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Lyric Opera to present world premiere ‘Bel Canto’ in 2015-16

Lyric Operannounced team behind its world premiere opercommissiBel Canscheduled for 2015-16 season. Creative Consultant Renee Fleming. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Lyric Opera announced the team behind its world premiere opera commission, Bel Canto, scheduled for the 2015-16 season. Creative Consultant Renee Fleming. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 1, 2012 8:08AM

Renee Fleming continues to exert her considerable influence.

The international star soprano, in her second year in her parallel career as creative consultant to Lyric Opera of Chicago, has moved a conservative institution and a best-selling author to create and mount a world premiere opera in the 2015-16 season.

At a press conference Tuesday, Lyric general director Anthony Freud, Fleming and company announced that Ann Patchett’s prize-winning novel Bel Canto, long a coveted property by Hollywood, opera companies and musical theater producers, will be Lyric’s first new work since William Bolcom and Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” in 2004. The commission and creation is a part of the company’s ongoing and well-funded Renee Fleming Initiative designed to move opera forward and closer to new audiences. Fleming is the curator of the commission but will not appear in the opera.

Based on actual events in 1996-97 when a Peruvian Marxist revolutionary group took a group of dignitaries hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima for four months until a deadly military raid, Patchett’s novel imagines one of the hostages to be a Fleming-like American opera singer.

In a pre-announcement statement, Fleming said the book, which led her to a close friendship with the Nashville-based Patchett, always struck her as “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.”

To her credit, Fleming, who has created roles in popular new operas by Andre Previn and John Corigliano, is doing so not by turning to usual American, English or European suspects. Rather she and Lyric are enlisting a highly promising Peruvian with intense Finnish — and Bay Area — training, Jimmy Lopez, 33, to compose “Bel Canto” and Cuban-born Nilo Cruz, the first Latin American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama (“Anna in the Tropics,” 2003), to fashion the libretto.

Cruz, who has collaborated on song cycles with Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank and American composer Jim Bauer, is also co-writing the screenplay with Bobby Moresco (“Crash”) for the film “Castro’s Daughter,” starring Antonio Banderas as Fidel Castro.

Fleming spent months researching and listening to the work of more than 100 composers to find a fit, “and that’s just a drop in the bucket of talented composers out there today,” she said. She then went over a short list with Lyric music director Andrew Davis. Fleming, Davis and Freud then chose Lopez, who will be writing his first opera.

(Aaron Jay Kernis was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in the early 2000s to set “Bel Canto” as an opera for that company’s 2006 summer season. That was postponed indefinitely in fall 2004 when Kernis could not deliver the score on schedule. Patchett, who “fell in love with opera” when writing her novel, said in an advance statement, “[Lyric’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 Renee and it’s going to be Lyric.” )

Lopez began his formal compositional studies at age 16 in his native Lima, including with Enrique Iturriaga, Peru’s leading composer, and later spent seven years as a graduate student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree and learning Finnish. Currently completing his doctoral studies at Cal-Berkeley, where he works with French new music champion Edmund Campion, he is a part of the San Francisco new music scene. His shorter works have been well-received in performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Grant Park Music Festival, both led by Peruvian-born conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

Lopez was living in Lima at the time of the hostage crisis. In advance materials, he recalled that the bonding between the hostage takers and their captives was an example of “inverted Stockholm syndrome. 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.”

Lopez added “a funny detail” in keeping with Patchett’s understanding of the story as tragic, romantic, as well as often comic: The building “in real life, the residence of the ambassador, is a replica of Tara, the house used in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”

Davis, also having his first go with an operatic premiere, will conduct. An experienced hand at shepherding new work, American theater veteran Stephen Wadsworth, will serve as director and dramaturg for the project; Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese will play the lead role of opera singer Roxanne Coss. De Niese has appeared at Lyric as Cleopatra in Handel’s “Julius Caesar” in the 2007-08 season and Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2009-10. She recently created the role of Ariel in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Baroque pastiche “The Enchanted Island.”

Lopez said in the statement that Cruz’s play “Two Sisters and a Piano,” about siblings under house arrest in Cuba, connected the playwright to “Bel Canto.” “The whole play happens within the house from beginning to end. This is what made me think Nilo might be the one, that he is someone interested in pieces with political overtones.”

Said Cruz himself in a statement, “There’s humor in this material, there’s lyricism and an enormous amount of beauty.”

In the advance materials, 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.”

Other casting and members of the creative team will be announced later.

Lyric has presented six commissioned operas over the past 52 years on its mainstage subscription season. In addition to “The Wedding,” Bolcom also composed “McTeague” (1992) and “A View From the Bridge” (1999). Vittorio Giannini’s “The Harvest” bowed in 1961, Krzysztof Penderecki’s controversial “Paradise Lost” in 1978 and “Amistad” by Anthony Davis in 1997. Lyric’s professional training program, now the Ryan Opera Center, staged an additional six commissions and workshopped one other by composers William Neil, Lee Goldstein, Bright Sheng, Bruce Saylor, Shulamit Ran, Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon, from 1984 to 2003, as a part of the former Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. composer-in-residence program.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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