‘Rappahannock County’ librettist explains his process

Librettists are used to coming in second. Although their work creates the structure on which an opera or song cycle rests, they’re seldom credited as a work’s creators. And they don’t get much time to do their stuff. “Usually the librettist gets about a month,” says Mark Campbell, “and the composer gets four years. I have honestly been given less time to work on a libretto than it has taken to get the contract signed.”

This short time frame, however, means Campbell is able to write a lot of librettos. “Rappahannock County,” his song cycle with Ricky Ian Gordon that opens in Norfolk on April 12, is just one of five premieres he’s having this year, many of them in the Washington area. There’s “And the Curtain Rises,” a new musical playing at the Signature Theatre through April 10. There’s “The Inspector,” an opera he wrote with John Musto that will have its world premiere April 27. There’s “Silent Night,” an opera written with Kevin Puts that is in rehearsals now for a premiere next November at the Minnesota Opera. And there’s “Later the Same Evening,” the Edward Hopper opera Musto and Campbell wrote for a Washington premiere in 2007, which is opening this summer in a revised version at Glimmerglass, the festival in Upstate New York.

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All this means a lot of traveling, but Campbell doesn’t mind. “I worked so hard,” he says, “to be this exhausted.”

Campbell was eager to do “Rappahannock County” because of the chance to work with Gordon and the Virginia Arts Festival — not because of the subject matter. “I had no interest in writing about the Civil War,” he says. “I don’t even like history.” He and Gordon were aided by Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, the project’s historical consultant. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, they’ve hired a historian? I can do the work,’ ” Campbell says. But instead of the dry academic stereotype Campbell and Gordon were expecting, Ayers proved to be an inspiration and a major guiding force in the project. Campbell now calls him “my Civil War Sherpa. I wouldn’t have known where to start if it weren’t for him.”

Campbell quickly became hooked. “I’ve never researched anything as much as I have this,” he says. “First, it’s an original work” — many of his other opera librettos have been adaptations of preexisting material (“Silent Night” is based on the film “Joyeux Noel”). “Second, there are so many Civil War freaks out there I don’t want to do something wrong.” He adds, “I read those books; I bought more; I couldn’t get enough. I bought a book about Civil War language. There was a word in there, ‘secesh,’ used for secession. [I thought,] ‘I can rhyme secesh with flesh!’ This is the way a lyricist works.” (In the song “A Fine Solution,” an embalmer sings, “Pro-slavery or anti, Union or Secesh, /All men are created equal, Merely mortal flesh.”)

While Campbell used specific sources for some of the songs — a politician’s speech worked into the song “States’ Rights,” for instance — he had to rely on his imagination for material for the show’s two African American performers. (The other three singers are white.) “There’s not that much,” Campbell says. “White people made sure black people couldn’t read or write. There are very few memoirs and diaries, and some are questionable, written way after the fact.” In the song “Bound to Be,” a man cynical about the prospects afforded by the Emancipation Proclamation sings, “The Northerners will treat us fine /‘You need a job, well, please, take mine!’ /They never let us read or write, /But we’ll learn all that, heck, overnight.”

“Of course, you never would have heard an African American voicing those opinions,” says Campbell, “because he would have been killed. But put yourself in his shoes and it makes sense.”

All of Campbell’s libretto work isn’t enough to free him from the necessity of a day job.

“I work in advertising 30 hours a week,” he says. “I have to do that to pay my rent. Commissions are good, but they don’t happen rapidly enough.” His employer is an insurance company; as a freelancer, he can’t say which one. “I’m working on a campaign for home loans. I do writing, design, campaign plans for advertising. Thank God I have that. Even if you have five premieres in one year. My rent in New York is ridiculous.”

 
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