Which Comes First in Creating an Opera? Words or Music?

May 29, 2017

WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston considers a question of operatic proportion, with notable librettist Mark Campbell.

Librettist Mark Campbell, Opera Philadelphia General Director and President David Devan, and composer Kevin Puts.

Campbell's been writing the words for operas for years, and in 2012 collaborated with composer Kevin Puts on the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night. He’s working with Puts again on a new chamber opera, Elizabeth Cree. The world premiere of Elizabeth Cree will take place during Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural festival “O17” in September, 2017.

[Music: Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme, “O Soave Fanciulla”]

In the moonlight, love-struck Rodolfo appeals to Mimi to declare her love for him. A duet cascades in shared yearning, ending with the two walking off stage, singing in unison “Amor!”

Drama continues to unfold in Puccini’s opera La Boheme. How does this amalgam of melody and emotion come together? I asked the in-demand librettist Mark Campbell.

Mark Campbell: Every project is different. Most of the composers that I work with, the libretto comes first. We start with a very strict outline

Meridee Duddleston: That seems to suggest lyrics are king. But that’s not the case.

Opera must first come from the heart. That's why people go to the opera.

MC: Your words have to support the music always and they can never get in the way of the music. A good librettist knows when to back off and say, okay, this is yours now because no matter how beautiful my words may be, they will never compete with that soprano hitting that note and hitting that emotion at that moment with music

MD: As we listen to opera on the radio or sit in an audience, this special kind of musical theater engulfs us, even when we don’t understand, or catch, every word.

MC: The librettist tends to be kind of the brains of the collaboration, the composer is the heart. I would say we’re about 80 percent brains, 20 percent heart, and they are the opposite, because opera must first come from the heart. That’s why people go to the opera.

Tune in this Saturday afternoon, June 3rd at 1 pm to hear Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz.