One of the twenty-first century’s busiest and most influential artists is someone you’ve never heard onstage or seen in the orchestra pit. Librettist Mark Campbell’s operatic work is staggeringly prolific, and his operas are practically ubiquitous, including the Grammy award winning The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the groundbreaking As One, the Pulitzer Prize winning Silent Night, and many other pieces with recent or upcoming premieres. Though Covid-19 prevented several of Campbell’s planned performances for the year, he has been anything but inactive. He recently shared his thoughts on connecting with colleagues during a pandemic, mentoring the next crop of opera creators, and his special collaboration with New York Festival of Song.
CS: How has this past pandemic year influenced your philosophy and process as an artist?
Mark Campbell: In spite of the cancellations of over two dozen opera productions (including four premieres) and facing some financial worries, I found my connection with the community strengthened by involving myself in a number of benefits for both performers and opera companies. The cancellations, while dispiriting, also allowed me to remain stationery for once. After five years or so of spending half a year away from home for work—and seeing too many airport lounges and sad fake hotel breakfasts—it was a joy staying put in one place.
CS: Which of your upcoming projects excite you the most, and why?
MC: This question always means that I have to play favorites and that’s unfair to my beloved collaborators. Here are some projects that excite me…equally: “Unruly Sun,” an extended theatrical song cycle of 18 songs inspired by Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature; Again and again…and again, a whacky reimagining of Corneille’s Theatrical Illusion; My Own Country, a chamber opera based on Dr. Abraham Verghese’s memoir about caring for people with AIDS in the 80s in a rural Tennessee town which I’m developing with West Edge Opera’s Aperture initiative; American Sputnik, a monodrama about Van Cliburn; an as yet unnamed oratorio about voters’ rights; Supermax, an opera based on a real event in which Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Ramzi Yousef and Luis Felipe, connect over a shared yard in prison; workshops for A Secret River at Opera Orlando and a big new opera for Des Moines Metro Opera, the title of which I can’t yet divulge. (The composers for these projects are, respectively, Matthew Ricketts, Conrad Cummings, Kamala Sankaram, Evan Mack, Paul Moravec, Stewart Wallace, Stella Sung and Kristin Kuster). I am also greatly looking forward to the LIVE openings of Edward Tulane, A Nation of Others, A Sweet Silence in Cremona, Stone Soup and new productions of Elizabeth Cree, As One, Sanctuary Road, Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World, The Shining and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.
CS: How are you hoping to pass along your knowledge and experience to the next generation of writers?
MC: My younger brother died a year and a half ago and it made me look at what I hope to leave behind after I’m gone. I decided to set up an award for librettists—the first in the history of opera—to honor our contribution to the art form. The resultant Campbell Opera Librettist Prize, administered by OPERA America, is an extension of the mentorship I’ve provided in the last decade or so at organizations like the American Opera Project, American Lyric Theater and the American Opera Initiative. The first winner of the award will be announced in May at the OPERA America conference.
CS: Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your NYFOSNext concert?
MC: The inspiration would be NYFOS itself and the brilliant, beautiful man behind the organization: Steve Blier. So many singers can trace their successful careers to Steve’s knowledge, artistry and generosity and the support he has given them over the years. It meant a lot to me when NYFOSNext chose me as the first lyricist to be honored with their own program of songs. I chose all new work for this concert because I wanted to demonstrate that the pandemic—and the horror of the last presidency—may have temporarily hindered us. But it didn’t stop us. We continue.