April 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
Laughs in the libretto

‘The Inspector’
A world-premiere opera based on Gogol’s play ‘The Inspector General.’ Music by John Musto, book and libretto by Mark Campbell. April 29 at 8 p.m. and May 1at 3 p.m.
Free one-hour talk at the Center for Education, next door to The Barns, an hour prior to each two-hour show.
The Barns at Wolf Trap
1645 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA
Tickets: $32-$72

Mark Campbell (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Comedy is a different animal when it comes to opera.

That’s the experience of Mark Campbell, author of a new comic opera, “The Inspector,” that features his laugh-out-loud, incisive libretto matched perfectly to the expressive melodies in composer John Musto’s sophisticated-yet-fun style. It comes to the stage in its world premiere at The Barns at Wolf Trap on three nights beginning Wednesday.

Based on all advance indications, it will be another triumph for the veteran collaborators, Campbell and Musto, whose comic operas “Volpone” won major plaudits at Wolf Trap in 2004 and returned there for a successful reprise in 2007.

“We were their matchmakers,” Kim Witman, Wolf Trap Opera’s director, rightly boasts, about bringing the two together for “Volpone,” and she admits that “anytime you do that, you just don’t know at the beginning what’s going to work or not.”

This combo worked so well, says Witman, “that we’ll take the credit” for making it happen. About “The Inspector,” she says, “They both have an approach to this work that is modern in feeling, not as in avant-garde” — which in opera can be cold and remote — “but that hits the sweet spot.”

“The Inspector,” an update of the 1836 classic tongue-in-cheek satirical play by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol,  “intersects as music and words,” she says, “with its own spin on our contemporary world, because this is not about high art, but they each set out to entertain.”

What’s great about the two, she adds, is that “they use actual English words and the same syntax you would use if you spoke to someone on the street, so it doesn’t feel theatrical, it just sounds familiar,” in Campbell’s way with words and Musto’s melodic punctuation.

Witman, an old hand at making opera come alive for new audiences, admits that “We’re hampered by the fact that we are called opera,” but she stresses, “in many ways ‘The Inspector’ is really musical theater. It’s simply that it’s sung by people with operatically trained and expressive voices, without microphones.” She points out that on Broadway, singers’ voices are amplified, but not in opera. “That’s what makes it opera,” but with “The Inspector,” she says, “in everything else it could just as easily be musical theater.”

Opera is alienating to some, she says.

“Many people won’t come out to anything called opera, because they think they’ll feel stupid or that it’s stupid because they can’t understand it. It’s because of the trappings of opera, the exaggerated posturing, that people stay away, and because it’s in another language, so people think ‘I won’t understand it,’ and because they think it’s going to be five hours long.”

But “The Inspector” is sung in English, with constant wisecracks, and she says, “is very fast,” clocking in at just two hours long.

Campbell — who is gay, and openly declares, “I’m single and available for marriage, unfortunately not yet in New York (he lives in New York City), but in D.C.” — says that he and Musto “were told to write a comedy because they (Wolf Trap) loved ‘Volpone,'” which was based on the English play of that name (in Italian it means “sly fox”) written by Ben Jonson and first produced in 1606.

Musto is Italian — half Sicilian and half Neapolitan — so Campbell says that when they put their heads together they soon decided to revamp and relocate the classic Gogol comedy, set in Tsarist Russia, to Mussolini-era Italy, and instead of Russian-flavored music, Campbell says it is very Italian in flavor, with tarantellas, those Italian folk dances with fast upbeat tempos, not cossack-style dances.

“The composer must help make the opera funny,” and all of Musto’s music, says Campbell, is created to make sure that the comedy of the libretto — the words — lands with flair and funny impact.

This is their fourth opera together. Three are comedies, and the fourth, says Campbell, has comic elements — “Later The Same Evening,” based on the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper.

