Mark Campbell wrote the libretto for Silent Night, a modern American opera about World War I, and it won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. During his career, he has written more than 15 librettos and has worked with the pre-eminent composers of our day, including three Pulitzer Prize winners. He has been nominated for a Grammy, won two Richard Rogers Awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been nominated three times for the Drama Desk Award.
It was Stay Thirsty Magazine’s great pleasure to visit with Mark Campbell, the librettist at the forefront of contemporary opera, for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your range of work is quite extraordinary, from World War I to The Shining to The Manchurian Candidate to Volpone and now to Steve Jobs. What motivates you to accept a commission to write the libretto for a contemporary opera?
MARK CAMPBELL: My work is pretty much split down the middle between creating original stories for new opera or adapting existing works into librettos from other works. Commissions for my operas have come about in many different ways: I’ve been able to suggest or come up with story ideas (As One, Elizabeth Cree, The Manchurian Candidate, Volpone, Today It Rains, Later The Same Evening, etc.); or companies commissioning the works have suggested them (Silent Night, The Shining); or composers I work with have suggested them (The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Dinner at Eight).
STAY THIRSTY: Once you accept a commission for an opera, what is the process you follow from first impression to actually completing of the libretto?
MARK CAMPBELL: Many people don’t realize that the libretto comes before the music in the writing of most contemporary opera. I start with an outline and identify moments that take advantage of the operatic form – arias, ensembles, parlando, choruses, etc. – and refine that outline many times until there is no choice but to start “filling in” the words. If the structure is sound and all of the events are laid in securely, then the words will write themselves. When it comes to the actual writing, I sort of become a method librettist and write through a character instead of for a character. After the first draft of the libretto is finished, I like the stage director of the opera to review it before submitting it to the composer so that any dramaturgical issues are corrected. Then it goes to the composer – which begins a whole new level of collaboration. I am essentially “on call” when a composer starts setting the text – revising to meet the musical demands he or she may need. Fortunately, many composers I work with are also excellent dramatists: Kevin Puts, Paul Moravec, Bill Bolcom, Rene Orth, John Musto, Mason Bates, Julian Grant, just to name a few.
STAY THIRSTY: Five of the operas you have worked on recently will all be performed in 2017. How do you keep so many projects up in the air at the same time?
MARK CAMPBELL: It’s actually six, if you include The Summer King, for which I wrote additional lyrics and served as dramaturge. It’s sometimes tricky to be working on so many projects, but I really love what I do and love the composers I get to work with. What is daunting is the administrative work and promotion that goes along with every opera.
STAY THIRSTY: How did winning the Pulitzer Prize for Silent Night change your career?
MARK CAMPBELL: Technically, the Pulitzer Prize in Music goes only to the
composer – in this case the brilliant and wonderfully collaborative Kevin
Puts. But most people in the industry know that an opera is written by both a
composer and a librettist. It certainly put me “on the map” and helped double
the number of commissions I received.
STAY THIRSTY: The distance traveled from two of your new operas, Dinner at Eight, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, seems pretty extreme, from a comedy of manners to a biography of a tech titan who transformed 21st century communication. Do you prefer to work in one particular time period or genre vs. others? Are you more comfortable with the music and language in one era vs. another?
MARK CAMPBELL: A story is a story. If the audience is not given a character to care about, to spend a couple of hours with, to want to hear sing, they won’t care about any story, no matter when it is set. I do spend many hours researching a subject and learning about the world I’m about to help create. For example, I’m writing an opera about Georgia O’Keeffe that I’ve set on the train ride she took from New York to Santa Fe in 1929 and have recently taken that same train twice just to see what it feels like.
STAY THIRSTY: What role does contemporary American opera play in society today? Is it likely to expand the traditional opera audience because people can relate to current storylines?
MARK CAMPBELL: I would like to think we have entered a golden age of American opera in the past ten or so years. The creation of new operas has escalated dramatically and the audience for them has grown along with that. Paul Moravec’s and my opera, The Shining, for example, was the biggest hit in Minnesota Opera’s long history. The story about a transgender person I created with co-librettist Kimberly Reed for the chamber opera As One has helped it become one of the most performed operas in the country right now. I think audiences just want stories that they can relate to and are a bit tired of the old repertory.
STAY THIRSTY: What do you tell aspiring lyricists about their future in the musical theatre?
MARK CAMPBELL: Well, I started as a lyricist and I believe that if you can learn that craft expertly, you can write anything. It was relatively easy becoming an opera librettist because my training as a lyricist taught me, for one thing, how to use the fewest words possible to make the most impact. I have created libretto-writing programs at four organizations in this country – American Opera Projects, American Lyric Theatre, the American Opera Initiative and the University of Colorado’s New Opera Workshop – and I often talk about how important it is to learn the lyricist’s craft.
STAY THIRSTY: What do you have in store for 2018?
MARK CAMPBELL: Rest. Many productions of Silent Night and As One…an oratorio with Paul Moravec for the Oratorio Society of New York…and, I hope, rest.
(Dinner at Eight video courtesy of the Minnesota Opera)
(Mark Campbell photo credit: Laura Marie Duncan)