This coming weekend Washington National Opera will showcase its most vital work: insuring the future of the form by developing young creative talent through its American Opera Initiative (AOI), a process that includes getting short operatic gems up on their feet.
Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and her company invite the audience into this process January 19-21. The mini-festival promises to be an exciting three days where artists and audience together witness the birth of three twenty-minute operas and the world premiere of the hour-long Proving Up.
To get some inside tips about what we might expect, I spoke with Mark Campbell, one of the most prolific and successful librettists working in opera today with twenty-five operas to his credit as well as five or six musicals. He also happens to be one of the most sought after mentors of new works in the field and is a mainstay to both shape and deliver WNO’s AOI.
Mark’s role as mentor has to do, I’m sure, with his keen sensibilities, generosity of spirit, and gentle questioning. I’ll add to that his beautifully kind eyes. They are the eyes of a midwife, someone you can trust and whom you know will be there through whatever birthing process presents itself.
Because Mark works in this capacity for four or five opera companies around the country, he knows how important it is for artists to stay open and adaptable throughout the process and collaborating in a form that has so many moveable parts. I wondered if he would first lay out the general process of creating an opera.
Mark Campbell: Most composers prefer to have the entire libretto done first. A good opera comes out of the story. You can’t write a musical story in a vacuum. You need to write music for characters, real characters and not stereotypes.
But the process from there on can be wildly different. I’ve written libretti where I’ve handed it over and the composer has set ninety-five percent of my libretto as written. As One, the opera I wrote with Kimberly Reid and Laura Kiminsky, Laura set ninety-eight percent of my text, but I just worked on an opera with Mason Bates about Steve Jobs, and the percentage was a lot lower, not in terms of structure but the actual text changed a lot.
I asked Mark to describe his role as a librettist.
Mark: It’s part of your job as librettist to provide text that will inspire the composer. So if a composer finds in your words a phrase that particularly excites him, I think you need to shape or reshape them focusing on that to support his or her best work. Once the composer begins to write music, the work belongs to both of you. You of course have to be a guardian in the ideas both of you have discussed and with the composer and at the point a stage director comes in, you have an obligation to speak up if you feel you need to say, “I don’t think this is working.” If a composer is good, he or she will listen. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of composers who listen really well.
I asked Mark to speak beyond opera to the spectrum of music-theatre (which, happily, he also hyphenates.)
Mark: While I have written many fewer musicals I wish that so many serious people would not look down or somehow feel that writing for Broadway-style musical theater was somehow shameful. I got into this profession because of Stephen Sondheim.
We agreed that probably many people writing today could trace our passion for music-theater back to Sondheim’s works. I pointed out that when Bernstein’s Candide is done by a theater company it’s considered a musical but when it’s put on by an opera company as it will be this coming spring by WNO as part of Bernstein’s hundredth anniversary it succeeds as a sheer-joy opera. Did he have a preference for opera or musical theater writing?
American Opera Initiative Festival 2018
January 19 – 21, 2018
Details and tickets
Three 20–minute operas
January 20, 2018
Details and tickets
Mark: I would say that when I have written for musical theater I have only written the lyrics. For that reason I’d say I find writing for opera more satisfying because I have more control over the story. The libretto in opera is both the book and the lyrics.
I expressed my concern that many people who follow mainstream musical theater nonetheless avoid opera. I wondered how might he address that concern.
Mark: I think we want to assure people that they don’t have to be afraid of opera. The ones that are being written in this country right now are written as entertainment. My first pieces were comedies, and I still always find a place to put comedy in because that engages an audience. I write for an audience. I want every seat in the theater filled. I want people to have a good time and also learn something. And music reaches in and takes us into a deeper, sometimes darker, sometimes brighter place in our souls.
We talked about mentoring the three twenty-minute operas coming up this weekend. What attracts him to this work?
Mark: I believe in the form and the way we are redefining opera now, and it gives me tremendous satisfaction to work with the next generation to understand what an opera is and transform the form to tell new stories for the world we live in. When I started writing there were none of these kinds of organizations supporting the creative development. There were some workshops here and there for composers, but certainly no one was training librettists.
I reminded him of Wesley Balk and Ben Krywosz and how both collaborated in the latter part of the twentieth century working out of Minnesota Opera and who had this very idea in the work they developed with their Composer-Librettist forums.
Mark: You’re right. I meant that there’s a big need because generally music conservatories don’t know what to do with opera composers or librettists. But now there’s a growing dialogue about how if opera is going to stay a vital form there has to be care taken to develop a core of top-notch artists. There are a few choice cities where supporters understand how important this task is, and no one knows it better or does a better job than Francesca both with the AOI and the training of singers in the Cafritz-Domingo program.
I asked him how he got involved in WNO’s American Opera Initiative.
Mark: Well, as you know the AOI has developed two components. Every year, there is a commitment to the development of three twenty-minute operas and also the commissioning of an hour-long opera. I have been called in to mentor the hour-long opera before.
In 2013 Mark was actually more than cheering on the sidelines in one of the hour-long operas, stepping in and in a matter of seven days of heavy lifting writing or rewriting the hour-long Approaching Ali, which was a super piece of operatic theater about America’s great prizefighter and in which Washington’s own Solomon Howard made a break out performance as both the float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee boxer at his peak and the shuffling, Parkinson-ridden old man.
