Words First: Talking Text in Opera

Mark Campbell

July 13, 2020 Keturah Stickann/Mark Campbell Season 1 Episode 3
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Mark Campbell
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Mark Campbell
Jul 13, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
Keturah Stickann/Mark Campbell

Keturah has a conversation with librettist and lyricist, Mark Campbell.  They discuss his extensive body of work, advice for young librettists, how Elizabeth Cree is his favorite libretto, and the artist’s constant struggle with imposter syndrome.

Show Notes Transcript

Keturah has a conversation with librettist and lyricist, Mark Campbell.  They discuss his extensive body of work, advice for young librettists, how Elizabeth Cree is his favorite libretto, and the artist’s constant struggle with imposter syndrome.

Keturah 00:01

We must keep showing up for each other.  After a personal tragedy several years ago, this became an oft repeated statement of mine through lived experience.  People’s presence alone got me through a horrible time, and I realized that the most important thing we can do in times of trouble Is to simply be there.  It’s a concept that seems exponentially harder to realize during this period where we are all stuck behind screens in our own little boxes.  Showing up can feel false or tiring in a different way than when we were able to gather in person and truly hold each other up, and yet I still think it’s the most important and most available way to give of ourselves during this strange period of collective upheaval.


00:46 – [Mozart played on a piano]


Keturah 01:03

This is Words First, Talking Text in Opera.  I’m Keturah Stickann.


01:09 – [Mozart played on a piano]


Keturah 01:36

When I spoke to Mark Campbell last week, showing up was one of the things we talked about before the record button was pressed.  I told him I started this podcast to connect with creative people, and he mentioned how important it was for all of us to keep reaching out to each other.  It made me so happy to know that he too understood the value of presence.  Mark Campbell is a prolific librettist and lyricist.  He’s worked with a veritable who’s who of American composers, including Kevin Puts, Paul Moravec, Laura Kaminsky, John Musto, William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Mason Bates, and Iain Bell, and on numerous recognizable titles such as The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, The Shining, Stonewall, The Manchurian Candidate, As One, The Inspector, and Dinner at EightSilent Night, composed by Kevin Puts, arguably Mark’s best known work, received the Pulitzer Prize in music.  He is an advocate for contemporary American opera, and a mentor to future generations of writers.  Playwright, Michael Slade said about Mark, “Mark writes with painstaking attention to dramatic structure, as well as to each character’s history, journey, and emotional truth.  He’s an intensely intelligent and well-read writer who self edits any phraseology that even hints at the trite, general, or mundane.”  In other words, he speaks the truth, and he isn’t afraid to voice his opinion, which makes him a particularly fun and generous interview.  Here is Mark Campbell and myself, speaking via Zoom on July 5, 2020.  I’ve actually, you know, I’ve been reading a lot of interviews that you’ve done over the last several years, and I was just reading about your being influenced by Sweeney Todd, and I wanted to start with that because I’m exactly the same way.  That musical just floored me, and the fact that I’m not in musical theater because of it is a testament to the power of opera.  So…


Mark 03:35



Keturah 03:36

You’ve said in a couple of places that everything you know about libretto writing you learned from Stephen Sondheim.  Can you talk a little more about that?


Mark 03:45

Sure.  When I started writing librettos back in the 1800’s.  I mean, actually, I started writing around 2000, 2001, and there was no training for opera librettists at that time.  Now fortunately, there is, with organizations like The American Opera Project, American Lyric Theater, and the American Opera Initiative in DC.  There are a number of…a few other programs that are existing to train librettists, but when I started there was nothing.  It was, you’re on your own.  And I came to opera in a very roundabout way.  I didn’t like opera particularly.  I thought it was elitist, and I thought it was so silly.  The librettos were just ridiculous, and the stories so stupid.  And of course I know opera’s about music, but it was so off-putting for me to be a storyteller and then listen to an opera, and see characters not motivated to do anything really except to hit a high note.  And so there was no training.  I always studied the work of Stephen Sondheim because I was a music theater lyricist before I was an opera librettist, and I consider Sondheim the greatest musical playwright of our time.


