Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Campbell is one of the world’s most in-demand librettists. A prolific writer, Campbell has created 40 opera librettos, including his best-known work Silent Night which received a Pulitzer Prize in Music, his popular trans-themed opera As One, and his critically-acclaimed Stonewall which premiered at the New York City Opera in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
Campbell has also won a Grammy for his opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Following the Opéra de Montréal production of Silent Night in 2015 and the Orchestre Classique de Montréal (OCM) production of As One in 2020, Campbell returns to Montreal for the OCM world premiere of Unruly Sun, a new piece by Campbell and Canadian composer Matthew Ricketts.
An 18-song cycle inspired by the life of queer activist and director Derek Jarman (1942–1994) and his celebrated diary, Modern Nature, the work pays tribute to Jarman’s life as an artist and a person living with AIDS, and— fittingly—will premiere at Cirque Éloize on December 1 to commemorate World AIDS Day.
“Unruly Sun is a dream project,” says Ricketts, a graduate of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. “Mark’s text—by turns poetic, political, lyrical, pastoral, surreal—presents myriad opportunities for musical illumination and enchantment. Working on this project with Mark over the last two years has taken my music to new, surprising and sometimes exhilarating places, and is one of my proudest projects.”
Directed by Michel–Maxime Legault, the production features tenor Karim Sulayman, the OCM string quartet and piano. Campbell, Ricketts, Legault and Sulayman are also all proud to work on Unruly Sun as out gay men. Say Campbell, “I hope that the work will help create a bridge between generations of gay men, between those we lost to AIDS and those who are alive today.” Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Unruly Sun develop?
Mark Campbell : I had read an article in The New Yorker about Modern Nature. Then when I read the book, I started envisioning a theatrical song cycle. It’s really my reaction to the text and what I felt about it as a gay man of a certain age, who lost a number of friends to AIDS. I started creating text based on that. At the same time, I went to Matthew Ricketts, we had been sort of courting each other as collaborators. I went to him and said, “I think this might be our project.” He read it and agreed, and we just started working on it. It was just a joy to write and collaborate with Matthew. The OCM had done a wonderful production of As One, so I told (OCM Executive Director) Taras (Kulish) that I had this new piece and he said, “Great, let me look at it.” And he decided to produce it. That’s how it happened.
Why Derek Jarman?
Mark Campbell : Because I admire Derek Jarman as an activist and person living with AIDS. Back then he was one of the leaders that we followed. I love his anger and sarcasm. He was very different than Larry Kramer but he was still an important presence during the movement. When he died in 1994, it was a tremendous loss.
For you and Matthew Ricketts, what was it like as out gay men to work together on Unruly Sun?
Mark Campbell : I’m not someone who will ever claim that straight people can’t write gay characters. But I will say that our working together as a team makes it so much easier and more authentic.
Unruly Sun will premiere in Montreal on World AIDS Day. How has AIDS affected your life?
Mark Campbell : As a gay man and veteran of those years, I feel a responsibility to tell those stories and not let them be forgotten. I lost 30 friends from AIDS, including five of my best friends. I feel very lucky that I survived, and I’ll never know how I did that. So I feel a tremendous responsibility to tell these stories and commemorate all the incredible people and brilliant artists that we lost in this generation. One thing that I think is working out really beautifully in this collaboration with Matthew and Karim is that we’re working across generations. My generation is lost. We really skipped a generation. So I need to speak for those people. I feel incredibly honoured that I get to do it. That’s the reason why I needed to create this piece.
I saw your opera Stonewall in New York during Stonewall 50. I was greatly moved.
Mark Campbell : Michael Capasso (General Director) of the New York City Opera told me, “I want to create an opera about Stonewall but unfortunately I had to let go the original creative team. So, basically, you have two weeks to write it.” And I said, “Yeah, I can do it.” I was not of course around for Stonewall. But I live in that neighborhood. I live a few blocks away from Stonewall the bar. And I’ve known all those people. They were so easy for me to write because I had spent a lifetime thinking about those characters.
