From the mouth of an expert: “I aspire to write opera that doesn’t bore people”

Fans of the art form known as opera should mark their calendars for the upcoming performances of shows written by the renowned librettist and lyricist Mark Campbell.

By Ryan Robertson

March 3, 2011

Mark Campbell
Courtesy of Mark Campbell

Fans of the art form known as opera should mark their calendars for the upcoming performances of shows written by the renowned librettist and lyricist Mark Campbell. Originally from the D.C. area, his work has premiered at some of the most illustrious venues in New York City. The New York Festival of Song, Moab Music Festival, National Gallery of Art, American Place Theater, New York City Opera and Carnegie Hall are some of the major ones. Arlington’s own Signature Theater will showcase a production of “And the Curtain Rises” playing now through April 10. Northern Virginia residents will get the chance to see another show at Wolf Trap shortly after Easter. The world premiere event of “The Inspector will take place on April 27, with two more performances on April 29 and May 1.

Campbell’s earlier collaboration with composer John Musto was a considerable success according to critics. The live recording of “Volpone at Wolf Trap four years ago was nominated for a Grammy last year for the powerful performances and the moving score from the accompanying symphony orchestra. The album should be available wherever compact discs are sold, but you could always listen to samples of the performance on YouTube.

They will reunite this year for “The Inspector, loosely based on “The Government Inspector” by Nikolai Gogol. In a case of mistaken identity in the 1930’s on the island of Sicily, a clever nomad is mistaken as a high-ranking government inspector by town officials. They go to great lengths to hide their shameful corruption from the impostor in their midst, and hilarity ensues.

“And the Curtain Rises will take place almost three weeks beforehand. The story is a fictional account of the unintentional birth of musical theater in 1866. Broadway producer William Wheatley has to find a way to salvage a play that has gone horribly wrong. The actors have started to revolt, destroying the costumes and scenery out of frustration. A fortuitous fire in the theater next door leaves a French ballet troupe stranded with no money. Wheatley doesn’t have to think too long about how to utilize them in his own play. He adds several musical dance numbers, producing the first American musical in the process. Joseph Thalken will compose this homage to musical comedy.

The Inspector

While they may write music for different styles of musical theater, Musto and Thalken are similar in many ways. They both understand how music must relate directly to the audience, and adapt to rewrites without difficulty. “Neither one imposes a tyranny over the collaboration process,” Campbell says of his friends. “Many composers view their every note as precious, but they’re both happy to change it if something doesn’t work.” Thalken introduced Campbell to Musto years ago, which resulted in “Volpone.” They have worked together on three more plays since then, “The Inspector” being the fourth.

Campbell’s primary objective is to thoroughly entertain anyone willing to attend these shows. He actually thinks most opera can be dull and monotonous, especially the shows with a three-hour or more running time. “I often doze off once or twice during most opera performances,” he admits. “I’ve always seen the potential in the art form though, and I think the most challenging musical theatre is written as operas these days.”

Broadway seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis in his opinion. “Jukebox musicals have flattened musical theater,” he opines sincerely. Opera is perceived as a high-brow strictly European art-form, making it difficult to find a consistent audience in this country. A common misconception among cultured people is that quality opera has to be written in Italian or German. “Discerning audiences should not be afraid of contemporary music, it’s not at all scary to see opera as relevant.”

Everything he knows about show business and structure can be traced back to his unwavering love of musical theater, citing Stephen Sondheim as one of his primary praiseworthy influences. Sondheim is most known for writing and scoring the likes of “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods” and “West Side Story”. He went on to win an Academy Award, multiple Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and eight Tony Awards. More than any other composer has ever won. The gloomy tale of the vengeful barber of Fleet Street continues to inspire Campbell to this day.

Opera enthusiasts and newcomers alike could both realistically enjoy these upcoming shows. Campbell knows firsthand how quickly an attention span can be lost. Not only will they be in English, but the running times are promised to be reasonable. “And the Curtain Rises” and “The Inspector” are far from overly dramatic; both have humorous elements that aim to make the audience laugh more than once. “Perhaps it’s too lofty of an ambition to wish it, but I aspire to write opera that doesn’t bore people.” Critics would have you believe that he’s been able to accomplish this with his previous work; maybe he deserves the benefit of the doubt?