Keturah 05:29



Mark 05:30

And so I just studied it, and when I actually saw Sweeney Todd… I did, I saw the original production on Broadway before it opened, and I suddenly saw something come together between musical theater and opera that I thought could push opera forward.  The structure of it, use of reprises, the themes, the motives, and everything like that, I thought, “Oh!  Here is a structure list.  Why can’t we apply this to opera in a stronger way?”  And Sondheim himself has a really good explanation of the difference between musical theater and opera.  He says, “When it’s playing in an opera house it’s an opera, and when it’s playing in a musical theater house it’s a musical.”  And…


Keturah 06:24

Well, you know, I like that description actually.  I feel like that’s exactly what it is.


Mark 06:28

I do too because…because it’s absolutely useless.  That’s why I like it.


Keturah 06:32

Yes. Yes!  [Laughter]


Mark 06:34

Because it says why the hell do you care?


Keturah 06:35

Right.  So then ultimately, why did you…why did you choose to move over.  Because I know you’ve still done a little bit of musical theater, but what made you make that switch to move from being mostly a lyricist for musical theater into being mostly a librettist for opera?


Mark 06:56

There were a couple factors.  One is, I had had really no success in musical theater.  I’d won an award from Steve Sondheim in 1990 for my lyrics.  The Kleban Foundation award, which was amazing, and I got to meet him and it changed my life.  But I was really having…I really wasn’t having success in musical theater the way I wanted to, and I…in 2000 and 1 or whatever, John Musto asked me to write an opera and I ran toward the opportunity.


Keturah 07:34

Was that Volpone?


Mark 07:35

Volpone, yeah.  It was like I’d found my world.  I think I went into this whole business because I love music more than words, and I felt like musical theater wasn’t really honoring that.  I think had Sondheim arrived ten years later, had Sondheim arrived now, it would have been considered an anomaly.  I don’t know if he would find the success on Broadway now.  I don’t know if Bernstein would.  It’s…


Keturah 08:16

Yeah.  That’s a really good point.  It’s changed an awful lot.


Mark 08:21

It is. I’m not saying that it’s worse because I don’t believe that it’s worse.  I’m just saying that I feel that Sondheim and Bernstein and Barber…because remember, Barber played on Broadway.  And Blitzstein.  These are all composers…and also Gershwin.  These were all composers that were taking the form into something that was operatic, and it’s the kind….and also Kurt Weill and Brecht.  These are people who were doing something different with musical theater that I was attracted to and that I was no longer finding in musical theater, that I was finding in opera.  Fortunately, I’m very lucky, I had the great great fortune of working with John Musto on my first full-length opera.


Keturah 09:14

Yes, that’s very nice and lucky.


Mark 09:19

It’s very lucky because this is a composer who honors the words.  This is a composer who also loves Bernstein and Sondheim, and will continue in that tradition, and so I was really fortunate in that regard.  I was also fortunate in working with the stage director, Leon Major, because he…


Keturah 09:41

He’s a master of comedy.


Mark 09:43

Yeah, he was great with comedy.  He also knows that when it comes to directing a new opera, an opera that’s not been seen before, that the director is premiering, that it’s not about his stamp, it is about the story that the composer and the librettist want to tell.  A lot of younger directors often think, like, “well, I’m just going to do what I want with this story.”  And I think you can do that with, forgive me for saying this, but I think you can kind of do that with Puccini because the audience is already familiar with the story, so you can put your own stamp on it and make it into something that the audience might want to see because they’ve seen it 400 times and they want to see a new version of it.


Keturah 10:27

Oh, I totally agree.


Mark 10:28

But with a new opera, yeah, yeah! And with a new opera, a director has to be really faithful to what the composer and librettist want. And Leon was…I loved working with him.  I learned so much in such a direct way.  I mean…I remember him…he gave me such good advice early on.  There was one scene in Volpone that he was unclear about, and he said, “could you explain this for me?”  And so I explained it, and he said, “That’s what you’re seeing, but the audience is not seeing that.”


Keturah 10:59



Mark 11:00

So I want you to go and look through the audience’s eye.  And I rewrote it right away because he was absolutely right.  I think more librettists need to think of the audience.


Keturah 11:11

Yeah, and I think there’s also…I mean, I think that just absolutely points out how delicious the collaborative idea is within the performing arts.  Of being able to…you’ve written the words, there’s a composer, there’s a conductor, there’s a director, and you have this team of people who are all working towards a single goal.


