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Librettist Mark Campbell on ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ contemporary opera and that Pulitzer

Campbell has many commissions with the Minnesota Opera Center in development, with “The Manchurian Candidate” opening Saturday.

Mark Campbell: "Give me that big, loud aria. Give me that ensemble where ten people are singing and you can’t understand what anyone is saying but you feel it because the music is telling you. And then give me that big, powerful chorus."
Calabay Productions

Mark Campbell dreams of a new American opera company – one that presents only American operas. “You can do Carlisle Floyd’s operas,” he said. “You can do Gershwin. You can do Sondheim. It doesn’t have to be new, but it should be American, in English. I really hope that some company has the foresight and wisdom to do that.” If it happens, Campbell, who is already one of opera’s most in-demand and prolific librettists, can expect to get even busier.

In case you wonder which comes first, the libretto or the musical score, it’s always the libretto. “I have never worked any other way,” Campbell said last week in an interview at the Minnesota Opera Center. “I’ve never worked with a composer who wants to work any other way.” I have worked with composers who say, ‘I wrote this thing for an opera 10 years ago, and I’d love to throw it in this scene.’ I say, ‘I’d rather you come to it fresh and not give me trunk material.”

Campbell, who lives in New York, has been spending a lot of time in the Twin Cities, preparing for what will likely be his next triumph with composer Kevin Puts: the world premiere of the Minnesota Opera-commissioned “The Manchurian Candidate,” based on the novel by Richard Condon. It’s Campbell’s second opera with Puts. For their first, “Silent Night,” Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music. In opera, as in musicals, composers get the glory.

We’ll be seeing more of Campbell in the coming years. He’s also the librettist for “The Shining,” “Memory Boy” and “Dinner at Eight,” all Minnesota Opera commissions planned for future seasons.

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MinnPost: When you were growing up, did you want to be a librettist someday?

Mark Campbell: No.

MP: How did you get where you are now?

MC: If we start around high school or college, I was originally heading out to be an actor. I have a degree in theater and dance from the University of Colorado. I went to New Orleans for a few years and did some acting there, mostly in musicals. Then I moved to New York and quickly learned that I was just not good enough. I was a pretty bad actor. [Meanwhile] I had written a number of things, and a composer I know asked me to write lyrics. I was a lyricist between the time I was an actor and a librettist.

MP: You mentor young librettists today, but you didn’t have any mentors of your own.

MC: The closest I had was Stephen Sondheim, but I was self-mentored. I studied his work. I [became] a lyricist for musical theater, and Stephen Sondheim gave me this huge award in 1990 [the first Kleban Foundation Award for Lyricist; Sondheim was a judge] and it encouraged me to continue writing.

In 2002, [composer] John Musto called me and said, “I’d like to look at your lyrics.” He read them and liked them and said, “I want to write a comic opera.” So I found the play “Volpone” and adapted it, and that was my first opera. I remember thinking, “You’re at home. This is what you want to do.” I completely found myself. And then a reviewer called it a masterpiece and it got a Grammy nomination.

MP: A lot of people think that opera is too old to matter, or dead.

MC: I feel that the great work being done in musical theater is happening in opera. It’s not happening on Broadway. Broadway is devouring itself. It has made fun of itself for so long that it can’t be taken seriously. … The future of great music – the combination of theater, spoken text and music – is in this form. And the future of opera is in American contemporary opera. I don’t feel like Europe can deliver anymore.

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MP: What’s the difference between musical theater and opera?

MC: That’s a big question. People ask Sondheim, “Is [Sweeney Todd] an opera or a musical?”

MP: You think it’s an opera.

MC: I do because of the structure. Very little is spoken in “Sweeney Todd.” Most of it is sung. I do not think “A Little Night Music” is an opera because a lot is spoken.

MP: What about “Les Misérables?”

MC: “Les Mis” is an opera.

MP: But it’s billed as a musical.

MC: Yes, because it’s performed in musical theater houses. That’s Sondheim’s definition of “Sweeney Todd.” He says, “When it’s performed in an opera house, you can call it an opera. When it’s performed in a theater, it’s a musical.” I would also say that the complexity of “Sweeney Todd,” which has a few Broadway tunes in it, helps me define it as an opera.

MP: You mentioned structure. What do you mean?

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MC: One thing I tell my students is I detest the sung play, when a composer just takes the dialogue and sets it [to music]. An opera is a whole different animal. Writing a libretto is not the same as writing a play. Time and again, we see operas fail, and one of the reasons an opera fails is because it is a sung play. It hasn’t benefited from the form.

It’s an amazing form. Use the traditions! Give me that big, loud aria. Give me that ensemble where 10 people are singing and you can’t understand what anyone is saying but you feel it because the music is telling you. And then give me that big, powerful chorus. Those are things we can do in opera.

What I teach is, if you write an aria, for example, don’t be afraid to use the A-A-B-A song form, which has always worked. Don’t be afraid to repeat sections, because an audience loves to be able to latch onto a melody.

