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Opera's Next Wave     

Librettist/lyricist MARK CAMPBELL

Next Wave Campbell lg 812
Mark Campbell
© Laura Marie Duncan 2012

He's one of the opera world's most prolific librettists: last year alone, Mark Campbell was part of the creative team of four world premieres — And the Curtain Rises, a musical comedy with music by Joseph Thalken and book by Michael Slade, at Signature Theatre Company (Arlington, Virginia); Ricky Ian Gordon's Rappahannock County at Virginia Opera; John Musto's The Inspector at Wolf Trap Opera; and Minnesota Opera's Silent Night, which recently earned composer Kevin Puts the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music. Campbell's work is both elegant and economical. As Slade puts it, "Mark writes with painstaking attention to dramatic structure, as well as to each character's history, journey and emotional truth. He's an intensely intelligent and well-read writer who self-edits any phraseology that even hints at the trite, general or mundane." 

"People ask me, 'Why do you write operas instead of musicals?'" says Campbell. "The answer is because I can. It feels natural. People mistake me for being a snob about musical theater. I like working in opera. I like it more. Most of the operas I've written are pure entertainment." (Silent Night will be heard at Opera Company of Philadelphia in February 2013.)

The first musical that had a direct influence on the way Campbell wrote is Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. "To me, it is an opera," says Campbell, "because of the way the piece is constructed. That was my first realization that structure and formality are crucial things, and they should be present in opera. I think one of the deadliest things in opera today, one of the reasons why some operas are not being well written, is that there is so much recitative or text that is not organized or structured — so there are no tunes. Composers are often blamed for tunelessness in modern opera. I think it's the librettists' fault as well, because we often don't give the composers organized songs for them to create tunes with. If a lyric wanders, then the music wanders, too." 

For contemporary opera to thrive in the future, it is probably going to have to take on contemporary subject matter more consistently than it has in the past; composers and librettists will need to choose stories that resonate with life as it's lived today. "I think it's becoming tired, personally, to reinterpret old opera," says Campbell. "It's better to keep creating new operas, so we don't have to set old operas in trailer parks. We can set new operas in trailer parks! The thing that's tricky with that is that opera now needs to have some kind of elevated language — but that doesn't mean that the opera set in a trailer park can't have elevated language. I also think that there's a question about the morality of spending huge amounts of money on productions. When an opera company spends that amount of money and then has the nerve to go back to its donors and say, 'We need more money,' then I think we need to rethink the way we're doing this. I was never given extravagant production values for anything I ever wrote. My first opera was John Musto's Volpone for Wolf Trap, which has no fly space, no wing space, no budget. So there's a greater emphasis on story. I think that's another thing we're going to see more of in the future." spacer 

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3