OK, try this: spend five years planning three nights of opera. You'll be presenting the finished results in a barn. And, oh yeah, it's got to be funny. Any takers?
Tonight at the Barns at Wolf Trap, The Inspector will be performed for the first time (or the next-to-next-to-last time, depending on your perspective). Mark Campbell, who wrote the lyrics for the opera, says he likes the higher stakes.
"I always think it's funny when people say, 'Why don't you write serious work?'," he says. "Comedy is a lot harder to write than a strictly dramatic work."
Campbell's authority on this point is hard to contest. He also went through some stomach-churning moments before his last comic opera for Wolf Trap, 2004's Volpone, which like The Inspector he wrote with composer John Musto.
"It's a little bit terrifying," Campbell says. "I remember the first tech runthrough...I turned to John and said 'This is a failure. It's just not funny.'"
The Inspector is based on Nikolai Gogol's play The Government Inspector. It started with a commission, Campbell says. "The only thing they said was that they wanted a comedy." After they settled on the source material, Musto told Campbell he didn't want to write Russian music. They moved the action to Sicily. During Mussolini's reign.
While they set about finding the comedy in that setup, Wolf Trap Opera Company director Kim Witman tramped around the country, auditioning singers. "It's just supply and demand," she says. "You really do see a lot more people who are capable than you could find the money and time to deal with." There was fundraising ("The way we do things is less expensive than other companies," Witman says, "but there's still a lot of people" involved in putting on an opera), Witman's frequent blogging ("I sometimes wish I had that time back," she says. "But it really has become part of our organizational profile"), and reaching out to local arts writers who despite months of attention still manage only to get a story up about the opera on the day it opens.
And tonight, The Inspector will open after just one full dress rehearsal. Campbell says that when he wrote the lyrics for a musical at a traditional theater, "that process had a dozen previews, maybe even more. We don't get that extravagance in opera."
Campbell, who had a song cycle open at the Virginia Opera earlier this month and who wrote lyrics for a Signature Theatre production that will open in May, says as a result a lot of the opera's comic moments come down to "educated guessing." Tonight, he will be hanging out in the back of the house after soothing his wracked nerves with "one or two glasses of wine."
He says Musto told him during the tech rehearsal that they'd written a good show. That must ease the nerves, I say.
"Oh yes," says Campbell. "I had to drug him."