Mark 11:32

It’s the best.  When it works, it is divine…


Keturah 11:36



Mark 11:37

It is heaven, as you know.


Keturah 11:38



Mark 11:39

When it doesn’t work, it is a circle of hell that I condemn no one too.


Keturah 11:43

No.  And one that most of have been in at one point.


Mark 11:47

Yes, we have been.  I’ve been in it.  I’ve been very fortunate, though, in my career, and I think I’m known as a decent collaborator.  I’m sure there will be people who would say the opposite, but I know there are many people who would agree.


Keturah 12:01



Mark 12:02

I love collaboration.  I love when everyone in the room is aligned on the same story.


Keturah 12:08



Mark 12:09

It’s a great feeling.  Yeah.


Keturah 12:11

It is.  So, I want to actually just move over to your body of work for a second because, again, I read a bunch of stuff before this conversation, and so I read an interview in 2017 where they said that you’d completed 16 operas since 2001, but just three years later, an interview that happened in April said that you’d just put the stamp on your 37thlibretto. So, you’ve more than doubled your output in three years, which is both impressive and…


Mark 12:42

Oh, no no no, that’s…


Keturah 12:44

Is that wrong?  Tell me…


Mark 12:46

It’s wrong because the first statistic is wrong.  I have finished my 37th opera libretto.


Keturah 12:54

But can we still go back and just think about the fact that that’s two operas a year for twenty years if we really break it down that way.  That’s…that makes me feel somewhat lazy when I really think about all the work that goes into writing words…


Mark 13:06

Oh, that’s sweet of you, but…


Keturah 13:09

I just… I’m impressed with the output of what you’ve made.  You have an incredible catalog, and it’s fascinating to look through that list and see just how varied it is in terms of the stories that you’ve told.


Mark 13:24

Oh, that’s very kind.  I’ve been very fortunate.  I would say this, that you know, I worked in advertising for 35 years, and …


Keturah 13:32

Oh, no kidding.  Wow.


Mark 13:34

No, yeah.  And, so I always had a job because nobody can make money off of being a librettist until you have lots of work out there.


Keturah 13:43

Of course.


Mark 13:44

And so I, up until…yeah, up until five years ago, I worked in advertising.  Sometimes I worked as a freelancer, sometimes I worked 35 hours a week, sometimes 45,  sometimes 25.  So I was doing that.  When I quit my job in 2015, that’s when, I would say since 2015, I’d have to go back statistically and look at this.  But since 2015, I’ve probably written 20 operas.  20…20…Let’s see 37 minus…like maybe actually 25 to 30 operas since 2015.


Keturah 14:23

Okay, so that’s still pretty impressive.  That’s a lot of writing.


Mark 14:26

That’s a lot.  It’s a lot.  Sometimes I can write really quickly, and sometimes it just takes forever.


Keturah 14:33

What’s a piece that took you a particularly long time?


Mark 14:38

Oh my god.  The one I’m working on now.  I’ll always say that, by the way.  The one I’m working on now always takes the longest.  Let me see… Oh, they’re all different because…. I mean, I can tell you the ones that took no time.


Keturah 14:56

Yeah, okay, so let’s do that.  Tell me one that took no time at all.


Mark 14:59

Okay.  Later the Same Evening I wrote in like 7 or 8 days.


Keturah 15:02

That’s another one by John Musto, correct?


Mark 15:05

Yes, John Musto wrote the music for that, and also directed by Leon Major.


Keturah 15:08

Oh, nice.


Mark 15:10

Stonewall I wrote in like seven days because I had to.  There was just no time.


Keturah 15:16 

Well, you came to that…you and Iain both came to that late, I think.


Mark 15:21

Iain had like seven months, but I had like seven days.


Keturah 15:24

Oh, geez.


Mark 15:25

But music takes longer.  Yeah, no no no.  But music takes much longer than a libretto to write.