“When it comes to comedy, we know how to do this,” he says.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“It’s harder to do than drama, because it must do the same thing that drama does, create clear characters who want something, the same thing as when you tell any story, but it must also be funny.”

Campbell says that “you’d have to ask my friends if I’m funny” but that he thinks that he’s “actually a pretty miserable person, as are most people who have a comic bent, because at the core of their heart is something that’s pretty dark.”

Soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who sings the role of the mayor’s daughter, Beatrice, in “The Inspector,” agrees.   She has worked with Campbell before, in the 2007 revival of “Volpone,” when she also sang on the cast recording of it which was nominated for a Grammy.

“He’s very friendly,” she says, “but at the same time he’s very private, and a lot of artists are like that.”

“We know how to bond with people, but we save ourselves for a few people and put the rest into our art,” so she says that “you get to know more about Mark by reading his work than by spending time with him in a casual setting.”

And “The Inspector” is funny, albeit set in a dark time, in late 1920s Sicily, when the new Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader, or “Il Duce,” decided to try to clean up the inbred corruption on the island with its Mafia-style gangs that ruled in politics and society with a heavy hand of thuggery and thievery.

“His ego had been hurt,” says Campbell, who spent a long time researching the history of the period, “so he sent in his own inspectors — called “prefetti,” or prefects — to clean up the corruption in local power centers on the island. So the scene is set for the village (imaginary but based on his research) of Santa Schifezza, whose local mayor’s rule is both criminal and unchallenged, until someone the mayor (Fazzobaldi) believes to be Mussolini’s inspector arrives.

Tancredi, this mysterious stranger, traveling with his manservant Cosimo — exceedingly smart, acerbic even, and definitely more pragmatic than his “master” — arrive just as the citizens of Santa Schifezza have gathered to rehearse the town’s new anthem — which is so bad it’s utterly funny — for the next day, Municipal Mayor Day, a day Mayor Fazzobaldi has instituted in honor of himself.

But the mayor has been informed that an inspector from Rome will soon arrive, incognito, and put at risk the entire way of life, based on corruption, he has worked so hard to keep going. When the goofy twins, Bobachina and Bobachino, who run the post office, stumble in with the news that they have spotted a new arrival at the inn, and that he is tall, eloquent, elegant — and blond — the mayor immediately jumps to the conclusion that he must be the anticipated inspector.

“Comedy as a form of theater is different from humor,” says Campbell, born in D.C. and a Maryland resident until age 12. “In opera it’s usually found,” he says, “when characters are so obsessed with something — with greed or in the case also with abuse of power — that audiences don’t find it sad but funny.”

But he says his own favorite moments in comic operas are the sad or tragic moments, such as in the character of Figaro from the Beaumarchais play which formed the basis for Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville.”

“I have done my job,” Campbell says, “if I have first seduced people with the jokes and then pull a 180-degree turn and stop them dead in their tracks, surprising them with an incredibly sad moment. Opera allows you to do that, and in many other art forms you just can’t do this so efficiently, because it has music which allows you to cut to the chase faster than with mere language.”

Campbell, who wrote the funny lyrics to the musical “And The Curtain Rises,” which just closed its world-premiere run at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, has also just come from Norfolk, Va., where the Virginia Opera premiered this month his musical theater piece based on a Civil War theme, “Rappahanock County,” in collaboration with the composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who is also gay and whose own musical “Sycamores” premiered last year at Signature Theatre.

Campbell is philosophical about being single, having been, he says, “in several long-term relationships, which were fairly happy ones, but I am not someone who believes in love forever, because people change and can evolve into a relationship and then evolve out of it.”

Three of his former partners “are now among my best friends,” he says. “If you love someone, you want them to be happy, and if you’re truly invested with someone it’s just a matter of reformatting the relationship.” But he’s also realistic — because first “you must get past the awkwardness of the first couple of years and the first new boyfriends.”

Could a comic opera on the subject be far behind?

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