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BWW Review: Lyricist-Librettist Mark Campbell Brings His Vision of the World to NY Festival of Song

A concert filled with premieres

BWW Review: Lyricist-Librettist Mark Campbell Brings His Vision of the World to NY Festival of Song
Mark Campbell brings his unique
vision to whatever he does.

Whether he's writing about soldiers in World War I (SILENT NIGHT with Kevin Puts) or immigrants landing on Ellis Island (A NATION OF OTHERS with Paul Moravec), setting a 'penny dreadful'-inspired story (ELIZABETH CREE with Puts) or looking inside a mad genius of technology [THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS with Mason Bates], Mark Campbell brings his unique vision of the world to whatever he does.

He gave us an inkling of the depth and breadth of his skills in the concert with many premieres for the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS)--heard first the other night on YouTube and available through May 15. This was the first time NYFOS devoted an entire concert to a single writer. But to call him simply a writer or lyricist or librettist really does him a disservice, when one brings as much to the creative table as he very frequently does.

He often chooses source material, whether articles or books or even a photo, recreating it on a compact scale while remaining true to the original author, structuring it without forgetting for a moment that he's working in a different medium. And he isn't afraid to hear "that's not quite it" from a musical collaborator and have to come up with another solution for a lyric.

In short, I wish I had a quarter of the work ethic--not to mention the talent--of Campbell. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here painfully trying to express how much this smart/clever/creative writer sets what Steven Blier, artistic director of NYFOS, calls "the gold standard" in what he does, producing quality and incredible quantity in both lyrics and libretti.

BWW Review: Lyricist-Librettist Mark Campbell Brings His Vision of the World to NY Festival of Song
From top left, clockwise: Olivia Cosio, Brian
James Myer, Joshua Blue, Jessica Fishenfeld.

In the concert, under the stirring music direction and pianism of Danny Zelibor, I was happy to be reacquainted with a couple of pieces I had heard before: the opening aria of A NATION OF OTHERS, which was supposed to premiere this spring with the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall and the finale of STONEWALL (written with Iain Bell), which had its debut at City Opera in June 2019.

The former, "Caltagirone," a touching solo for unaccompanied tenor and beautifully performed here by Joshua Blue, shows Campbell doing one of the things he does best: subverting expectations, here, by keeping the chorus at bay until the second number in the piece. In doing that, he emphasizes the fact that we're going to hear many personal stories with the emphasis on the words and singer (elsewhere, he becomes one with Moravec's romantically modern music).

The other was "Much to be Done," the STONEWALL quartet (adapted from a larger scale ensemble in the original). It featured two singers from the premiere, soprano Jessica Fishenfeld and baritone Brian James Myer, as well as mezzo Olivia Cosio and tenor Blue, in a brilliantly understated end to a tumultuous story, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

BWW Review: Lyricist-Librettist Mark Campbell Brings His Vision of the World to NY Festival of Song
L to r (composite): Music director/pianist
Danny Zelibor and mezzo Olivia Cosio.

Other stories that are meaningful to him as a gay man permeate his creative output. "Heading Home," smoothly sung by baritone Myer, is the opening song of MY OWN COUNTRY, a chamber opera written with Kamala Sankaram. Her pulsating music stands in for a Greyhound bus, as a young man dying of AIDS journeys home, then becomes more dreamy as he fantasizes about the kind of reception he'll receive. "Dragon's Teeth" is part of a dramatic song cycle written with Matthew Ricketts, inspired by Derek Jarman's memoir, "Modern Nature." Baritone Myer's voice brought out all the nuances of the dramatic music.

A couple of pieces show off Campbell's trademark sense of humor mixed with seriousness. The charming "Pomodoro," lithely written with Daron Hagen and sung by winningly by soprano Fishenfeld, was inspired by a large tomato growing in the composer's garden in November. (Campbell saw a photo of it on Hagen's Facebook page and found it a congenial subject and pitched it to the composer.)

Then there's "I Wouldn't Mind," showing off mezzo Cosio's beautiful, velvety voice, from a new opera called A SWEET SILENCE IN CREMONA, music by Roberto Scarcella Perino, about a moratorium on noise so that the instruments in Cremona--home of Stradivarius, Guarneri, Amati, etc.--could be recorded in the museum. It was supposed to debut in Florence last summer but will hopefully make it to New York sooner rather than later.

Campbell is very much interested in building an opera repertoire that can attract younger audiences, with two pieces on the program from the young-adult shelf. The lively, charming "Write What You Know," written with Stella Sung and sung by silver-voiced soprano Fishenfeld, is the opening aria from THE SECRET RIVER, from the eponymous work by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (perhaps best known for "The Yearling"), with the addition of Rawlings as a character. The poignant (yet, not really) "Nellie's Aria," written with Paola Prestini, another showcase for Cosio, that's one of those songs sung with a straight face but is not really serious. It's from an opera, EDWARD TULANE, based on "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" by Kate DiCamillo, which was in tech at Minnesota Opera when the Covid shutdown began.

You can find the NYFOS concert featuring Mark Campbell's words with music by some of today's finest composers on YouTube. It's the best 45 minutes you can imagine.

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