Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Tuesday February 28, 2012 12:08PM CST
Creative Consultant Renée Fleming. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Lyric Opera to present world première ‘Bel Canto’ in 2015-16 season
BY ANDREW PATNER
Renée Fleming continues to exert her considerable influence.
The international star soprano, in her second year in her parallel career as creative consultant to Lyric Opera of Chicago, has moved a conservative institution and a best-selling author to create and mount a world première opera in the 2015-16 season.
At a press conference Tuesday, Lyric general director Anthony Freud, Fleming and company announced that Ann Patchett’s prize-winning novel Bel Canto, long a coveted property by Hollywood, opera companiesn and musical theatre producers, will be Lyric’s first new work since William Bolcom and Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 2004. The commission and creation is a part of the company’s ongoing and well-funded Renée Fleming Initiative designed to move opera forward and closer to new audiences. Fleming is the curator of the commission but will not appear in the opera.
Based on actual events in 1996-97 when a Peruvian Marxist revolutionary group took a group of dignitaries hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima for four months until a deadly military raid ended the siege, Patchett’s novel imagines one of the hostages to be a Fleming-like American opera singer.
In a pre-announcement statement, Fleming said the book, which led her to a close friendship with the Nashville-birn and -based Patchett, always struck her as “opera-worthy. It’s about terrorism on one level, but it’s also about what happens when people are forced to live together for a long time, and how art can raise their level of humanity as a group.”
To her credit, Fleming, who has created roles in popular new operas by André Previn and John Corigliano, is doing so not by turning to usual American, English, or European suspects. Rather she and Lyric are enlisting a highly promising Peruvian with intense Finnish -- and Bay Area -- training, Jimmy López, 33, to compose Bel Canto and Cuban-born Nilo Cruz, the first Latin American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama (Anna in the Tropics, 2003), to fashion the libretto from Patchett’s novel.
Cruz, who has collaborated on song cycles with Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank and American composer Jim Bauer, is also co-writing the screenplay with Bobby Moresco (Crash) for the film Castro’s Daughter, starring Antonio Banderas as Fidel Castro.
Fleming spent months researching and listening to the work of more than 100 composers to find a fit, “and that’s just a drop in the bucket of talented composers out there today” she said earlier in describing what was then only a project. She then went over a short list with Lyric music director Andrew Davis. Fleming, Davis, and Freud then chose López, who will be writing his first opera.
(American composer Aaron Jay Kernis was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in the early 2000s to set Bel Canto as an opera for that company’s 2006 summer season. That commission was "postponed indefinitely" in fall 2004 when Kernis could not deliver the score on schedule. Patchett, who researched and “fell in love with opera” when writing her novel, said in an advance statement, “[Lyric’s] an opera company I’ve always admired, and I think that if anybody can break the spell and get ‘Bel Canto’ into three dimensions, it’s going to be Renée and it’s going to be Lyric.” At the press conference she added that the adaptation rights reverted to her after Santa Fe did not exercise its option in the agreed upon time period.)
López began his formal compositional studies at age 16 in his native Lima, including with Enrique Iturriaga, now 93 and Peru’s leading composer, and later spent seven years, most of his 20s, as a graduate student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree and learning Finnish. Currently completing his doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he works with French new music champion Edmund Campion, he is a part of the San Francisco new music scene.
His shorter works have been well-received in performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Grant Park Music Festival, both led by Peruvian-born conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. It was Harth-Bedoya, who has also led concert tours with the soprano, who first introduced López’s music to Fleming. López is a member of the Finnish, Peruvian and American composers’ societies.
López was living in Lima at the time of the hostage crisis. In advance materials, he recalled that the bonding between the hostage takers and their captives was an example of “inverted Stockholm syndrome. The terrorists started falling in love with the hostages. Many of the terrorists were only teenagers. They looked up to the hostages as adult, educated, cultured people who spoke many languages.”
López added “a funny detail” in keeping with Patchett’s understanding of the story as tragic, romantic, as well as often comic: The building “in real life, the residence of the ambassador, is a replica of Tara, the house used in Gone With the Wind."
In the statement, Davis said of López, “I was struck by the way he understands both the problems in bringing this piece to the stage, but also the possibilities that opera as a medium offers for illuminating a story. For example, [an] orchestra can accentuate the dramatic situation onstage, but it can also convey the underlying turmoil that one might not see [onstage]. This is something that many composers miss and that Jimmy understands completely.”
Davis, also having his first go with an operatic première, will conduct. An experienced hand at shepherding new work, American theatre and opera veteran Stephen Wadsworth, will serve as director and dramaturg for the project; Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese will play the lead role of opera singer Roxanne Coss. De Niese has appeared at Lyric as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar in the 2007-08 season and Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2009-10. She recently created the role of Ariel in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island. All members of the team except de Niese participated in the annoucement in the Civic Opera House's Grand Foyer.
López said in the statement that Cruz’s play Two Sisters and a Piano, about siblings under house arrest in Cuba, connected the playwright to Bel Canto. “The whole play happens within the house from beginning to end. This is what made me think Nilo might be the one, that he is someone interested in pieces with political overtones.”
Said Cruz himself in a statement, “There’s humor in this material, there’s lyricism and an enormous amount of beauty. [Ann Patchett’s] not afraid to be emotional, and I’m not afraid to be emotional. I feel an enormous amount of responsibility, and I’m going to work hard to make something beautiful and powerful.”
In the advance materials, Wadsworth said, “I think there is a terrific opera in Bel Canto. There’s a vivid political story, at least two love stories, and a larger story about art and its healing power. There is also an intriguing mélange of languages in play, including English and Spanish [and Japanese]. We want it to be fresh and arresting, concentrated and tight in narrative and dramaturgy. All the while I will be imagining it onstage, developing the production.”
Other casting and members of the creative team will be announced later.
Lyric has presented six commissioned operas over the past 52 years on its mainstage subscription season. In addition to The Wedding, Bolcom also composed McTeague (1992) and A View From the Bridge (1999). Vittorio Giannini’s The Harvest bowed in 1961, Krzysztof Penderecki’s controversial Paradise Lost in 1978 and Amistad by Anthony Davis in 1997.
Lyric’s professional training program, now the Ryan Opera Center, staged an additional six commissions and workshopped one other by composers William Neil, Lee Goldstein, Bright Sheng, Bruce Saylor, Shulamit Ran, Michael John LaChiusa, and Ricky Ian Gordon, from 1984 to 2003, as a part of the former Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. composer-in-residence program.