commissioned as part of Lyric’s Renée Fleming Initiative. Music by composer Jimmy López, libretto by playwright Nilo Cruz, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, directed by Stephen Wadsworth; based on the best-selling novel by Ann Patchett. Soprano Danielle de Niese stars in central role.
Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, today announced details of its latest world premiere. Bel Canto, by the gifted young Peruvian composer Jimmy López, with libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, is based on the best-selling novel by Ann Patchett. To premiere in Lyric’s 2015-16 season, the new opera will be conducted by Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis and directed by Stephen Wadsworth.
Both the 2001 book and the new opera are inspired by the Lima Crisis of 1996-97, when members of a revolutionary movement in Peru held hostages at the Japanese ambassador’s house for 126 days (Dec. 17, 1996-April 22, 1997). Central to the story is the fictional famed American soprano, Roxanne Coss, who will be portrayed by Australian-born American soprano Danielle de Niese. Like the novel, the opera will explore the tensions and unexpected alliances that develop when a group of culturally disparate strangers – the terrorists and their hostages – are confined in close quarters for months. Bel Canto will be the seventh world-premiere opera that Lyric Opera of Chicago has commissioned for its main stage since 1961. Joining Freud for the announcement were López, Cruz, Fleming, Patchett, Davis, and Wadsworth.
“The creation of new work is a fundamental, vital part of a major opera company’s activity,” Freud said. “I couldn’t be more excited at the start of my tenure here that Lyric is embarking on its latest mainstage commission.”
As Lyric’s creative consultant, Fleming is curator for this world premiere, which is a keystone of the company’s Renée Fleming Initiative. Fleming selected the book Bel Canto as the subject for the commission because she was moved by it and found it “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,” Fleming said. “Most of us crave a cathartic emotional experience when we’re at the theater, and I believe Bel Canto has the components to do that.”
Fleming researched more than a hundred composers for the commission, coming up with a short list that she and Sir Andrew Davis further distilled in consultation with Anthony Freud. The composer they chose, Jimmy López, has a unique intimacy with the story’s setting and source material that will help to inform his work. Of López, Davis said, “I was struck by his intelligence and 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, the orchestra can accentuate the dramatic situation onstage, but it can also convey the underlying turmoil that one might not see. This is something that many composers miss and that Jimmy understands completely.”
In pairing López with Wadsworth, who has directed premieres of operas by composers such as Peter Lieberson and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Fleming and Davis were eager to give the first-time opera composer an experienced collaborator for meeting the challenge of taking the opera from score to stage. Fleming said, “Stephen has done this often in his career, where in addition to directing, he also has an important dramaturgical role in the creation of the piece.”
Speaking of Lyric’s world premiere, Stephen 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. My job is to shepherd all parties through the period of creation and development with specific attention to the dramaturgy of the piece. 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.”
Jimmy López’s music has been heard at Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Music Festival, and performed by prestigious orchestras including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston and Atlanta symphony orchestras, and by the leading orchestras of Chile, Peru, and Finland. In May the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France will premiere his new orchestral piece, Synesthésie. López possesses a distinctive musical style and a broad musical worldview influenced by his studies in his native Peru, at the Sibelius Academy in Finland (2000-07), and the University of California at Berkeley (2007-12). His influences range from Bach and Mozart (“the ideal opera composer”) to Magnus Lindberg, Anders Hillborg, G. F. Haas, and John Adams.
The New York Times has described López as “an expert in orchestration,” while the Chicago Sun-Times declared that he is “one of the most interesting young composers anywhere today. “
Born in Lima in 1978, López has strong memories of the 1996-97 hostage crisis there, which was covered extensively by local and international media. The bonding between terrorists and hostages was an example of “inverted Stockholm syndrome,” he said. “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.” In 2003, Nilo Cruz became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for his play Anna in the Tropics. Other major works include Night Train to Bolina and Two Sisters and a Piano. For Cruz, the allure of Bel Canto as an opera libretto came from “this material at the center of the book where there are a couple of love stories,” he said. “Whenever there is love, there’s the possibility to sing and to create soaring music. And the clash of people from different social strata offers great possibilities for dramatic conflict. I feel a real affinity for Ann Patchett’s language,” Cruz continued. “There’s humor in this material, there’s lyricism and an enormous amount of beauty. She’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.”
López was drawn to Cruz as a librettist by his play Two Sisters and a Piano, which is about siblings living under house arrest in Cuba. “The whole play happens within the house from beginning to end,” López explained. “This is what made me think Nilo might be the one, that he is someone interested in pieces with political overtones.”
Ann Patchett won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2002 for her novel Bel Canto. Thinking back to 1996-97 and the inspiration for the book, she recalls being “focused on the incident in Lima from the start. It had so many elements that were compelling to me: confinement, survival, a group of strangers thrown together, the construction of family. Also, it was such an un-terrifying terrorist situation: it was a takeover where the terrorists were teenagers who kept asking for more soccer balls and take-out pizza. I was very attracted to that.” While writing the book, Patchett listened to recordings of opera singers, including Fleming, as she created the character of American soprano Roxanne Coss. Before writing Bel Canto, the author knew “as much about opera as I did about baseball, which is nothing,” she said. “But once I came up with Roxanne, I threw myself into learning about it wholeheartedly, playing opera all the time and attending operas whenever possible. I absolutely fell in love with opera. It's been such a wonderful bonus of writing this book. I feel like I learned a second language.”
Over the past decade there have been various attempts to turn the best-selling novel into a movie, a Broadway musical, and an opera. Of the Lyric Opera commission Patchett said, “I am absolutely thrilled about this and about Lyric. It seems just a perfect fit. It’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.”
Danielle de Niese will sing the role of Roxanne Coss, Patchett’s fictional heroine in the book. "I am honored to return to Lyric Opera of Chicago for the world-premiere commission of Bel Canto,” said de Niese. “I am very moved by the compositions of Jimmy López and am so excited to bring Ann Patchett's iconic diva, Roxanne Coss, to life through Mr. López's haunting music. I can't wait to collaborate with director Stephen Wadsworth, having worked with him as a young artist in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. I am also thrilled to reunite with Sir Andrew Davis after performances together of Le nozze di Figaro at Lyric in 2010. It will be a privilege to create this new role under his tutelage. Making this role come alive with the Lyric Opera family will no doubt be a highlight of my life."
Renée Fleming said, “Danielle de Niese has the star quality, vocal charisma and spunk of Roxanne. She sings beautifully, and her star is rising fast. We are fortunate to have enlisted her to premiere this work.”
Information regarding further casting, production design, and sponsorship for Bel Canto will be announced at a later date.
Creating and cultivating new opera is a long-held tradition at Lyric, from the American professional stage premiere of Britten’s Billy Budd (1970) to the commissioning and world premieres of such diverse operas as Vittorio Giannini’s The Harvest (1961), Krzysztof Penderecki’s Paradise Lost (1978), Anthony Davis’s Amistad (1997, libretto by Thulani Davis, directed by George C. Wolfe) and William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992), A View from the Bridge (1999), and A Wedding (2004, Lyric’s 50th anniversary season). All three Bolcom operas had libretti by Arnold Weinstein. Robert Altman directed McTeague and A Wedding, and served as co-librettist; Frank Galati directed A View from the Bridge.