As I speak to Mark Campbell over Skype to his New York apartment, he is in an ebullient mood: the night before, he has written the magic words “The End” onto his 37th opera libretto, an adaptation for Des Moines Opera of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel whose title I’m not permitted to reveal. (At the time, coronavirus is a threat, but hasn’t yet caused decimation of the live music world, including the postponement of the premiere of his new Edward Tulane). Having hit the Send button, he’s just had his first proper night’s sleep for months: “it’s not only a difficult story but it’s a very dark story. I like to think that I don’t absorb the worlds that I’m writing about, but I do. You have to write from the inside – you write for a character, you have to know them, you have to know their language, you have to know what they're thinking.”

Mark Campbell

What shines through our conversation is that for Campbell, the story is everything. Of course, he is highly musically aware: in the opera he’s most proud of, Elizabeth Cree (based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem), Campbell noticed in a workshop that the baritone sounded particularly strong singing an E and changed words around in an important aria to suit that particular singer’s voice. “He wanted to sound good, so why would you not do that? Language isn’t precious: structure and story are precious. Language is adaptable: if you don’t know how to adapt your language for opera, then you should find another form to work in. They're just words.”

In the sixteen years since the premiere of his first opera, Volpone, at Wolf Trap in 2004, the sheer volume of Campbell’s work has been impressive. But what also impresses is the range of his work: from large scale pieces with full orchestra and chorus down to chamber operas, two-handers and even monologues, from adaptations of literary classics ancient and new to original stories. To add some more examples: Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, adapted from Christian Carion’s movie Joyeux Noël, about the 1914 Christmas truce where Scottish, French and Germans played football between the trenches; The Shining (classic Stephen King horror); The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (industrialist biopics aren't exactly the bread and butter of opera); Empty the House, a painfully intimate three hander about family relationships; Later the Same Evening, an opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper.

Scene from The Shining

Campbell proudly announces that As One, for string quartet and just two voices singing one transgender character (“Hannah before” and “Hannah after”), is currently the most performed contemporary opera. He is quick to dispel any idea that As One is jumping on a political bandwagon. “I never want young librettists to lose their talent for telling a story. There are so many "issue operas" out there – there are operas about the environment, there's operas about #MeToo. I never want the story to be sacrificed for the issue, because audiences won't come. When I wrote As One, my first decision with my co-librettist Kimberly Reed, who is transgender, was to tell a human story about a character, not to deliver a lecture about gender.”

Mark Campbell

Much as he loves his home in New York, Campbell finds that he can’t write there (“I have an overly evolved social life, there’s just too much going on”). As if to make the point, a police siren starts up outside ("sorry, this is New York") and Campbell's dachshund, who has hitherto been lying peacefully on the sofa, sits up and joins in enthusiastically. Rather, for working days (which he distinguishes from business and administration days), he rents a place by the ocean, where his lifestyle is ascetic. “Typically my writing begins about four or five in the morning. I like to see the sun rising and if I'm with my dog, I take him out for his walk and that's fun for both of us. I typically work from about 5am to about 11am. By then, the world starts creeping in, and I'm not a good enough writer to push it away, the way I should. Then I take a nap – I love naps. They're not like I go to sleep and wake up refreshed: a nap is more a sort of trance state where I'm working on a problem, like a character problem or even a lyric problem. The next period of work will be right before I go to bed, which will be between 7 and 10. I don't like to eat very much when I'm working, I avoid drinking while I'm working. I become a monk and I adore it, it is the most euphoric time in my life. I love working on my writing, being alone and just focusing on a story and living with the characters.”

Pulitzer Prize awards: Paul Moravec, William Bolcom, Mark Campbell, Kevin Puts
© Theresa Murray

A typical libretto takes around three to four months, considerably less than the two years usually given to a composer (“composers also make more money than a librettist in terms of a commission”). But he can be a lot faster if the situation demands it, as in the 2-3 weeks in which he wrote Stonewall, about the 1969 New York riots that marked the start of the gay rights movement. “It had to be written quickly because the opera had already been announced. Unfortunately the producer did not want to go forward with the original composer and librettist, and so they brought in Iain Bell and me. Because it was Stonewall and because I'm gay and I'm a man of a certain age, I wanted to do it.”

Reviews of his operas frequently describe his libretti as “clever” or “ingenious”. Does he set out to be clever? “Oh, gosh. I’m not going to claim to be clever, because I don’t know what that means. But I do like to include humour in as many stories as I can, because I believe it engages an audience. I think contemporary opera suffers so much because it takes itself way too seriously and it becomes pretentious. That appeals to the snobs in opera, and we have a lot of those, but I'm more interested in appealing to a large audience, to make sure that everyone comes to an opera and gets something from it. If opera dies, it will die because of snobbery and exclusion. In As One, Kimberly and I decided immediately that we wanted to have humour in this story because the life of a transgender person is often told without humour. It's often portrayed as this torturous thing – we wanted the audience to come to us and I think humour is one way that does that. Clever is not funny: clever is clever and comes from the author; humour comes from situation and character. In a play like The Importance of being Earnest, we laugh at the cleverness of the playwright, but we don't necessarily laugh at the situation or what is going on with the characters, as much as we could. I can be frank: I've written a couple of operas that have endeavoured to be clever, and they failed because they're not funny, they’re just clever.”

Campbell with faithful companion

Campbell spends a great deal of effort on mentoring programmes for young librettists. In addition, as a committee member of the Dramatists Guild, he is active in working for their rights. “You guys keep taking our names off of works that we've written; people in the business tend to not credit librettists. I’ll get an email saying ‘Oh my god, I wrote this opera and it's an original story and I went to the website of the premiere and my name was nowhere to be found. They got the stage director, they've got the fight coordinator and the make-up artist, but they don't have the person who created the story.’”

His own stage writing career was given a huge boost in 1990 when he received the prestigious Kleban Foundation Award. Apart from the undoubtedly welcome $150,000, what really mattered was the recognition from his hero, Stephen Sondheim, about whom he is reverential: “everything that I’ve learned about writing opera librettos, I learned from Steve Sondheim. The award changed my life, it made me feel that there was someone I admired who liked my work and said ‘you should go forward with this.’” The Kleban Award covers several writing categories in musical theatre; 30 years on, Campbell is now setting up a prize specifically for opera librettists. “A little bit of money given to a young person can mean a lot at a certain point in their career. And I really believe that a good libretto makes a good opera. That hasn't been honoured in our field and I want to find a way to honour it.”