Composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz heard their music and words come to life in July when members of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago read through portions of Bel Canto backstage at the Civic Opera House. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the workshop, with pianists Maureen Zoltek and Craig Terry accompanying 11 singers performing multiple roles.
The new opera Bel Canto is based on the best-selling novel by Ann Patchett. Sir Andrew Davis and Kevin Newbury are conductor and stage director respectively for the new production. Curated by Renée Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, Bel Canto is the seventh world-premiere opera that Lyric Opera of Chicago has commissioned for its main stage since 1961. It opens in December 2015.
López notes that he has “skipped around” in composing the opera so far, rather than working from start to finish of the Libretto. His musical quotation of traditional opera composers is minimal, even though the central character is an opera singer, and that when a familiar aria is introduced “it melts into a new shape—I have changed the melody and Nilo has added new words. We decided early on we didn’t want to make a collage of different operas, but we would make references.” The actual writing started in late 2012, with several work meetings since then all over the U.S. and in England. What you hear now is the result of all that collaboration.”
Davis predicts the audience will be “taken totally by surprise by an aria that we all know, but then in the second verse the tune is bent. It’s a moment of normality and familiarity at the same time that very tense dialogue is taking place” in another part of the stage. “I find it a very powerful evocation of the situation.”
Cruz describes the first act as “like a pressure-cooker” and says that “humor is more present in the second act.” As the novel is mostly narrative, in creating the Libretto Cruz “had to go into the minds and hearts of the characters to capture dialog and explore subtext and other forms of communication.”
The singers navigated several roles in English, Spanish, Japanese, German, French, Russian, and Quechua during the workshop.“It’s a macaronic opera, which means more than one language!” notes Davis with a laugh.
In the actual performances of Bel Canto all roles will be individually cast and there will be a chorus; the stage will be quite crowded as a result. Newbury says that virtually “no one gets to leave the stage,” reinforcing the central drama of hostages and terrorists confined together, “which is very exciting dramatically, depicting public captivity and private experience. It’s a show about community more than any canonical opera, where the chorus comes and goes—as in Orange is the New Black [the Netflix series], it’s the story of people thrust into an unplanned community.”
“It’s going to be quite cinematic,” Davis added.
Both the 2001 book and the new opera Bel Canto 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. Both novel and opera explore the tensions and unexpected alliances that develop when a group of culturally disparate strangers—the terrorists and their multinational hostages—are confined in close quarters for months.
López, Cruz, and Newbury on bringing Bel Canto together.