Writing Operatic History – Librettist Mark Campbell on Creating Operas About Steve Jobs, Georgia O’Keeffe, & MurderersBy David Salazar
Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Puccini’s “Tosca.” Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
What’s wrong with that picture? For most opera lovers, nothing whatsoever. And yet the underlying truth that everyone overlooks is that those works don’t exist without the other major figures attached to the respective works. It should really be Verdi and Piave’s “La Traviata,” for example as the former would never have put his brilliant melodies on display without the latter’s important role as librettist.
Arguably opera’s most prolific librettist, Mark Campbell notes that it can be frustrating at times to look at how history has often treated librettists, but fortunately for him, “we seem to be busy all the time.”
Busy isn’t quite the right word to describe Campbell at the moment. In 2017 alone, he has half a dozen operas making their respective premieres, all of them in different shapes and sizes.
Adaptation or Original Idea: What’s the Difference?
So what exactly goes into the process of writing a libretto for this art form? And how do you write six in one year? OperaWire had a chance to discuss the craft with Campbell himself as the librettist’s latest work, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” prepares to debut in Santa Fe.
Back in the days of such geniuses as Verdi or Mozart, libretti came about, more often than not, as adaptations of famed works. The three operas that kicked off this article were all adaptations of another famed work of the time.
But nowadays Campbell doesn’t have to just stick to another source. He can also come up with his own ideas. Such is the case with his upcoming “Today it Rains,” an opera based on a moment in the life of Georgia O’Keeffe, which was simply thrown at him as an idea and Campbell went ahead and explored it on his own.
But regardless of whether his project is something like “Today it Rains,” or his recent adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” the process for the scribe is always the same.
“Every opera begins with the same question: What is the story?,” he told OperaWire. “I always look to create a theme sentence. Something so simple that it is stupid.”
For example, for “The Shining,” his theme sentence was as follows: “Generations of child abuse will only end with a strong love to overcome it.”
“In the novel Jack Torrence’s father abuses him. It’s not in the movie,” Campbell explained. “It’s only the love of the child and his wife that get him out of the situation. It sounds silly, but in guiding the characters toward a common idea, it feels easier to find a theme sentence.”
Once he has the kernel from which the drama will grow he sets about outlining endlessly.
“I just outline and outline and outline until there is nothing left but to write words. From there I break it out into more formal structures like arias, and ensembles which I then present to composer completely done.”
He noted that while all composers have their own ways of working (Paul Moravec can take musical cues from punctuation symbols alone), he always approaches his own methods in the same manner.
Of course, adaptations and original works present individual challenges for Campbell.
In the case of adapting “The Shining,” he knew that he had to battle not only with audience expectations but with a 600-page book.
“What people don’t understand is that when you adapt from another source into a libretto, you have to make so many leaps. You have to make a novel sing,” he explained. “The Shining is 600 pages long. The opera is 2 hours with an intermission. Some things were going to get cut and others transformed.”
But Campbell didn’t have to go all that far to get inside the characters and world of the story – he had it all right there in his hands.
But when he was presented with a commission for “Today it Rains,” which is set to premiere at Opera Parallèle in 2019, he knew that his experience would be quite different.
“I was asked to write an opera about Georgia O’Keeffe,” he noted. “And I replied, ‘What about her?’ The response I got was that it was my job.
“So I went online and found that she took a train ride from New York to Santa Fe. The first time she had gone to Santa Fe,” he revealed. “So I decided to create an opera that takes place on a train ride. As she moves to her new life, she leaves her older one. I actually took that train ride twice just to have some experiential research. The last aria in which Georgia looks at Santa Fe and mountains and everything like that, it was written as I was riding to Santa Fe.”
Revolutionizing Steve Jobs
With “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” Campbell undoubtedly had one of his tallest tasks to tackle. Jobs is not only an icon of this century, but his story has already received a plethora of adaptations over the last few years, whether in the cinema or on the page. An opera could seem a bit convenient given the social milieu, and any misstep could lead to great critical backlash.
Campbell actually said no when he was offered the task, fully aware of the risk it implied.
“I wanted to work with [composer] Mason [Bates],” he noted. “I love the idea of electronic music coming into the opera house.”
