Go inside this production of Bel Canto with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis artist bios, and more.
There’s nothing more exciting in the life of a great opera company than commissioning and then giving the world premiere of a new piece. Lyric Opera’s first mainstage operatic world premiere in more than a decade is Bel Canto, composed by Jimmy López to a libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel of the same name. It’s ideal fare to be turned into an opera because underlying it all is the humanizing power of a beautiful singing voice. The novel looks at a community in turmoil and finds a way of making it almost Utopian in the least likely of circumstances.
This work’s curator is Lyric Opera’s extraordinary creative consultant, Renée Fleming, who has been deeply involved in every stage of Bel Canto’s development. For example, she spent a great deal of time researching possible composers for this piece before suggesting that Jimmy López would be the best possible match for this story. Jimmy is a Peruvian, now based in California, whose work has been acclaimed all over the world. Although he refined his artistry in Finland and Germany, his music has retained distinct colors that recall his own South American roots. This will be fully evident as you listen to the memorable score of Bel Canto.
This work initiates a marvelous collaboration between Jimmy and Nilo Cruz, the Cuban-American playwright who received the Pulitzer Prize for his remarkable play, Anna in the Tropics. It’s thrilling to be able to welcome these two exceptionally talented creative artists not only to Lyric but to the medium of opera. Together they have created what I anticipate will be an outstanding piece of new music theater.
Conducting Bel Canto is Sir Andrew Davis, in his first world premiere at Lyric, a momentous occasion in his tenure as Lyric Opera’s music director. The production has been directed by Kevin Newbury, the outstanding young American director who was with us last season for Anna Bolena.
It’s a particular pleasure to welcome back to the company Danielle de Niese, regarded internationally one of the most popular singers of our time. She’s made triumphant appearances at Lyric in two of her signature roles, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. I’m delighted that she’s taking on the starring role of Roxane Coss in Bel Canto. Roxane is not only the leading lady of this opera – the character is also the most famous operatic soprano in the world. Embodying her onstage, Danielle will make a stunning impact not only on the guests at the birthday party of the Japanese industrialist for whom she’s performing that night, but also on us, watching and listening to her in the opera house. Joining Danielle is a marvelous cast, including several artists making eagerly awaited Lyric debuts.
There’s something very touching to me about the fact that the first great opera in the history of the art form – Monteverdi’s Orfeo, written more than 400 years ago – focused on the humanizing power of the human voice. It’s wonderful that our brand-new opera, Bel Canto, should have the same theme. All of us at Lyric are excited that you’re here to savor this special moment with us.
PLACE: A mansion in Lima, Peru
Scene 1. Diplomats, government officials, and executives are gathered at the home of the Peruvian vice president, Rubén Iglesias, to celebrate the birthday of Katsumi Hosokawa, head of a large Japanese electronics company. Hosokawa arrives and greets the vice president with the help of his translator, Gen Watanabe. His entrance is followed by a performance by the elegant Roxane Coss, a world-renowned soprano – and Hosokawa’s favorite singer – hired for the evening’s entertainment. The guests gather as Mr. Hosokawa thanks them. The vice president introduces Roxane’s performance, and she sings a piece composed especially for the occasion.
Midway through the performance, there is an explosion.A band of terrorists storms the room and orders everyone to the floor. The vice president tries to call for help on his cell phone but is caught and severely beaten. Generals Benjamín and Alfredo demand to see the president. The vice president explains truthfully that the president stayed home to watch his soap opera. Deprived of their intended hostage, the terrorists inform the partygoers that now they are all the property of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Searchlights play across the windows as sirens and helicopters are heard.
Scene 2. Morning. The hostages, who have spent the night on the floor, are awakened by a muffled announcement from outside demanding that the terrorists release the hostages. Hosokawa shakes Gen awake to translate.
Joachim Messner, a Red Cross emissary, arrives. Reluctantly, the terrorists allow him entry. The vice president and the other hostages urge the terrorists to heed Messner and free them. After airing their demands of a better life for the poor and the liberation of a long list of imprisoned comrades, the captors agree to let the injured, infirm, and elderly hostages go with Messner. Though very ill, Roxane’s accompanist Christopf refuses to leave her.
Intrigued by a young soldier, Gen initiates a brief conversation that leaves him feeling uneasy – and full of desire. Hosokawa, infatuated with Roxane and feeling responsible for the entire incident, tries to apologize to her without the help of his translator. Despite the lack of words, they begin to communicate. Meanwhile Gen’s fascination with the young soldier increases as they converse again. Time begins to take on new meaning for the four of them.
Scene 3. A week has passed. General Benjamín adds a new stroke to a rude tally he’s been keeping on the wall, counting the days since the siege began. In their imaginations, hostages and captors alike picture life beyond the walls of the mansion.