Keturah 15:30



Mark 15:31

And so, even seven months is ridiculous.  Most operas take two years to write and we wrote that one in less than a year.  And I think we both thrived on the energy of each other, like, let’s just get this done.  We don’t have any time.  We have a premiere, and you can’t change the anniversary of Stonewall, so we have to make that date.  And I really appreciate that he just threw himself into it and wrote it.  I will say this, I think this is useful, it doesn’t get any quicker and it doesn’t get any easier.  That’s what I was really hoping, as I would get older and as I would find my patterns, and…I mentor and teach all over the place, oh, you should be able to write four of these a year!  Uh-uh.  Uh-uh!  And I don’t know if it’s just because I’m older, my mind is slowing down, and because I have no more confidence than I did fifteen years ago, I really…


Keturah 16:30

That’s really interesting, isn’t it?  That we really don’t change in that regard.  I think that imposter syndrome just sticks around for a long time no matter how long we’ve been doing it.


Mark 16:40

It does!  Yes!  And every writer, I actually think every good writer or every good artist, always considers themselves fraudulent.


Keturah 16:51



Mark 16:52

When they finish something, and it could have been damn good. The first, I know for me.  I should just talk about…I mean, for me, I’ll finish something and go, and then someone says, “this is really great,” or something, I go, “Well, I fooled them again.  They really think I’m an artist.”


Keturah 17:07

[Laughter] Yes…


Mark 17:08

I don’t know what that is.  I could go into therapy and get it ironed out and eliminated, or whatever.  But I’ve never…I think that every writer in a certain way feels that they’re a fraud.  And that they criticize… I’m very self critical.  I’m never happy with anything…I want to make changes to As One, for example.





Mark 17:35

Yes, absolutely!  Absolutely.  I know exactly what I’d change in that.  I’m not allowed to, but I…Oh, yeah yeah yeah, the final sequence. The Norway Sequence is too long.  There are too many digressions going back and forth, and you can…you don’t have to be on record agreeing with me.  But the truth is that every time I’ve done As One, a musical director, not a stage director, but a conductor or musical director has come up and said, “Hey, that Norway sequence is just a little too long.”


Keturah 18:07

Oh, that’s really interesting.  And for those listening, As One is the only piece that Mark and I worked on together.  I directed it in Eugene last year, so…yeah.


Mark 18;17

You did a beautiful production.  It was really a…your production is really fantastic.  I was very happy with it.


Keturah 18:23

Oh thank you.  I appreciate that.  I was very inspired by that piece, so that… It was a true labor of love.  But I find that interesting that even now you can look at pieces and still…because I do that as a director, and I think any artist, any discerning artist really, I think we look at our work and there’s always those little pieces that we just want to go in and tweak.  Even though…I mean, with a director you absolutely can’t because it’s one and done, but with a written work I can imagine that that would just poke at you quite a bit.


Mark 18:53

I don’t think that any true artist is pleased with…I don’t…I just, you know, and it sounds so negative to say that.  But I just don’t see the usefulness in being pleased in your own work.  I don’t see how that’s useful for anything. And for me the fun, really…I really love identifying a problem and then finding a way to fix it.  It’s my favorite thing…


Keturah 19:21

Yeah, me too.


Mark 19:22

…of…in working.  And that’s what a director does.  When you arrive at a solution and the solution is right, not just a solution, it’s very exciting, as you know.


Keturah 19:35

It is, yes.  So, I’m just looking at the number of composers that you have worked with, and in this same vein of this conversation.  So I’m looking at, of course John Musto, and we talked about Laura Kaminsky, and there’s Kevin Puts, which you of course…Silent Night, Manchurian Candidate, Elizabeth CreeSilent Night won the Pulitzer.  There’s Mason Bates, there’s William Bolcom, Iain Bell, who we mentioned, Missy Mazzoli, I mean the list goes on.  Do you…how does your work change, or how does even your approach change based on the composer you are working with, or do you approach the work always the same regardless of who it is who’s going to write the music on the backside?


