The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. In honor of its subject, we create a collectible piece of matchbox art for our subscribers.
Mark Campbell writes opera, but not the music. He is one of America’s leading librettists—the person who writes the stories that lie at the heart of every opera—from Verdi to Mozart, to modern American opera.
Mark pushes the boundaries of the art form—from an operatic version of The Shining, to the world’s first opera about a transgender person. We sat down with Mark to hear more about his creative journey, finding inspiration, and favorite scents.
Stephen Tracy (ST): For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do? What is a Librettist?
Mark Campbell (MC): Described simply, an opera librettist is the person who writes the words. But we do so much more than that. We create the story, structure it to make full use of the art form, and inspire the composer to tell that same story with the language of music. Many people have the misconception that the composer writes the music first and that the librettist then fills in the words. That's not true. Opera starts with the libretto.
Baritone Ed Parks, playing Steve Jobs in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe opera (Credit: CSO)
ST: How did you get into writing, and specifically Libretto? What was the motivation?
MC: I was an actor/singer and wrote lyrics for musical theater, so have always been drawn to the power that the combination of words and music elicits. But I never really understood that power until I wrote my first full-length comic opera (Volpone for Wolf Trap Opera, DC in 2004) and realized that I could contribute something new to this form—creating operas that endeavor to reach audiences in personal and direct ways.
“I cherish the smaller gestures one can do to enhance one’s life: a vase of flowers, a glass of wine, the crossword, even lighting a candle...”
ST: What advice would you give to someone looking to become a full time writer or librettist?
MC: First, study Stephen Sondheim. He’s the best musical playwright we have. Second, learn to read music—but even more, learn to feel music…the power it can have, the connection it can make with an audience. You'll understand that a good libretto must serve the music.
ST: How do you decompress, especially with living in New York and the extensive traveling you do?
MC: Achieving the meditative state that helps me do my best work can be a real challenge in these noisy times. More than ever before, I find that I cherish the smaller gestures one can do to enhance one’s life: a vase of flowers, a glass of wine, the crossword, even lighting a candle… all these things can help a person stop for a second and listen to silence.
Mark's trusty writing companion at the beach in Fire Island: his dachshund, Finley
ST: Do you have any rituals that you turn to in order to relax or find inspiration?
MC: If I get stuck, I sometimes reach for my bookshelf and reread novelists like Edith Wharton or Dawn Powell or poets like Mary Oliver or Marie Howe. I’ll also just look at paintings of Cy Twombly. These days, I tend to do my writing away from New York and that always involves the ocean. Almost all of my opera librettos have been written near the sea, whether that’s Provincetown, the Hermitage Artists Retreat or Fire Island. I recently became a parent to a small dachshund named Finley, and he has taken to the beach like a true writer—he's in heaven there!
Mark's favorite Cy Twombly, "The Italians" MoMa
ST: Do you have any role models / people that you look(ed) up to that led you to where you are? How did they inspire and guide you?
MC: Again, Sondheim. Everything I learned about writing opera librettos I learned from listening to his work. But I’m also inspired by the composers I get to work with. Collaboration—working on a story with a composer and striving together to get that story right in music and text—continues to inspire me in the most profound way.
“The glints of progress we make as society keep me optimistic.”
ST: Where in the world is your happy place? Where would you escape to right now if you could?
MC: The ocean. ALWAYS the ocean. Especially when it’s at its stormiest and steeliest.
ST: Is there a place/person you dream of writing about that you haven’t yet?
MC: Many, but you’ll have to offer me a commission to answer that question.
ST: If you could capture a scent or smell where/what would it be?
MC: That’s a tricky one. But I’m afraid it’s not a scent many people would love. There’s a certain smell coming from the seas spray that is salty, clean but slightly fishy. I love that scent.
ST: What makes you most optimistic about the future?
It’s hard for me to answer that question without getting political. I am very angry about the state of our country right now and the hoodlums that are trying to govern it. I find myself repeating the Tony Kushner—mantra-like—“the world only spins forward.” The glints of progress we make as society keep me optimistic. The work of the next generation of opera librettists and composers also inspires me a great deal—I love that they will keep this art form alive and relevant.
To Know - Excerpt from the opera AS ONE from American Opera Projects. AS ONE is the most performed new opera in America, and tells the story of a transgender person's journey to self-realization.
ST: What are you working on, what are you excited about, what’s next?
MC: Oh, gosh…so many projects! I’m pretty damn excited about Stonewall, an opera that was recently commissioned by New York City Opera. The composer is the British composer Iain Bell and it premieres in June 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event. Another opera I conceived and co-wrote the libretto for is Today It Rains, which premieres at Opera Parallele in March (music by Laura Kaminsky; projection design and libretto by Kimberly Reed). I’m also starting my second oratorio with the Paul Moravec for the Oratorio Society of New York, the subject is Ellis Island. Oh, and I just finished the text for series of songs (a “song cycle”) for another composer Kamala Sankaram that premieres this year. Finally, I’m working with Paola Prestini on Edward Tulane, an opera about a stuffed rabbit based on the popular novel by Kate DiCamillo, for Minnesota Opera.
ST: So we should let you get back to work?