Messner enters and tells the generals they need to put aside their ideals and be practical, but they refuse. General Alfredo, frustrated, trains his gun on Roxane and orders her to sing. Her song entrances all, including the young soldier, whose secret long hair comes undone during the performance, captivating Gen again. Suddenly, General Alfredo breaks the spell, angrily ordering Roxane to cease her beguilement.
Messner pleads for a temporary solution, but General Alfredo digs in his heels with a diatribe intended in part to inspire his soldiers. Messner, joined variously by Roxane, Gen, Hosokawa, and even the young soldier, argue for the release of at least the women. During the argument, General Alfredo addresses the young soldier by name – Carmen – revealing that she is a woman.
Unexpectedly, General Alfredo relents and orders the women and Father Arguedas to leave. Father Arguedas insists on staying with the hostages. As the women begin filing out, General Alfredo roughly pulls Roxane from the line and announces that she must stay. Christopf, delirious, attacks him and is shot and killed by one of the soldiers. The generals are furious, for they had ordered that there be no shooting.
Carmen prays in Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by most of the terrorists; Father Arguedas prays in Latin. Hostages and terrorists alike express their shock, and the hope and sorrow that is Peru.
Scene 1. General Benjamín adds another stroke to the wall, indicating another two weeks have passed. Hostages and captors engage in ordinary activities: hanging laundry, reading the paper, conversing. A fog the Peruvians call la garúa settles over the mansion. Father Arguedas explains that la garúa has been worshiped as a sacred visitor since the time of the Incas. All solemnly welcome the fog. The mood is broken when the terrorists begin a rowdy game of soccer in the living room. Roxane muses with Hosokawa about the days they have lost in captivity.
Another day passes. The frustrated Messner arrives with supplies to find Hosokawa playing chess with a soldier, General Alfredo selecting newspaper clippings, and Roxane at the piano. Among the supplies is sheet music for Roxane. There has been no progress in the standoff. Time passes.
Outside the mansion, the women hostages released earlier hold a candlelight vigil. Carmen says a prayer (“Santa Rosa de Lima”), then goes to Gen.
Another day. Hosokawa plays chess with General Alfredo. With Gen interpreting, the Russian hostage Victor Fyodorov awkwardly professes his love to Roxane. Hosokawa watches and muses on his own love for Roxane.
More strokes on the wall. Searchlights shine through the windows and a muffled megaphone is heard. A worried Messner confesses to General Alfredo that the negotiations are going nowhere. Furious, General Alfredo slaps him, and Hosokawa intervenes. Messner asserts his neutrality.
The next day, the soldiers Ismael, Beatriz, and César hear a report on the radio news and argue about the effectiveness of their mission. Frustrated, César leaves the others and, alone, remembers his former life in the jungle and the day he discovered his singing voice. Roxane overhears his singing and is drawn to his voice. When he realizes she is listening, he runs to the door, embarrassed. He flings it open, and the room is flooded with light. The fog has lifted.
Scene 2. A month later. Messner, looking disheveled and overworked, enters with supplies and fresh clothes. He finds the generals and one of the soldiers playing cards with Fyodorov. Father Arguedas is cutting bread, the vice president is mending a military jacket, Beatriz is decorating her rifle with flowers. Meanwhile, Roxane gives César a singing lesson with Gen translating and Hosokawa looking on. Messner is aghast that all are complacently going about their lives despite the untenable situation. He tries to shake them from their stupor, warning that the government is just biding its time. Saying he’s failed everyone, Messner implores the generals to save themselves and give up the siege. He collapses, shivering, and some of the captors gently help him to bed. Father Arguedas calls everyone together for prayer, and the group sings a Gregorian chant. With Gen translating, Roxane surreptitiously asks Carmen to bring Hosokawa to her room that night. Later, in the dark of night, Roxane and Hosokawa fall into each other’s arms in Roxane’s room, as do Carmen and Gen in a storage room by the kitchen.
Scene 3. Morning. Father Arguedas and the vice president serve coffee to the hostages. Messner, who has spent the night, tells Roxane they’re at the point where only a miracle can bring about a peaceful solution. General Alfredo signals for the hostages to clear the floor so the soldiers can play soccer. Roxane protests that it’s time for César’s singing lesson. General Alfredo agrees to take the game outdoors. With halting attempts to speak each others’ language, Hosokawa and Carmen conspiratorially agree that the previous night was unforgettable. César warms up his voice with Roxane accompanying him at the piano.
Rumbling arises from inside the house, and Peruvian soldiers burst through the floor. César tries to flee and is shot. A frantic Hosokowa tries to protect Carmen, but both are shot. Chaos ensues as more soldiers storm the room, hostages flee, and gunfire is everywhere. The vice president orders the soldiers to cease fire. Roxane rushes to Hosakawa, but he is already dead. Gen finds Carmen, and she dies in his arms. The dead are carried off, and everyone exits except Roxane, who is left alone in the wake of the violence.
—Synopsis by Maia Morgan