But tackling the subject of Jobs was not as appetizing.
“My initial feelings were not positive. I’ve worked on Macs since 1984. I was a huge devotee of Mac products. Always will be,” Campbell explained. “But he did some nasty things.”
So his first order of business was to find a way to relate to a human being that by most accounts was far from exemplary on an interpersonal level. He turned to the famous biography written by Walter Isaacson for inspiration.
“My job was to find ways to humanize him. I can’t write an opera about a jerk for 90 minutes. The audience has to like him on some level,” he said while adding that he also looked everywhere he could to find information on Jobs.
Whenever he came across a unique anecdote that he thought was essential or key, he would write it down. One example included a time that Jobs took acid and heard a field come alive.
“I constantly asked myself what this meant to him. All these things were formative and important to his growth.”
And then he took a step back from the real person.
“I took all of this research and imagined him as a fictional person. You have to do that with every biographical subject,” he noted. This all took him to a unique and often overlooked aspect of the former Apple CEO’s life – his devotion to Buddhism.
This led to the discovery of Kobun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’ spiritual mentor. One of the core beliefs of Buddhism is that no human can draw a perfect circle.
“There are defects in a circle that you must appreciate,” Campbell related. “Jobs was trying to create the perfect personal computer, but he had so many defects in his soul and personality that he kept trying to cover up and create this circle.”
He structured the opera around a product launch in 2007. Jobs is not feeling well and goes out for a long walk in a circle. As he does, he looks back at events that shaped him.
“The title relates in 2007 to him realizing his mortality and taking a circle back on the events that formed him,” Campbell explained. “It’s an emotional journey and Otagawa goes with him and points him toward different things.
While Jobs and “Today it Rains” were ultimately original works by the composer, he had a lot of material to draw from as he was ultimately adapting the life of an iconic figure into the opera form.
In the case of “As One,” the idea truly came from nothing initially. There was no commission as was the case with the other two bioperas.
But it started at a dinner table.
Composer Laura Kaminsky had him over for dinner alongside filmmaker Kimberly Reed. They talked about a few ideas with the aim of creating an LGBT-themed opera. Virginia Woolf was thrown around, as was Tiresius, the mythological seer that was said to be transgender.
But Campbell rejected them all.
“I hate myths. They are an excuse for bad storytelling.”
Suddenly he turned to Reed and asked her about her experiences as a transgender individual. She unveiled that as a kid she decided to do a paper route with a blouse on.
“So I turned to them and said, ‘I know how to make this work,’” Campbell narrated. “Within a few days I proposed an original libretto based on Kim’s experiences and examine the youth, the middle years and the final decision of a transgender person.”
But that wasn’t enough. Campbell knew that he needed to dig deeper to give the libretto the greatest depth possible.
“I knew that I needed to ask Kim about her experience. I’m gay but not transgender. So I knew that if I didn’t ask her, I would get it completely wrong,” he noted. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Kim is like my sister and she is an incredible storyteller.
Librettists usually have to solve some of the most seemingly basic of issues, including naming the characters. In the case of this opera, the name was quite a big challenge.
“Hannah is a palindrome and I just love the name,” he admitted. “We can’t call Hannah 1 and 2 because they aren’t separated. So we came up with Hannah Before and Hannah after.”
The remainder of Campbell’s 2017 is filled with two more opera premieres, the most prevalent of which is his latest collaboration with Kevin Puts. The two worked together on the highly successful Pulitzer-Prize winning “Silent Night” a few years back and their latest project, “Elizabeth Cree,” promises to be quite the operatic gem. The opera will premiere at Opera Philadelphia in September.
He will also see the world premiere of Julian Grant’s “The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare” at Boston Lyric Opera, which relates the story of two serial killers who murdered homeless people and sold their corpses.
Since both stories feature murderers at the heart of their respective narratives, Campbell was tasked with finding a way to make killers empathetic for audiences.
“Any time you write a villain, you have to understand and appreciate them,” he noted. “With Elizabeth, I appreciate her struggles from her poor childhood. With Burke and Hare, I appreciate how relevant that is to the world we live in now with politicians taking away healthcare. If you’re a woman, good luck, because they don’t care about you.”