BWW Interview: Mark Campbell of SILENT NIGHT at The Kennedy Center

BWW Interview: Mark Campbell of SILENT NIGHT at The Kennedy Center

Mark Campbell is a DC native, and librettist of 28 operas, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, which is currently playing at the Kennedy Center. Campbell has also written a number of musicals, and is currently working on multiple projects.

For those unfamiliar, can you start by explaining what a "librettist" is? I feel like words like "playwright" and "lyricist" are ubiquitous for most theater fans, but that some of the language around operas is less common.

An opera librettist is playwright who writes a story and words that are meant to be sung. In musical theatre, a lyricist and book writer are usually two different people. In opera, the librettist is a combination of both.

How did you get into writing operas, specifically?

In 2001, composer John Musto got a commission at Wolf Trap and asked me to write an opera with him. I suggested adapting Volpone (based on the Ben Jonson comedy.) My first experience at Wolf Trap made me feel that I had found home in opera. It was also interesting because I was born in Washington, DC, and my father worked for FBI while putting himself through Georgetown Law School, so I'm a native to the area. I ended up writing three operas for Wolf Trap. (And like so many people in the opera world am sad to see Kim Pensinger Witman retire after being the heart and the soul of the company for so many years!)

Silent Night is based on the 2005 French film, "Joyeux Noël," which draws on real stories, but is mostly a fictionalized account - what sort of research did you do when creating Silent Night, given that there's both fictional and real source material?

There were several truces in 1914. I worked with Christian Carion's wonderful screenplay, but also did my own research. Many decisions were made in adapting the movie to the stage and creating a stage-worthy opera. For example, the opera singers in the movie are a little too noble. It's fine if a movie does that, but it would appear self-congratulatory in an opera! So I just made them a bit more human. I also decided to show actions in the three trenches simultaneously to bring out a common humanity (in the "Sleep chorus" in Act I, for example.) Also, all of the events in Act I built into an intermission, something the movie doesn't have.

Silent Night originally premiered in 2011 - do you feel the show has changed over the last decade? In what ways?

I think the opera's message of hope at the end of the opera really resonates a bit more now than it did in 2011. These are such terrible, divisive times in this country that we seek messages of peace and reconciliation.

What was your favorite moment to write for this opera?

The sleep chorus was exciting to write. But I only have favorite moments when I think of Kevin Puts' music...the way he found the heart in the story. I'm also proud of a moment in Act Two when the opera singer Nikolaus Sprink confronts Lieutenant Horstmayer about being Jewish and supporting Germany. It's a really angry moment and Kevin's music captures it perfectly.

I wanted to highlight the antisemitism that was already prevalent. Plus, I didn't want people to mistake this as a Christian opera - it's an ecumentical opera. One of the characters, Father Palmer, identifies in the movie that if the religious cannot help maintain peace, then religion is useless. I really like the part when he rips the cross from his neck and throws it across the battlefield. We were asked not to do it in Ireland, but I disagree with the idea of it being offensive.

And what was your favorite moment from the performance(s)?

Again, my favorite moments don't have to do with text, and, because it's an opera, that's a good thing. I think Kevin's music shows tremendous depth and heart, and I still find musical surprises that thrill me. And every time a new cast does the work, I get to hear the work in a new way. It was very exciting hearing the young artists at WNO perform this work. The Domingo-Cafritz program has some of the best new talent in the country and it is superbly led by people at WNO like Ken Weiss and Rob Ainsley.

The opening for the Kennedy Center's production of Silent Night (along with a number of other performances opening the same weekend) coincides with the 100-year Armistice that ended World War I, yet in many ways it feels universal and still relevant to our current day. Was that your intention? Were you focused on the historical aspect, or on something else?

I was just telling the story. I think it's dangerous for a writer to try to assign importance to their own work-just tell the story. I think the popularity of Silent Night (with 15 or 16 productions since the premiere) is that the story is very human and something audiences are eager to relate to.

Despite a (literal) hopeful note, the ending almost feels dissatisfying, since we never really learn the fates of the characters we've come to know - we don't know if Sprink and Anna survive the war and stay together, we don't know if Jonathan ever comes to terms with William's death, we don't know if Audebert ever gets to meet his son, and we don't know if Horstmayer makes it through this war, let alone what happens to him after. It's clear that their time interacting with each other has impacted all of these soldiers, but it's difficult to imagine they were able to transfer positions and continue on as they did.

I think most audiences aren't dissatisfied by the ending. We actively chose not to neatly tie up all the questions that are raised. We know Jonathan is never going to recover from the trauma of his brother's death - he's an example of how war can twist a human's soul. But the decision Sprink and Anna make to defect is a very hopeful decision - they're saying, "I don't care whatever happens, we are a couple that love each other and want to be together, and we won't let this war destroy who we are as human beings." The soldiers were punished because, even though there were a number of these truces, it was dangerous for a government to allow it to continue- fraternization with enemy is very serious affair. You can't maintain the machine of war if your soldiers are saying they're not going to fight them.

That first Christmas, none of the soldiers knew what they'd be up against. Everyone thought it was going to be a quick few weeks, easy. Their souls were broken - if they see a smile in an enemy face, they're going to take it.

The message of hope-faint as it may be-at the end of the opera allows the audience to remember that peace can happen.

Is there anything you'd like audiences to keep in mind, or hope they take away from the production?

I want people to ask the question, "Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep going to war?" Kevin and I built several moments of silence into the score to let the audience ask this. And we want them to think about if we can ever find a way to prevent war from happening again.

Silent Night is playing at the Kennedy Center through November 25th. The opera runs for two hours with one twenty-five minute intermission, and is performed in five languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Latin) with subtitles projected in English. For more information, read Sam Abney's review.

Photo: Audebert (Michael Adams), Horstmayer (Aleksey Bogdanov) and Gordon (Norman Garrett) agree to a truce in WNO's Silent Night production. Credit: Teresa Wood

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