When Mark Campbell first visited the Rothko Chapel, he was ready for it, unlike most first timers who enter the non-denominational meditative space and stare at the 14 austere murals by the late modern artist Mark Rothko with hazy wonderment.
“When I walked in, it felt familiar,” Campbell says. “I was prepared to know what it was like. Some people have a different experience, it’s not like any chapel anyone has ever visited. They feel confused; I felt completely at home.”
Campbell is the co-librettist for Some Light Emerges, Houston Grand Opera’s 63rd world premiere that opens March 16 for a two-night run at the Ballroom at Bayou Place. Originally conceived by Campbell, co-written with Kimberly Reed and composed by Laura Kaminsky, this chamber opera captures the unique experiences of five different people over four decades as they confront the cool, soul-bearing solitude of the Rothko Chapel. The elegant and excellent Dominique de Menil—philanthropist, founder, art collector and all-around visionary—also plays a major role.
“People always write about artists,” Campbell explains. “Why don’t we write about the people who support them?”
In dreaming up the opera, Campbell spent a lot of time researching the enigmatic de Menil and uncovered a wealth of delightful anecdotes. “The story is that sometimes she would wear two different pairs of shoes because she travelled so much she would just forget,” he shared.
Transforming a biography into a story for an opera is a task all its own. Campbell says he does the research and then throws it all away.
“Pretend they never existed and make them human,” he explains. “A character that the audience wants to be with for the next hour.”
Campbell has a lot of experience imagining new and exciting things to spark the opera world. He spoke to me from Minneapolis, where he was rehearsing for a different premiere—Dinner at Eight with Minnesota Opera—before heading to Houston. And he's not done yet.
In 2017 alone, Campbell is the librettist for five premieres with more than fifteen librettos to his name overall. He’s also written libretti for a very wide range of things, from his 2004 Volpone (based on a 17th century play by Ben Jonson) to his 2016 opera The Shining (yes, from the 1977 Stephen King novel) and the 2017 premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (which is about just who you think it is). He’s probably best known for Silent Night (2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2012.
“One thing I do like about this opera is that it does remind audiences about the importance of art in our lives,” Campbell told me. “I don’t know if transformation is the right word—art can have an influence, tilt a person towards a different way of thinking. (Because it) addresses terrorism, xenophobia, and racism, I do think this is a very important work in this time.”
March 16–17. From $25. Houston Grand Opera, Ballroom at Bayou Place, 500 Texas St. houstongrandopera.org