Mark: And Solomon Howard is a perfect singer-actor collaborator, very open, very funny. I must say that concurrent with the development of new operatic works, the training of the singers, which the Cafritz-Domingo Program does so very well, is vital. We train our singers here how to act. That has led to the success of much contemporary American opera. It has allowed us to tell stories which we wouldn’t have been able to tell, where otherwise we might have had to be satisfied with writing oratorios – beautiful music without drama.
I offered that I found AOI and WNO’s program in particular prepares singers able and hungry to be stretched and provides these singers that added necessary opportunity to go through a process of participating in the development of a new opera. I asked Mark whether a specific process had been put in place to approach the twenty-minute operas. Did it start with an outline?
Mark: You chose the right word exactly. It starts with an outline. I set up the libretto-writing program for the AOI. I was there at the beginning, and they didn’t really know how to do this. So I said, “Let’s make them start with an outline. And I will give them some books that they might want to look at so that they understand things like scene structure and dramatic arc.” We start first with the premise. The composer-librettist teams are asked to submit several ideas for this. We then choose the premise with promise. I then work with the librettists first and ask them to write a complete outline. They can start with a brief outline first then a second or third one where the beats are more and more specifically laid out. We want stories that are American or that will resonate with an American audience. We also ask for character sketches. A lot of people who approach opera think they can write archetypes and that they don’t have to be specific with their characters. I encourage them to write real characters with real voices so that the composers can hear them speak and do their story telling in the music so that each note they write is specific to a character.
I asked if he could talk more about the importance of the outline.
Mark: Outline is key. If you have a good outline, the libretto will write itself, and that’s when the euphoria comes in. You’ve done all the hard work up front. And now the fun is in writing words that are meant to be sung.
Were there specific challenges he saw come up in the work on these short operas?
Mark: I’d say that often artists choose a premise too involved to do justice to a work of twenty minutes in length. I remind them by saying, “Would you be able to condense this to a five-six page libretto? Because that is what a twenty-minute opera is: five to ten but never twenty pages. And the librettists all submit several drafts of their libretto to me before they ever get sent to the composers.
And what happened in the next phase of his work with the one-act operas?
Mark: Then I worked with the composers and librettists together to make sure everyone gets along, telling the same story. Usually this phase is done long distance by email, phone, Skype. Somewhere along the line we might meet in DC depending on the necessity of that.
How do you approach your role as mentor in this process?
Mark: I think it’s important as a mentor or teacher to suggest and encourage. It’s not to demand or restrict. I never tell a librettist to write what I think they should be writing. I can suggest some different possibilities. I had a great time, for instance working with Megan to hear that quirky sensibility bring to life an idea for the opera stage. They were all terrific in fact and collaborative.
I had the opportunity briefly to speak to Meghan Cohen, one of the three librettists selected from this year’s pool. She is a San Francisco-based playwright and performance artist, and has been forging her path including coming into this for her new form in order to create more women’s roles. All three of the librettists this year were female I pointed out.
Mark: Francesca and I have always been on a mission to diversify the people who are writing opera so that it is not all white men. We do everything we can to be as inclusive as possible when we adjudicate applications.
I wondered whether he was in on the selection process.
Mark: I may be asked to offer an opinion on both the librettists and composers. But ultimately Francesca and Robert Ainsley, Director of WNO’s AOI, make the final selection. And at AOI we team them up, composers with librettists. In the early years, it was all about the composers and then the composers would recommend their own librettists. But writers need to come to this with some experience of playwriting, some experience with dramatic form. Megan is a great example because although she had never written a libretto before, I could tell in her plays there was a strong lyrical voice. And I was proven right in her work.
What were the special gifts he discovered in each of the female writers that we might stay tuned for this weekend?
Mark: Well, as I said with Megan, it was the lyricism in the writing and the way she messes around with time that attracted me. The challenge was to keep the focus and the language of each character different and specific. In the case of Sara Cooper’s approach to the one-act opera Fault Lines with composer Gity Razaz, the premise about immigrants was a strong one. Her challenge was to keep the story real and drive it through character, not reduce it to a political statement. Erin Bregman is another wonderful collaborator with composer John Glover, but the original premise for Precita Park was simply too big in scope and number of characters for what we could accomplish together with the time and resources we had at her disposal.
Clearly, Mark has found a way to support each of these teams, and Megan spoke for all the librettists when she said, “We were so lucky because he has made all of us better. He checked in with us five or six times throughout the year. In Washington in October, he sat with me and went over my libretto word by word. He taught us all the importance in opera of the necessity of making everything succinct and how much power there is in every word. It was as if he was holding your hand and you were walking through the woods together.”
Is there an appetite for shorter operatic works and would Mark add anything to excite people to come in and take a chance on these new works this weekend?
Mark: Here at WNO it’s like walking into a great factory where new operas are being created. It’s about being part of the process, so maybe a given work will meet expectations or maybe a work will exceed expectations. But as a living art form it’s only as you experience it does it come alive.
Megan spoke to the moment of transmission as being wonder-filled. “The surprise for me that although you had the sheet music and soundtrack when you first hear it with live music, suddenly you get the canvas of [a composer’s] movement. To hear it in real space and time, that’s when you discover,” Oh what can I leave out and how can I let it breathe more.”
Mark: We’re all on a mission to change people’s perceptions of opera and musical theater and this is most excitingly how. And we really need music right now.