“A groundbreaking new partnership between two visionaries.” “The novel collaboration of two award-winning artists.” Frequently, phrases like these highlight that many new opera commissions unite two or more acclaimed collaborators that have never worked together before. Unlike these one-off projects, composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have proven to be a winning combination on multiple occasions. Their fruitful partnership has resulted in three operas in just six years. Their first opera, Silent Night, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012. After their successful first venture, they continued to work together for The Manchurian Candidate, which had its premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2015, and Elizabeth Cree, which débuted at Opera Philadelphia in 2017. The duo will discuss their collaborative process at Glimmerglass on July 14 in anticipation of Silent Night’s July 15 opening.
Extended collaborations between a librettist and composer are not unusual in opera history. Without Lorenzo Da Ponte’s text, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte would have been totally different compositions and might never have existed at all. The same can be said for the relationship between Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi that produced Falstaff and Otello, works that presented a radical departure in sound and style from Verdi’s earlier operas. Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote an astounding number of libretti for Richard Strauss’s operas, including Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten, among others. It is difficult to imagine what Strauss’s composition career would have been like without Hofmannsthal’s texts to inspire him.
While the audiences of today see and hear only the polished final product, the relationship between these writers and composers was not always easy. Correspondence between Strauss and Hofmannsthal reveals the endless revisions that went into creating their joint works, including occasional diagrams and sketches drawn by Strauss to illustrate what he needed when words were insufficient. Similarly, Da Ponte’s memoirs detail how he sweated and struggled to produce the libretto for Figaro only to be crushed by scathing feedback from Mozart. Yet, though these composers and libretto pairs occasionally had conflicting viewpoints, their synergy produced art much greater than the sum of its parts.
Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell carry on the tradition of these famous names while also building a legacy of their own. When Puts was creating Silent Night, his first opera, Campbell’s text enabled him to build upon the narrative aspects already found in his instrumental music. Puts says of their working relationship, “Sometimes Mark has an idea because of the way he feels the story needs to be told or I’ll say that something has to be a musical moment, or vice versa, but we’re respectful and listen to each other.”