Opera in the Time of COVID: Mark Campbell, Famed Librettist of ‘Silent Night,’ ‘As One,’ ‘The Shining’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Frances Marshall)

“Opera in the Times of COVID” is an interview series in collaboration with photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio. We talk to notable figures from around the opera world to get their perspective on how they feel these challenging times may change opera’s present and future.

Mark Campbell doesn’t mince words.

He’s written dozens of librettos on a wide range of topics in such works as “As One,” “Stonewall,” “The Shining,” “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” “Silent Night,” “Dinner at Eight,” and “Elizabeth Cree,” among many, many others. His works reveal a belief in the power of individuals to overcome their circumstances to be better themselves and those around them. But he isn’t afraid to call out the powers that created those challenging and painful situations for his characters.

It’s no surprise that in speaking with Campbell for this series, the librettist did not shy away from stating his beliefs on how this crisis has affected the opera world and what he hopes (and doesn’t hope) for as we transition into what comes next.

OperaWire: What have you done during this time to keep yourself positive and productive?

Mark Campbell: I wrote the book for a musical, completed revisions on several librettos, did research for a new oratorio and performed a number of administrative tasks that have been annoying me like loose threads for the last few years. I’ve also organized and participated in a few benefits to help singers, a group in this industry that I feel were hit the hardest in this pandemic.

OW: What do you feel will be the greatest impacts of COVID-19 on the opera world moving forward? What are some new developments that you feel are here to stay?

MC: Too soon to tell. I hope more than anything that people will be able to overcome the negative psychological impact the pandemic may have on all performing arts (and sports)—that people will be able to conquer their understandable fears of assembling in public and gain an even deeper appreciation for art. I’m less convinced that virtual programming is the solution many think it is. Will that avidity continue when it’s no longer reactionary? Will a live performance ever be replaceable?

OW: One of the major developments of this time are the emergence of streaming and connecting with fans and followers more directly via social media. How has this impacted your time in quarantine?

MC: I’ve only really been using streaming as a way to benefit organizations that help singers and opera companies. I find it noisome when composers and librettists choose to promote their work at this time and label it as “healing” and “what you need to hear right now.”

What we need to hear right now is that a vaccination has been found. What we need to hear right now is that no one’s life will completely fall apart because of this pandemic.

What we need to hear right now is applause—deafening, unrelenting applause—for our health workers and others on the front lines. However, I do think it’s fine that artists are trying to generate income through streaming.

OW: What is an outcome of streaming that you didn’t expect?

I’m probably alone in this feeling… but after only a few weeks of self-quarantining in this country, I’m already tired of all the streaming. I didn’t expect that. And I totally get the need for performers to perform and I’ve loved the creative ways my friends and colleagues are getting through this. But, for me, it’s only making a stronger case for live performance.

OW: What do you enjoy most about the preponderance of streaming?

MC: The sense of community it’s creating. When it’s sincere. When it’s not exploitative… As per my previous responses.

OW: What is something that makes you apprehensive about its sudden preponderance? How can opera companies and artists around the world learn from it moving forward and should it become a bigger part of the opera season experience moving forward?

MC: Before we embrace this as the new reality, we should look at what we lose. Movies and TV never actually replaced live performance. Why should we think this will? It’s still a limited resource. We praise it highly now because it’s all we have.

OW: Is it a feasible proposition in terms of the business and the expansion of the artform?

MC: Not to me. And I can’t imagine that any singer, instrumentalist or composer think they sound better, perform better, look better or connect more directly on live streaming. Even the most brilliant technical advancements cannot compare to the magical air between an audience and performer. (As long as that air is free of viral droplets, of course.)

OW: What are you most excited about doing once the quarantine officially comes to an end and we are allowed to resume a “normal” life? What do you miss most?

MC: Honestly…going back to rehearsals and being with collaborators (including performers) and working out a problem. Taking Finley to the dog run and watching him get chased. Oh, not having to hear artists credit God for the postponement, not cancellation, of their operas…If God does exist, I hope, They are focusing on more important things than rescheduling someone’s opera.

As for activities I miss, I never thought I’d say this: I miss the gym. Small dinner parties with friends and too much wine. And gay bars. I really miss gay bars.

OW: Who have been the people you have relied on most to help you through these challenging times?

MC: My husband and our dog, Finley. And, of course, my friends, both in the arts and not in the arts. I’m also very proud of my fellow New Yorkers and get tearful standing at the window of my apartment in the West Village at 7 p.m. every evening when I join strangers on the street and in other windows cheering and applauding our health care workers.

OW: Most people in quarantine are actively engaging with the arts via either music, TV, film, reading, literature. Etc. What have you been watching or reading during this time?

MC: I’ve been catching up on movies and revisiting old favorites. Not reading yet because that is reserved for the oratorio I’m doing research on.

OW: Speaking more globally about the pandemic, what can the world learn about this experience? What do hope to see from our leaders (political or even industry) in order to build a better future that enables us to better manage any similar type of situation?

MC: Don’t get me started. The effects of this pandemic—the illnesses and deaths, the damage to the economy, even the long-term psychological trauma—can be laid squarely at the feet of the idiot we have in the White House. Many people died and got sick because he chose to ignore early warnings and lied—lied outright—to the American people. We can learn by putting people ahead of profit, valuing truth over fiction and…voting that dumb thug and his crooked cohorts out of office.