MP: Which seems to be missing in contemporary opera.

MC: Everyone blames composers for not writing tunes, but if they’re not given text that is structured and scans in a certain way, then it’s also the librettist’s fault. My responsibility is to support the composer and make sure he or she is able to write some tunes.

Composers are all different. I’ve given full, complete lyrics to composers who don’t know what to do with them. And I’ve given unstructured stuff to composers who say, “Could you put this in a structure?” You just never know. Kevin [Puts], bless him, can do both. He can do everything, as far as I’m concerned.

MP: You and Kevin and [Minnesota Opera artistic director] Dale Johnson all went to the Edina Library for a public event about the “The Manchurian Candidate.” Anyone could come and hear you talk about it and ask questions.

MC: How are we going to break down barriers if people think we’re just a bunch of European freaks? Everyone has this preconceived notion that opera composers are pretentious prima donnas. But we’re just telling a story.

Kevin hates when I say this, but I write for my audience. I care every single second about what they’re thinking and feeling. I’m not writing for some aesthetic purpose. I’m writing because I want to tell a story.

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I’m telling this story about “Manchurian Candidate” because I believe that paranoia in politics could destroy our country, if we continue to employ McCarthyism. Just last week, when Giuliani – “America’s mayor,” [a phrase] that infuriates me because I lived in New York when he was there, and I would not call him my mayor – when he talked about Obama being raised by communists and socialists, that means McCarthyism is still around. And that’s the reason I think “Manchurian Candidate” is very relevant. … I want the audience coming out saying, “Let’s watch it next time someone calls someone a socialist. Let’s think of the kind of damage that McCarthyism does.”

For “Silent Night,” Kevin and I were able to tell a story that said, “Let’s think about the next time we go into war.” Because this country is often so eager to jump right in.

MP: It sounds like you find a reason to tell a story that means something to you. What about the other operas you’re writing for Minnesota Opera? Can you talk about “The Shining”? [Note: The opera is based on the novel by Stephen King, not the movie by Stanley Kubrick. King had to sign off on the libretto, which he did.]

MC: Once I learned that Jack Torrance [the main character] had himself been abused by his father, the theme for “The Shining” for me became that only a really strong love can end generations of child abuse. Forgive me, but these things are very simplistic. They have to be. You have to start with a simplistic proposition. That’s what I need for myself to get into a story, and I start selecting events from a story based on that.

MP: What about “Dinner at Eight”? What was your door into that story?

MC: I wrote a song that starts the opera, and we may reject it, but it’s called “The Party Goes On.” The story takes place in the Depression. Financial ruin. Financiers are flying off of ledges. And the song is about how the world can fall apart around us, but we still have our ability to love each other and we also have our humor.

MP: So it’s about resilience?

MC: Yeah. And it takes place in New York. I was there for September 11. I live a couple miles from the World Trade Center, and I was at home that day, and I kept hearing ambulance sirens, and then at the church near me the bells were ringing continuously, and I thought, “What’s going on?” And my dog, Harry, was there, and I said, “Harry, let’s go see what this is,” and we went down to the river and both towers were on fire. …

I was so proud of my fellow New Yorkers because we were hugging each other and saying, “This is so sad.” None of us were thinking, “Who can we kill?” The rest of America was starting to do that, and Bush was quick to do that. But my neighbors were all like, “Are you OK?” I was so proud of my city. People were thinking, “What terribly, horribly sad thing in this universe has caused this to happen? Let’s look at it. Let’s reflect. Let’s find a way to change it.”

The great writer Tony Kushner said this thing I’m always thinking about, and I’ll misquote it: “The world is moving forward.” It’s not moving forward quickly enough for most of us, but it is still moving forward.

So maybe “The Manchurian Candidate” in all of its scariness and sense of doom is actually about moving forward. I want this opera to be held up as an example of what we should not do as a country, and how our feelings of what we call patriotism are blinding us to darker things that could happen.

MP: You’ve been asked this question a million times, but how did “Silent Night” change your life?

MC: When an opera gets a Pulitzer Prize –

MP: You’re in big demand now.

MC: Which is great. It’s even bigger than you think. I worked in advertising for 35 years. I worked for big corporations. Getting the Pulitzer Prize said, “You shouldn’t be sitting in a cubicle. It’s time to be a man about this and not be afraid.” My father was poor, and he drummed into me that work, money and security are the most important things. It took a Pulitzer and a couple years of therapy to say, “You can do this.” And once I did, the offers came in. Too many offers.

MP: So opera is not dying.

MC: Not at all. Contemporary opera is very much alive. The opera companies who refuse to program new opera – and especially the opera companies in this country who do not program contemporary American opera – are the ones that are dying because their audiences are dying. It’s a bunch of old operas for old people, generally old white people. And if we’re going to get a new audience, we have to write new operas. And that’s what we’re doing.


“The Manchurian Candidate” with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell, opens Saturday, March 7, at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul. FMI and tickets ($25-$200). Through Sunday, March 15.