Lyric Opera of Chicago announced Tuesday that it has commissioned a new opera based on the novel "Bel Canto." Several artists familiar to Seattle audiences are attached to the project, including composer Jimmy López; stage director Stephen Wadsworth; and Renée Fleming, who will sing on a Seattle Symphony program on March 16.
CHICAGO — Lyric Opera of Chicago announced this week that it has commissioned a new opera based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, “Bel Canto.”
The commission has been in the planning stages since late 2010, when soprano Renée Fleming was named Lyric’s first creative consultant and a member of the board of directors. The company is presenting the new work as the keystone of its five-year Renée Fleming Initiative, a collaborative venture involving education, outreach and marketing.
It was Fleming, as curator, who chose Patchett’s 2001 novel as the basis for the Lyric commission and who also selected Peruvian-born composer Jimmy López to write the score. She narrowed a pool of 100 to a shortlist before deciding on López — one of the most admired among the younger generation of South American composers — in consultation with the Lyric’s music director Andrew Davis and general director Anthony Freud.
One of López’s symphonic works — “Fiesta!” — was heard in Seattle in 2010, when Seattle Symphony presented it as part of its “Caminos del Inka” program.
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The Lyric revealed details of the commission at a news conference on Tuesday in the Civic Opera House. “Andrew, Anthony and I were on the same page in terms of our tastes and the musical direction we thought ‘Bel Canto’ needed,” Fleming said.
Also on the creative team: playwright Nilo Cruz (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” was seen at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2004) and stage director Stephen Wadsworth (who has worked at both the Rep and Seattle Opera).
Patchett’s award-winning novel was inspired by a ripped-from-the-headlines hostage drama in 1996-97 when 14 Marxist guerrillas held 72 people captive during a four-month standoff at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima. Eventually Peruvian Army soldiers stormed the home, and all but one of the hostages were rescued.
Fleming said she selected her friend Patchett’s book as the subject for the Lyric commission because she was moved by it and found it “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,” the singer said. Also, one of the lead characters in the story is an opera singer.
Fleming will not perform the lead role, however, ceding it to Soprano Danielle de Niese.
“If I were also singing in the opera, I would not be able to be objective in the same way. I find it rewarding to be involved in the creative process on the other side of the stage.”
Patchett said there have been at least three previous attempts to turn her novel into a Broadway musical and an opera, but every project fell apart. “Bringing ‘Bel Canto’ to the stage has been like herding cats,” she said. “But if anybody can get the job done, it’s Renée and Lyric Opera.”