Honoring Stonewall – How Mark Campbell & Iain Bell Came Together To Create An Opera Celebrating LGBTQ+ Community

By David Salazar

It was March of 2018 and New York City Opera General Manager Michael Capasso wanted to make a big statement with his 2019 season.

The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots would take place in 2019 and it was the perfect opportunity for New York City Opera, which has championed operas about the LGBTQ+ community over the last few years, to commemorate such a historical event.

As such, he reached out to a few prominent artists from the LGBTQ+ community to create a new opera. He reportedly had a list of different potential collaborators but ultimately brought together librettist Mark Campbell and composer Iain Bell to create “Stonewall,” which will have its world premiere on June 21, 2019 in a production directed by Leonard Foglia.

Campbell is the librettist behind such noted works as “Silent Night,” “As One,” “Elizabeth Cree,” “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” and “Dinner at Eight,” to name a few. For Campbell, the opportunity to work on this opera was a no brainer, even though he knew he had to write everything very quickly.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to honor all of the people that were there that night,” Campbell explained in a recent interview with OperaWire. “For me, Stonewall is about the power of a group of people to institute change against oppression in society and to achieve equality. I can credit that I am able to marry the man I love to what happened that night. It was the first step in that direction.”

“For me, Stonewall is synonymous with shelter, with a place where anyone can go and be accepted and not judged,” Bell, the composer of such operas as “The Harlot’s Progress,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel,” told OperaWire. “I knew it was a beacon for the gay community at a time where they didn’t have anything like that.”

Harmonious Duo

The relationship between Campbell and Bell, working together for the very first time, could not have been more harmonious.

“He is such an experienced librettist and I knew that he knew the form,” Bell noted. “I trusted that he knew what he wants to say within the structure of the artform.”

“It came together very smoothly,” Campbell added. “Working with Iain was tremendous. It was dreamy.”

Campbell pitched the idea of telling a three-part story that took a look at 10 lives before Stonewall, the night of Stonewall, and the morning after.

“Everyone liked it,” said Campbell. From there, he wrote the opera’s text in two to three weeks.

He sent it off to Bell, who was working from London and the two would maintain correspondence via email and Whatsapp for the ensuing five months.

“We may have spoken on the phone twice,” Campbell added.

Creating Characters Through Music

Bell, who noted that his biggest inspirations in the world of opera are Berg, Britten, Puccini, Janacek, explained that his process has become increasingly instinctual in the early going.

“I am fortunate to have already written six operas in a short span of time, and I am at a place where I can rely on my technique. I can rely on my first response to a text. And I don’t think too much about my response because it is quite automatic. So my ears and my thought process is quite subconscious,” he explained.

But from there he starts to look deeper into the characters to find his overall musical approach and structure.

In the opera’s opening 40 minutes, the audience is introduced to eight major characters and Bell noted that his goal was to ensure that each one had a distinct musical language.

“One of the characters is a young girl who has escaped from conversion clinic,” Bell explained. “She describes herself as crazy and skittish so I knew coloratura soprano that could deliver those quicksilver Zerbinetta lines. I knew that that was the utterance I wanted her to have.”

Once he figured out the vocal patterns and fachs for the characters and has written them out into a vocal score, he moves on to fitting the characters into “orchestral clothes.”

Bell noted that, for example, the character of Renata is a drag queen played by a tenor.

“I knew that orchestrally, this character has so much groove and I knew that I needed a strong bass section that suggests a riff,” he noted.

Additionally, taking on this opera after the much darker “Jack the Ripper,” allowed Bell to toy with the 1960s and the musical language of that specific era.

“It was great fun to experiment with harmonic progressions that one would normally associate with pop music. That was the most fun and thrilling part of it,” Bell explained, noting that he even wrote and arranged two pop songs that launch the second part of the opera.

“The opera is funny, melodic, there is rage in it and then there is hope at the end and I think that for LGBTQ+ audiences, it will be a celebration of what we’ve achieved since then,” Campbell added.

A Work For Everyone

In terms of casting, Bell had some ideas beforehand, including tenor Andrew Bidlack, but in general, his main objective was to put together a diverse cast.

“I wanted to have a diverse cast and that the piece spoke to multifaceted nature of the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted everyone to see themselves reflected in this cast,” he noted before adding that this top had been at the forefront of his early conversations with Campbell before a word of text had been written.

The cast includes Bidlack, Joseph Charles Beutel, Liz Bouk, Lisa Chavez, Michael Corvino, Jessica Fishenfeld, Marc Heller, Brian James Myer, Jordan Weatherston Pitts, and Justin Ryan.

The idea of inclusivity extended beyond the lead roles, with Bell adding that there was an emphasis on diversity in the chorus as well.

With this approach, the hope is that this opera can foster a sense of community.

“Together we are strong. And when we work together with our allies, we can overcome any challenge. We can find the strength within any of our communities,” Bell concluded. “That’s what I felt and that’s I imparted into it.”

“I want people to remember that the rights we fought so hard for back then, could still be taken away today,” Campbell emphasized.

“No one is equal until everyone is. We all need to live in a society in which we lift each other.”


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