Mark 20:24

Well…that’s a great question.  I approach the story in the same way.  Basically starting with, why do I care about this story? Why should an audience care about this story?  Why should an audience pay a lot of money and inconvenience themselves to see this story?  What makes it important to them now?  So I approach a story the same way.  Every composer is different, and every new project you work on with a composer is a different.  And I do spend a lot of time listening to a composer’s work before I work on something because I want to take advantage of their best voice.  I remember listening to Kevin Puts’ music a great deal before I started writing Silent Night, and I heard this gorgeous lyrical narrative often in his music, and I said, “Oh, I’ve got to take advantage of that.  I’ve got to really make sure the audience hears that.”  Gosh, it’s so different with each one.  My collaboration with Kevin changed in that the first…Silent Night was his first opera.  It was about my 10th or 11th.  So he was kind of shy with asking for things, you know?  And by the time we wrote Elizabeth Cree, he was not shy at all, which I love. And he also had acquired a language, the language of the theater.  He had never worked in the theater for Silent Night, and by the time we were working on Elizabeth Cree, he knew what was viable in theater, not in a concert hall.  And as you know, they’re vastly different.


Keturah 22:r23



Mark 22:24

And Elizabeth Cree was…first of all Elizabeth Cree is my favorite libretto.


Keturah 22:35

It is!  I was going to ask you if you had one…


Mark 22:38

It is. It is my favorite libretto and it’s the favorite opera I’ve written with Kevin Puts.


Keturah 22:42

Oh, nice.


Mark 22;45

I like it more than Silent Night and I like it more than Manchurian Candidate.  I’m really really proud of that work.  It was very difficult, and I chose that story to adapt so it’s all my fault.


Keturah 22:57

How often do you get to do that, actually be the one who brings the story?


Mark 23:03

It’s mixed.  I don’t mind when someone says “we’d like you to adapt this into an opera,” because, unless it’s completely stupid and I can’t do it, I usually try to do it.  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.  Mason Bates had called me and said, “I want to write an opera with you and I’ve got an idea.”  And so, I was just like, ooh Mason Bates! Wow, he’s cool.  And I’m excited about electronic music, you know, in an opera. And so I called him and then he told me the subject matter was Steve Jobs and I went, “Oh god, no, oh!” 


Keturah 23:41



Mark 23:42

That’s really hard because he’s such an asshole.  He was so horrible to people.  And then, of course I read, I did my research, and I found out, no, there are things about Steve Jobs that were genuinely good, and we tend to blame him for our own addictions to cell phones, when it wasn’t…he just made them nice, and…. Anyway, so composers, back to the subject.  I don’t know, I really appreciate composers who understand drama and are able to use their own voice to tell the same story I am.  I hate when I have to go to a composer and say, “Hey, I don’t know if this is really accomplishing what this scene is about,” and the composer says, “Well, but that’s what I wrote.”  It can be very very difficult.  One of the best composers I’ve ever worked with is Paul Moravec.


Keturah 24:47

Which you did The Shining with.


Mark 24:49

The Shining, and then we’ve written an oratorio, and we finished a second oratorio, and we were about ready to start our third oratorio when this happened.


Keturah 24:57

Of course.


Mark 24:58

But he’s just someone who understands drama.  And the process of working with Paul is just so terrific because, we’ll meet in person, which is something I hardly ever do anymore.  But we’ll meet in person and he’ll go over every punctuation, and he’ll stop at a phrase and go, “I…this is…” He’ll just look at me, and I’ll say, “Oh, you want me to rewrite this.”  And he says, “Yeah, it’s not feeling right.”  That’s all I need.  All I need is for a composer to tell me, “It’s not feeling right.”  I hate when a composer tries to rewrite something of mine.  Because they really screw it up badly.


Keturah 25:35

That was definitely one of my questions was, how much do you find that your words change inside of a composer’s hands, but I’m sure it depends on the composer.


Mark 25:45

Yeah, it does vary by composer.  And I never mind when a composer comes to me and says, “this is not working, can we rewrite it.” I’m happy to do that, because then I can figure out what’s not working.  But I really can’t stand when they just go and rewrite words, or even offer suggestions to rewrite things.  Because, I’ve never offered to rewrite music for them.  I never go to them and say, “I think this would be better in A-sharp minor, don’t you?” I don’t do that.  The best collaborations are the ones in which both roles, both librettist and composer, both roles are respected equally.  Now, opera’s about music, so the composer is the god, or the king or the queen, or whatever you want to call them, in opera, but when the opera is being created, both roles need to be respected.  My best collaborations have happened when I know that the composer is respecting my work as much as I respect theirs.


