christmas musical "All Is Calm" sounded like a good idea to Gabriel Preisser.

"We wanted to do something for veterans," said Preisser, the opera's executive and artistic director -- and, after all, "All Is Calm" is about real soldiers' experiences. "We thought it would be nice if 200 people came."

Instead, 1,700 veterans responded to the invitation -- prompting Opera Orlando to add a special vet-only performance and make plans to squeeze the special guests into rehearsals leading up to the show's debut at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

"I just didn't want to turn all those people away," Preisser said.

Written by Peter Rothstein, "All Is Calm" tells the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. During World War I, Allied and German soldiers put down their weapons and climbed out of their battle trenches on Christmas Eve to briefly celebrate the holiday.

"The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks -- the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic -- those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place," Rothstein writes on the show's official website. "Their story puts a human face on war, and that's the story I hope to tell."

Letters home from actual soldiers provide the show's dialogue. And a cappella singing provides a haunting soundtrack to the effects of war.

Critics raved after the show made its off-Broadway debut in 2018. The New York Times named it a Critic's Pick, and described it as "a beautiful musical recounting of a World War I cease-fire of gifts, poetry and melody."

Preisser has a theory on why the show has struck a chord.

"There's something really special about male a cappella singing" -- singing without any instrumental accompaniment, he said. "And obviously, there's something very special about the Christmas truce itself."

Although the play's soldiers are from a hundred years ago, today's veterans should find them relatable.

"The show was just eye-opening to me, thinking about how those young men got in that situation," Preisser said. "Think about being a 19-year-old boy, putting on a uniform, experiencing the pageantry and thinking you'd come home in three weeks as a hero. It was all glory and honor -- it was all romanticized."

In reality, the bloody war would drag on for four years.

The overwhelming response also surprised Andrea N. Madrazo, a public-affairs specialist for the Orlando VA Medical Center. Preisser had enlisted her help to reach veterans.

"I didn't think it would be that high," Madrazo said. "They've been coming in to get their tickets. We are very appreciative."

Those with experience in the armed forces often enjoy entertainment with a military theme, Madrazo said: "It really draws veterans in."

"Opera Orlando has lifted my spirits and gets me more in the mood for the holidays -- and shows they care," said Robert Hughes, an Air Force veteran. "Thank you for spreading cheer and joy for us."

Opera Orlando has a history of offering free tickets during the holiday season. Its touring production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" -- a short opera about the journey of the Three Kings to see baby Jesus -- gives free tickets to children at many locations. The city of Clermont sponsored a completely free performance of the show at its performing-arts center this month.

Adding the extra performance of "All Is Calm" for veterans will cost Opera Orlando about $7,000, Preisser said, but he's not focused on the expense.

"During the holiday season, given that we're a nonprofit and we're part of this community, we wanted to find a way to give back," he said. "We're going to lose a little money on this, but it's worth it."

'All Is Calm'

Opera Orlando's production of "All Is Calm" has four public performances at the Dr. Phillips Center from Dec. 20-22. Tickets start at $39; go to drphillipscenter.org or call 844-513-2014.

mpalm@orlandosentinel.com

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