By writing such projects as Stonewall, As One, and Unruly Son, do you feel you are helping preserve queer and trans history?
Mark Campbell : I hope I am. That’s why it’s a privilege to do it. And I hope I’m writing it well. In the case of As One, one of the best decisions I ever made in my life was to ask Kimberly Reed, who is trans, to co-write the libretto. She’s not only trans, she’s a brilliant writer, and it was just a joy. That collaboration was one of the best ones I’ve ever had.
In 2022, you helped create and fund the True Voice Award which is administered by Washington National Opera, to help with the training of transgender opera singers.
Mark Campbell : The True Voice Award was the brainchild of Kimberly, actually. We were facing a lot of very understandable pushback from the trans community because As One was originally conceived for a cisgender baritone and cisgender mezzo. So that is how it was being performed. The trans community said, “Hey, what’s going on here? Why aren’t you casting trans people?” Rightfully so. Then we went around and we were like, “Well, where are the trans singers?” The story is that, of course, there is no good training for trans singers. So Kim suggested we create an award that supports trans singers so that we can cast them in these roles. In September we had our first all-trans production of As One for Opera Steamboat in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was directed by a trans person and conducted by a trans person, and performed by a trans and nonbinary cast. That makes us so happy.
In 2020 you created and are funding the first and only award for opera librettists, the annual Campbell Opera Librettist Prize which is administered by OPERA America.
Mark Campbell : One day I decided to do the very adult thing and create a will – which everyone should have – and while I was doing it, I thought, “What kind of legacy do I want?” Librettists are not credited enough. In opera, we often have to fight to even get our name mentioned as authors. I want to elevate the role of the librettist in opera today. So that’s how that happened.
Talking about prizes, how did winning the Pulitzer Prize in Music change your career?
I used to work in advertising because I couldn’t support myself as a librettist. I had a job as a designer and copywriter for a New York corporation. When I won the Pulitzer in 2012 (for Silent Night), it changed my life because people started noticing my work and more commissions followed. The rest of it – award culture, review culture – I don’t care about that because I don’t think that it makes you a better writer. But the Pulitzer did get me more commissions, certainly. And that didn’t happen until 2015.
What was your personal coming out experience like?
Mark Campbell : I never really officially did come out. My parents knew. They’re both dead now. My family was Catholic, both my parents were Republican. But they were socially liberal. And my mother was an artist. She knew. It was never really discussed. I’ve just always been gay.
Were you wary of being out at the beginning of your career?
Mark Campbell : Not at all.
Are you a writer who happens to be gay, or are you a gay writer?
Mark Campbell : I’m a writer who happens to be gay but I’m also a gay writer because I often choose subjects that have to do with the LGBTQ+ experience.
You’re returning to Montreal for the world premiere of Unruly Sun.
Mark Campbell : Great city. I never miss the chance to go to Montreal. My first time there was in 1989. My mother had just died and I thought, “How far can I go on a train?” I travelled to Montreal, I remember I checked into an auberge in the Gay Village. I got into my room, put down my bag and started crying because I needed to cry really badly about my mother dying. Then I cleaned myself up, went out to a club called Sécurité Maximum. I met a French boy and we went home together and it was really fun. So I love Montreal. I’ve been many times. It’s a wonderful city.
INFOS | Unruly Sun will be performed one-night-only at Cirque Éloize (417 Rue Berri) on December 1 at 7:30 pm. Sung in English with French and English surtitles. For tickets, visit orchestre.ca.
A post-concert benefit reception with the creative team of Unruly Sun will be held at Cirque Éloize to benefit the Montreal HIV/AIDS non-profit organization Maison Plein Cœur. A donation receipt of $125 will be issued for each $200 “Concert & Cocktail” ticket.
For more Mark Campbell, visit http://www.markcampbellwords.com.