Keturah 26:57

Yes.  You know, I was going to ask you if you think that a librettist can drive the direction a composer goes, but I think in a perfect world, it sounds like you’re saying that you’re both in charge of keeping the bus in the lane.


Mark 27:17

Yeah, you are.  I mean, I would say… If a composer says, “What do you think of this melody” or something like that, I’ll offer an opinion respectfully, but its very unlikely for me to just jump in and offer my opinion unless they ask.


Keturah 27:40

So I’m going to switch gears here.  I have so many things I want to ask you, so I’m moving down my list here of… but…I just, again, looking at your body of work, do you think that, as we’re talking about the stories that you’ve told, do you think that contemporary opera has enough comedy, or do you think it takes itself a little too seriously?


Mark 28:02

I would say that that’s not the issue.  I think if I have a criticism of contemporary opera, it’s that stories are not being created that an audience cares about.  So, there’s so much opera that’s being created that it’s like, ugh.  Well, there’s one thing, there’s a phenomenon that I really hate.  I call them the program note opera, where you have no idea what the hell is going on on stage, you don’t know what this librettist or composer are trying to say, and you have to read about it in a program note.  That’s garbage.  That’s basically your job…


Keturah 28:42

Yes.  It’s bad storytelling.


Mark 28:44

Yeah.  Your job is to dramatize something, it’s not to write a program note.  And so I’ve seen a number of operas where I have no idea what’s going on, and then I look at the program note and they say, “Oh, this is about social injustice” or something, and I say, “Wow!  I really didn’t get that.”  There’s a lot of that in New York and in California, on the coast, and I find it kind of comical.  Now, as far as comedy and humor, I use them because I think that it draws a connection between an audience and the characters on stage. If characters have a sense of humor about themselves, or they’re funny, an audience likes them more. 


Keturah 29:31



Mark 29:31

You’re aware of that with Hannah in As One.  One of my first decisions, it was very funny because, I asked Kim to cowrite the libretto with me for As One.  She was originally just supposed to do the film, but I knew as a cisgender gay man, but gay means nothing in this context.  As a cisgender man, I was not going to know enough about transgender people to write a story, so I asked Kim to cowrite the libretto with me.  And I also learned very quickly that Kim and I are very much sympatico when it comes to storytelling.  Anyway, in our first meeting, I said, “So Kim, I’m going to bring up something and I hope you won’t… you know…I hope that this is cool.  But my default is usually humor and comedy.”  That’s something I’ve always done.  I’m comfortable with it.  Sometimes I get trashy.  I turn into a Borscht Belt comedian and I’m aware of it.


Keturah 30:27



Mark 30:30

But I really hope we can tell this story with comedy, and… She said, “Oh my god, I’m so glad you said that!”  Because stories of transgender people are often told with such rage and torture and torment, and she said, “We’re funny, by the way.  We can be funny too.”  And I said, “I know.  I’ve already identified that in you.”  And so, I think one of the reasons As One succeeds is because of the humor in it.  So many stories are being told today that take themselves way way too seriously.  And, you know, what happens when an artist, a writer, takes themselves so seriously that they think that they’re so important, the audience shuts out, they don’t care.  They only see the artist as being self indulgent.  And I would say, a lot of the operas that are coming out are merely about the artist’s vanity, and are self-indulgent.  They’re not about the issue so much as saying, “look how cool I am.  This is an issue I believe in.”  I’ve seen that too often, and I find it really boring.


Keturah 31:45

And to that point, what are your thoughts about…do you consider yourself a political writer, and what are your thoughts about political pieces, or pieces that are written specifically for issue?


Mark 32:00

Well, I don’t think that issues make good stories.  I think that stories make good stories.  And if an issue can be raised and discussed, fantastic.  I know in my own life, when I’ve tried to write political operas, The Inspector was one, Manchurian Candidate was another.


Keturah 32:21



Mark 32:22

I’m not as true to myself.  I have very very strong political views, as you might know.  Right now I’m terrified because of what’s going on in this country. I also see positive things.  I think the protests are brilliant and wonderful, and I’m so thrilled to see people not being complacent.  But, I know from my own…when I’ve tried to do issue things, I just don’t do them very well.  I care about characters, and I care about stories, and I care about people.  And if an issue finds its way into a story I’m telling, fantastic. That’s great.  But that’s not…I don’t start with an issue, I start with a story.


