A Conversation with Silent Night Librettist Mark Campbell

Silent Night

We sat down with Mark Campbell, Librettist for Silent Night, and talked with him about his time working on the opera, and what it means for him.

What are two of the most memorable moments from the process leading up to opening night of Silent Night?

Two? Gosh, there are so many. I guess for me it was first hearing Audebert’s aria in Kevin’s living room. Hearing the orchestra bang out the battle scene in the orchestral workshop was also very thrilling.

What is one big (surprising) change that happened from the conception process to the final product? Any parts cut/added/changed?

Kevin and Dale both thought the original chorus of “Sleep” was too short. I initially balked, saying it might sound indulgent. (Yeah, like operas are never indulgent!). After the second workshop, I realized they were completely right and I had Kevin compose whatever he wanted and I set words to it. What no one knows about the Sleep chorus is that most of the lyrics are three syllables long. That wasn’t easy to do in German.

Since Silent Night premiered, have you  made any changes to the score?

There really hasn’t been a need to make any changes to the score of Silent Night. At Opera Philadelphia, there were a couple of very minor changes to a few words because of translation issues. But that’s it.

What opportunities have presented themselves to you personally because of the popularity of this work?

Well, Silent Night raised my profile significantly as a librettist, even though I had already written eight full-length operas before this. I think it has to do with it being at Minnesota Opera and the prestige the organization has. Speaking of Minnesota Opera, I am thrilled to have been commissioned to write the librettos for the 2015 and 2016 seasons: The Manchurian Candidate (with Kevin Puts) and The Shining (with Paul Moravec). I feel very lucky to have landed both of these amazing new operas.

We’re thrilled to have you back, and teaming up with Kevin Puts! What’s working with him like? What are you two working on now?

Kevin and I are working very busily on an operatic adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate, based on the novel by Richard Condon. It is a very exciting political thriller and Kevin and I hope to create an opera that makes the pulse of an audience race. We are also going to write a chamber opera for Opera Philadelphia based on a terrifying novel by Peter Ackroyd called The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, directed by David Schweizer. I personally hope I get to work with Kevin as long as he wants to work with me!

In your operas you don’t waste a word — everything has meaning. How do you compose operas that are so succinct?

I write with many traditional forms of opera in mind: the aria, the ensemble, etc. I don’t write librettos that end up just being sung plays which I think is bringing about the death of opera. I have a quotation framed near my workspace; it’s by the writer Annie Dillard and many people think it sounds morbid, but I certainly don’t: “Write as if you are dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.” I translate this as “Don’t waste anyone’s time—it’s too goddam precious.”

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