March 06, 2019

Behind the Scenes with the Bel Canto Creative Team

It’s exciting – and complicated! – to get a brand-new opera from page to stage. The set elements for Bel Canto (by composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz, based on Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel) recently came downtown from Chicago’s Ravenswood Studio. Lyric’s technical staff and stagehands ensured everything fits together and works as planned. Meanwhile, members of the creative team ascertained that what they saw onstage matched their vision for the production while determining how to light and how to time the projections that are part of the production – in just a few intense days and nights.

“There’s more experimentation and discovery,” says director Kevin Newbury about preparing a new work vs. an existing opera. For Bel Canto, “it’s an adventure to fill in the big looks and transitions, and determine how video [conveys] heightened realism – the magical moments of soliloquy when we get inside the characters’ heads. Video also shows the passage of time as we traverse four months in the course of two and a half hours. We alternate between moments of naturalistic stillness and a more heightened quality with the video. That’s a big part of what we’re figuring out during technical rehearsal.” 

Working closely with López and Cruz, plus conductor Sir Andrew Davis, artistic curator Renée Fleming, and the design experts from early on, “we’ve really conceived the whole production as a team,” says Newbury. “We storyboarded the production while writing and conceiving it, which gives us a head start while teching.”

For set designer David Korins, these rehearsals provide “a great first look at the scenery and how it moves. We can dress the set, work on paint finishes and dramaturgical details and props. There’s a huge amount of translation from model to installation.” In creating the Bel Canto production, Korins says, “we’re honoring the realistic details – this perfect, pristine place that’s set up for a party, then gets trashed [by the terrorists]. Some designers might find it terrifying, but I think it’s exciting to dress this space perfectly and then have things that can intentionally get messed up,” including overturned chairs, broken furniture, and walls marked with chalk to show elapsed days. He’s also excited about the set walls “bleeding through to give this heightened theatrical view of what’s happening outside”. “Lyric has done the most exquisite job building these rooms. The story is about a distanced, shattered memory; the set manifests that physically. It’s a beautiful story about isolation, and how relationships can transcend trying times.” 

Greg Emetaz created projections from footage he’s filmed over the years and images he’s manipulated for the Bel Canto production, for like multiplying a single butterfly in flight “so it becomes thousands. Altering the scale and population of simple things makes them more epic.” “Projections provide release from that claustrophobia, taking us outside and to magical places and representing the characters’ need to escape their captivity in their minds, because they themselves cannot escape. It’s like a visual score for the opera – it provides a specific mood the way music does.”

Duane Schuler has designed lighting for dozens of Lyric productions and scores more internationally. Bel Canto “is a big show with a lot going on and a lot to technically put together – projections, moving scenery, explosions. Our job during tech week is a full package of problems to solve.”

Says Newbury, “It’s a very ambitious production – by the time we open it will like a show we’ve been rehearsing for months! It’s an exciting challenge to make a really theatrically exciting production in a short period of time.”

Lyric Opera world premiere generously made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Helen and Sam Zell, Ethel and William Gofen, Ada and Whitney Addington, the Walter E. Heller Foundation, and Roberta L. and Robert J. Washlow, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Prince Charitable Trusts.

Bel Canto was created with funds from the Prince Prize for Commissioning Original Work, which was awarded to Jimmy López and Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2013.

Steingraeber & Söhne is the Official Piano of Lyric’s new production of Bel Canto, in partnership with the Grand Piano Haus, Skokie, Illinois.
Steingraeber & Söhne Grand Piano Haus

Photos: Andrew Cioffi, Todd Rosenberg