Keturah 33:14

Yeah, it’s not the impetus. That’s interesting, you know I interviewed Gene Scheer the other day, and he said pretty much exactly the same thing.  That really it’s the story…when we care about the characters, then the issue becomes something…if there’s an issue that sneaks in there, then it’s something that the audience can absorb in a different way than by simply being slammed in the face.


Mark 33:38

And I loved…I really admire Gene Scheer’s work because he’s after the story.  He comes from being an actor, and knowing that it’s the story the counts, it’s the story that matters.  The issue.  I mean, so many operas are being created in grant speak, what I call grant speak.  Where, well we’ll get a grant from the NEA if we talk about gun control.  Well, I don’t care about that.  I care about the child that might have been hit by a bullet and how that affected a family.  Don’t come at me with a story about gun control until you can connect it with the human beings that have been affected by it.


Keturah 34:22

Right, right.  I love that you educate librettists.  I feel like teaching people how to tell stories and all of this knowledge from writing so many stories over your life can help people to put themselves in a place where they can also start to tell stories in this way.  What’s your biggest piece of advice for people who are looking to tell stories in a musical form.


Mark 34:52

I would say… well, it would be two-fold.  My…I think my first advice would be, when you tell a story, try to find out what makes it musical, and also, try to understand how music works.  So that, for example,  You’re not writing really long sentences.  Long sentences don’t work in opera.  So understand how music works, understand how opera works.  And also, don’t be afraid of the traditions that opera has thrived on for years.  Don’t be afraid of that duet.  If there are three people on stage, maybe there’s a trio there.  Learn that…here’s finally my sentence:  Learn that a play and libretto are not the same thing.  That a libretto is meant to be sung, and that a play is mean to be spoken.  That would be my first advice.


Keturah 35:58

It sounds so simple, but it really kind of isn’t, to make that shift, I think, in your brain about how to put words on paper.


Mark 36:08

It’s not.  And I was fortunate early on, in being a lyricist.  If you know how to write a lyric, like a simple AABA song that rhymes correctly and is structured, you can pretty much write anything.  But I was very lucky in that early on I came from the discipline of knowing how music and words work together.  So many playwrights or poets are coming into this just thinking about the words, they’re not thinking about the music.  And, I looked at…someone had me look at a libretto the other day.  And I said, “look at this one…”. There were four lines.  And I said, “forgive me, but I’m going to rewrite this just so you can see the difference in a play and a libretto.”  And I hated doing that, but it was like…I needed to cut to the chase with this person, because I don’t think they’re going to understand unless I show them.  It’s almost like it’s a translation.  It almost feels like a translation.  I call it libretto-izing.


Keturah 37:19

Nice, I like that.  Mark, I am so happy to talk to you today.  Thank you again for doing this.


Mark 37:26

You too!  It was wonderful.


Keturah 37:27

This was just a wonderful conversation.  Thank you.  Many thanks again to Mark for such a wonderful conversation.  He tells me he had 18 cancellations including 4 premieres due to Covid-19, and during this time he’s turned his focus and given his work to various on line benefits that help those hurting right now.  These include The Artist’s Relief Tree, Opera America, and Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS Covid Relief Fund.  As I mentioned before, we must keep showing up for each other, and Mark absolutely does.  His generosity and support shines through even in those times when we cannot gather.  Next week, I’m presenting an interview with screenwriter, playwright and librettist, Richard Wesley.  Richard wrote the libretto for Anthony Davis’ opera, The Central Park Five, which took the Pulitzer for music this year.  We’ll talk about that, the difference between writing a play and writing a libretto, and we will also discuss issues that come up in his 2019 memoir, It’s Always Loud in the Balcony, which follows his life from a young playwriting student at Howard University in the early 60’s, through the black theater scene in Harlem, and the film scene in Hollywood in the 1970’s.  It was a fascinating conversation and I can’t wait to share it with you.  Thank you for listening.  I’m Keturah Stickann.


38:50 – [Mozart played on a piano]


Keturah 38:56

This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband for keeping the dog quiet.  Thanks for listening, and until next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.


39:10 – [Mozart played on a piano]