Talking with Lyric Opera of Chicago's 'Bel Canto' team: Jimmy López and Nilo Cruz
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com "Sunday Show," Sunday March 4, 2012
Composer Jimmy López (center) and playwright Nilo Cruz discuss details of their world-première commission, Bel Canto, which Lyric Opera will stage in 2015-16. Rich Hein~Sun-Times
'Bel Canto' creative pair quickly become a team
OPERA: Unknown to each other before, they share natural bond
BY ANDREW PATNER
After sitting down for a chat with composer Jimmy López and playwright Nilo Cruz in the lobby of the Hotel Allegro downtown Wednesday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that the two men had never heard of each other until a few months ago and had not met until December.
Lyric Opera of Chicago announced Tuesday that the two had been tapped to create a new work for the 2015-16 season based on the best-selling and award-winning novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. But they already seem to be old friends and a natural pair, just as the two newcomers to the art form have impressed many that they are natural choices to create this opera, which springs from the ongoing Renée Fleming Initiative, led by the international star soprano.
Patchett’s 2001 novel takes off from the Lima hostage crisis when dignitaries at a party were taken hostage in the Japanese ambassador’s residence by a revolutionary group in December 1996. Many were held for more than four months until a military assault freed the hostages and killed 14 of the captors, many of whom turned out to be just teenagers. In her novel, Patchett inserts an American opera singer whose career parallels Fleming’s to a degree, although the writer did not know or know of the singer when she wrote the book.
“When I read Nilo’s plays, I could see why the team was encouraging me to talk with him,” said López, 33, a Peruvian-born, Finnish-trained artist now based in the San Francisco Bay Area said. “His work, especially Two Sisters and a Piano (1998), is about people who were enclosed, forced together, and who escape oppression through the power of art, the power of the imagination. And it was so lyrical.
“But I had no idea that our planned one- or two-hour morning meeting in New York -- on Dec. 10, I cannot forget the date -- would last for more than seven hours and would have gone on longer if I had not already scheduled another meeting for that evening!”
“Really, though, that conversation is the one that is still going,” said Cruz, 51, the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama -- in 2003, for Anna in the Tropics later produced in Chicago along with two other of his works by Victory Gardens Theater. He's also a popular university teacher of playwriting who lives in New York and Miami. “I am all about collaboration. It’s really a privilege to work with a composer who is so articulate and so interested in so many things.”
The “constant back and forth” that the two men find themselves in in coast-to-coast phone calls and emails and in-person meetings is already forming their plan for writing this work, based on a book that was itself inspired by real events.
“I’ve already given Jimmy some lyrics that have started to come to me and indicated if they are conceived for an aria, a duet, etc.,” Cruz said. “I said to him, ‘Be honest with me. Tell me what you are thinking.’ He did that, crossed things out, put mental exclamation points down. And we were on our way.”
López still has teaching duties through the semester at the University of California at Berkeley where he will receive his doctorate this spring. “My own work is done, and my thesis composition is submitted!” He's completing two other instrumental commissions so has not started putting pen to paper on a project that he plans to focus on “exclusively, right up to the première” in four years. “But I have started writing things in my mind and we will go back and forth on them as well.”
Both men speak of the difference between a novel or even a play and an opera libretto. “You have to distill, distill, distill,” said Cruz. “And you have to remember that you are narrating through dialogue and music. And ultimately it is going to be the music that drives and characterizes the work.”
Still, the two plan for now to have Cruz complete a written scenario -- “in film it’s called a treatment. In theater you don’t have it, you just write the play!” -- so that López can conceive and start shaping his music around that.
“Then I will write the libretto itself and turn that over to him and we’ll go to the next phase before starting in 2014 to workshop what he comes up with,” Cruz explained.
This is how opera composers they both greatly admire -- Mozart, Richard Strauss, Britten -- worked. “With writers who understood they were writing to be sung and composers who loved setting language,” López added.
They have certain, but generous, marching orders from Lyric. “Two acts, two hours, four main characters, two love stories, an ensemble, a large orchestra, a chorus. These actually allow us to start focusing quite early,” Cruz said.
Personal aspects are also in play: López was a teenager in Lima during the crisis, “glued to the television like everyone else there.” This was another reason López wanted to work with a writer “who understood the complexities of South American society.”
Language and languages are important to both men, too. Each was raised in a Latin American Spanish-speaking country. Cruz left Cuba with his family as a 10-year-old, López was born and raised in Peru. Each eventually learned and embraced English as well, although López first mastered a much more distant and difficult tongue, Finnish, during his seven years of composition study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.
“We actually switch back and forth between English and Spanish when we talk or write to each other,” said Cruz. “There’s no pattern. It just happens.”
The opera, too, will do this with main characters whose home languages are Spanish, English, and Japanese. “We are also quite seriously considering an aria for one of the captors in Quechua, the indigenous language of many in the Andes mountains, including some of the captors” said López.
López, whose music is remarkably individual, making its intellectual origins clear but in inviting, even engaging ways, likes to speculate in words, too, and writes a blog at his website that covers everything from technical musical matters to questions about the role of the composer in society.
Cruz appreciates this. “When I teach, we don’t use books or theory. I teach with exercises. Write, write, write. We are each people who get down to business and want to create. We are both crazy about craft. We love the nitty-gritty part of creating things. And collaborating.”