“Bel Canto,” a new opera based on Patchett novel, to premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2015

February 28, 2012

Danielle de Niese will star in "Bel Canto," which will be premiered at the Lyric Opera in 2015.

The opera that Renée Fleming, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s creative consultant, has chosen for the company’s new commission is a tale of terrorism and intrigue with an American opera star as the central character, a figure widely believed to be based upon Fleming herself.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago announced Tuesday that its newly commissioned opera would be Bel Canto, an adaptation of the novel by Ann Patchett, which will have its world premiere in the 2015-16 season.

The composer will be Jimmy Lopez, a 33-year-old Pervuvian and the librettist will be Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright of Anna in the Tropics. This will be Lopez’s first opera.

Danielle de Niese will star as Roxanne Coss, the star soprano who is among a group of hostages captured by a band of Peruvian terrorists. Sir Andrew Davis will conduct and Stephen Wadsworth will direct and oversee the progress of the project.

In material prepared by Lyric Opera for Tuesday’s announcement Fleming said that Bel Canto was always intended as the source material for the new opera, which she was tasked with curating. In her friend Patchett’s tale of disparate hostages throw together by political events, Fleming said what appealed to her most was that Pachett “creates a utopian society based on the power of music and the sense of community it creates,” and that the scenario presents “a cathartic emotional experience” well suited to an operatic treatment.

Jimmy Lopez

Lopez has never written an opera before nor has he composed anything for voice apart from a few short works. In the Lyric’s prepared material Sir Andrew Davis said the fact that Lopez is Peruvian was part of the decision for choosing him as well as Lopez’s potential for handling this project. “Both Renée and I also were touched by a beautiful piece we heard for voice and piano,” stated Davis. “Even though he hasn’t written a lot of vocal music, we feel he has a natural instinct for writing for the voice, and that he will do some interesting and beautiful work.”

Patchett’s novel was inspired by an actual incident in Lima, Peru. In 1996 the Marxist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the house of the Japanese ambassador during a party and took 700 hostages, releasing all but 72. The siege lasted for four months until Pervuvian military stormed the house, killing all 14 guerillas and rescuing all but one of the remaining hostages.

The announcement was made Tuesday afternoon at the Civic Opera House with Fleming, Davis, Lopez, Cruz, Wadsworth and general director Anthony Freud presiding.

The formal press conference with general director Freud acting as moderator was less tightly scripted than recent Lyric announcements, and the better for it. Padgett, in particular, provided amusingly off-message remarks saying that she had freely plagiarized Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain for her novel’s scenario and that previous unsuccessful attempts to turn Bel Canto into an opera or musical had been “cursed.”

Fleming elaborated on why she and Davis chose Lopez for the commission, stating that there were two major criteria: having a “creative voice” and “craft.” She also said that she wanted to find someone who could “write convincingly in a vernacular that would say ‘South America’ to us.”

Davis added that even though Lopez to date has published very few works for voice, his versatility and handling of the orchestra would stand him in good stead. “When you’re writing an opera, you need to have all sorts of colors in your palette.”

As a teenager growing up in Peru, Lopez recalled that he had watched the months-long saga unfold on television and that it had a large impact on him and the rest of his country. He also noted that the event marked the effective “death of terrorism” in Peru.

Lopez said as a composer it’s essential that his music make an immediate appeal. “I try to make the music as engaging as possible,” said Lopez. “If I’m bored for a minute, I go back and change things.”

One “tricky” structural issue that Lopez and Cruz are already wrestling with is how to reflect the international flavor of the story’s hostages (Japanese, American, Peruvian and Russian) in a way that respects the original languages without becoming dramatically and musically awkward. While the terrorists will speak and sing in Spanish, finding a workable style for the hostages “is extremely challenging and we’re trying to find creative solutions to that,” Lopez said.

While this is his first opera libretto, Cruz seems a natural fit with his singular style of heightened language and poetic imagery. “I come from a very musical country,” said the Cuba-born playwright. “Basically we are born singing and dancing.”

Bel Canto is the Lyric Opera’s seventh commission and the first at the company since William Bolcom’s A Wedding, which premiered in 2004. The premiere will take place in December 2015.

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