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July 2014
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Lyric’s New Opera (Just a Peek)

Lyric Opera Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis, c. Todd Rosenberg

Lyric Opera Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis, c. Todd Rosenberg

Getting beyond “The book was better”

Last week, when Lyric Opera presented a sneak peek at the opera based on Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel Bel Canto, general director Anthony Freud quickly closed the door on comparisons to the book.

Addressing a gathering of patrons and members of the media, Mr. Freud shared some of the thinking behind the creative process, saying it must “stand on its own terms as an opera, rather than just…the book as a play set to music.” This is to say that composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz do take liberties with the book – and were encouraged to do so – but always in the interest of making the strongest case for the story.


Composer Jimmy López (center) flanked by librettist Nilo Cruz (left) and director Kevin Newbury (right), c. Todd Rosenberg


The opera Bel Canto, a work in progress, has been a team effort from the start. The Lyric production staff has been a continual support system for the composer and librettist. At last week’s gathering, the Ryan Opera Center sang completed scenes while the two creators took notes. Novelist Ann Patchett was not in attendance, but has been part of the process as well.

To be sure, books and operas are different species. In a novel, one can read the thoughts of a character. The opera composer can use the aria for this purpose, but must be mindful of the people who will be sitting in the theater seats – too much of something can cause a show to drag. According to Mr. Freud, it’s important for the new work to feel like it “couldn’t be anything but an opera.”


Anthony Freud and Sir Andrew Davis, c. Todd Rosenberg

Ann Patchett evidently is unconcerned about her book in the hands of this creative team. At the read-through, Sir Andrew Davis chuckled as he recalled sending her the libretto. When Lyric got no reaction from her, he confessed beginning to worry. Months went by with no communication. Later, Ms. Patchett admitted she was so determined to keep her distance, she hadn’t read it. Eventually, she did read Cruz’s libretto. According to Sir Andrew, she emailed saying it was “more beautiful” than the book.

The Bel Canto project was the inspiration of Lyric Opera Creative Consultant Renée Fleming, who had had it on her mind to develop new works. In 2012, she talked to a roomful of journalists about how much she enjoyed Ann Patchett’s books, Bel Canto in particular. From there, she said she combed through piles of scores and composer bios. In the end, Peruvian native Jimmy López was the unanimous choice of Lyric’s artistic triumvirate (Fleming, Davis, and Freud).

Sir Andrew Davis conducts members of the Ryan Opera Center, c. Todd Rosenberg

To date, Jimmy López opens the opera much like the book, with a soirée at the vice president’s residence in Peru (the book calls it a “South American country”). Most of the guests are international visitors. The Peruvian government presents American opera star Roxane Coss as the entertainment. Just as she finishes her aria, a pack of scrappy freedom fighters raids the mansion, taking the guests hostage. Government forces arrive, sealing captives and captors inside the mansion.

The characters are crafted with seamless efficiency by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and librettist Nilo Cruz, while the opening music thrusts the party guests into the utter foreignness of the situation. The music of Jimmy López shimmers with the wildness of the surrounding landscape, as if it might overtake the manicured house – which it does.

Throughout the drama, one is remotely aware of a military stand-off beyond the perimeter (this is an ongoing hostage crisis), but the real story unfolds inside the house. López weaves his way through the interactions of rebel, guest, and opera star – all of whom are stuck together like fish in a fish tank.

Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (soprano) Bradley Smoak (bass) and Jonathan Johnson (tenor), c. Todd Rosenberg

Author Ann Patchett uses music like a magic elixir. Cut off from the outside world, the characters seem suspended in time. Captors and captives begin to love the singer’s art. As the story progresses, they lose their grasp on their former lives and embrace a different version of themselves, finding beauty and harmony together.

Imagining Bel Canto as an opera could prove to be a stroke of genius. This story makes brilliant interplay between people who don’t speak the same language – opera is nothing if not a multilingual art form. While professional opera singers are expected to sing French, Italian, and German like native speakers, many adding Spanish, Russian, and English; Bel Canto author Ann Patchett uses all these and ups the ante, adding Japanese and Quechuan (an Andean tongue which predates the Incas).


Director Kevin Newbury with composer Jimmy López (in blue), and librettist Nilo Cruz (left) applauding the Ryan Opera Center after a reading of completed portions of “Bel Canto,” c. Todd Rosenberg

Bel Canto the opera makes a great show of the singers’ linguistic prowess. A key character, polyglot-interpreter Gen Watanabe, volleys one dramatic moment after another, helping the others discuss everything from the shingles to late-night liaisons. A host of benign interactions happen at lightning pace, endearing these captives to the audience, while providing a catchy vehicle for the composer.

Ultimately the situation is a “powder keg,” to use Anthony Freud’s words – not because of the differences between dignitaries and rural militiamen (and women), but because of differences between their makeshift community and the outside world.

It might be difficult to entirely wrest oneself from the experience of having read the book before seeing the opera. On the other hand, if fans of novelist Beaumarchais grumbled about his treatment in Marriage of Figaro or Barber of Seville, we’ve since forgotten. At the end of last week’s preview, the gathering of press and patrons was eager for more Jimmy López.

The premiere of Bel Canto is slated for the 2015-2016 season. Do read the book, but see the opera first.






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