Machine guns and opera. They’re a potent chemistry in the new show at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Bel Canto, by Peruvian-American composer Jimmy Lopez, will ring true with audiences, if not induce a slight queasiness. It is, after all, art imitating life, echoing events in Syria and Colorado Springs.
But Bel Canto, based on the novel by Ann Patchett, looks past the satellite trucks and policy debates to a small group of “strangers [who] are thrown together by circumstance and form a society,” as Ms. Patchett describes it. Terrorists and their victims have to live with each other.
The opera gets underway much like the 1996-97 Peruvian hostage crisis that inspired it: Marxist militants storm a cocktail party of foreign diplomats. In actuality, 72 hostages were held at the Japanese ambassador’s residence for four months. At a recent event at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, Ms. Patchett remembers: “It was a particularly unthreatening hostage situation because the terrorists were teenagers and in The New York Times it would say, ‘terrorists request more soccer balls.’ ‘Terrorists order pizza.’”
The PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel was chosen as the subject for an opera by acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming, an avid reader. After becoming the creative consultant to Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2010, Ms. Fleming started putting into place the pieces for Bel Canto the opera.
She screened over a hundred composers before settling on Jimmy Lopez. Mr. Lopez admits he hadn’t written much for voice, but recalls the singer being attracted to the vibrancy and color in his music, particularly his use of traditional Afro-Peruvian instruments—a nice coincidence for an opera about teenaged Quechua-speaking guerillas.
Hear the interview with Jimmy Lopez:
The opera’s characters struggle with language barriers, singing in French, Latin, Spanish, English, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Quechua (Quechua is an ancient language predating the Incas). Mr. Lopez admits that integrating the various tongues into one musical statement posed a special challenge, given the unique rhythmic character of each language.
Another challenge for this first-time opera composer: he was accustomed to working solo. The Bel Canto project came with a team of collaborators, including librettist Nilo Cruz, Lyric Opera Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, Renée Fleming and director Kevin Newbury. Mr. Lopez remembers the growing pains, “In this case, I had really to show unfinished stuff, which is nerve-wracking.”
According to Mr. Lopez, it turned out to be incredibly rewarding. Renée Fleming consulted with him on vocal writing and many aspects of the composition. In one instance, Mr. Lopez said he was working on dark and foreboding music for the second scene of Act II, a gesture that anticipates the tragic finale. Ms. Fleming suggested it might be more powerful if the penultimate scene ended in optimism. Mr. Lopez saw the wisdom in her words and rewrote the scene: “She’s a great thinker in that way.”
Jimmy Lopez was born in 1978. He grew up in Lima and studied at the conservatory there. He remembers listening to “top 40 pop music” as a kid, but discovering the music of J.S. Bach at the age of 12: “That was a revelation to me.” Through much of his twenties, Mr. Lopez studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. It was in Finland, 7,000 miles from home, that this classically trained musician developed what he called “a longing” for the indigenous music of Peru. He began experimenting with the idiom. Later, he earned a Ph.D. at University of California – Berkley and settled in the United States.
Mr. Lopez well remembers the standoff that thrust his hometown into a media frenzy. “Myself being Peruvian, I wanted to really bring things home a little more. That’s why I thought I cannot work with a librettist who doesn’t have a clear understanding of South American reality.” He found a kindred spirit in Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz who has lived in both worlds and written about political turmoil in Latin America.
Nilo Cruz moved to the United States at the age of eight. He writes and directs plays in both Spanish and English, and was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Anna in the Tropics.
In an interview with WTTW in Chicago, Mr. Cruz said he “got three books from Jimmy [Lopez] in Spanish that were based on the actual [Peruvian hostage crisis] … as a way of exploring that world … [the] colors and possibilities off different sounds and music and aromas.”
Set in the grand foyer of the Peruvian vice president’s mansion, much of Bel Canto‘s charm derives from the patchwork of foreigners suddenly faced with having to live together. No one gets to leave. At a rehearsal in early November, director Kevin Newbury grinned at his large cast: “When do we do a show where we’re all together the whole time?!”
One hostage, an American opera star sung by Danielle de Niese, is Bel Canto’s linchpin (bel canto means beautiful singing). Her singing makes this forced sequestration not only bearable, but desirable. Through the power of music, barriers between terrorist and hostage dissolve. A Utopian-style community begins to flower.
Mr. Lopez mixes his musical language according to the story’s needs. For scenes focusing on the militants, he uses the pututo, an Andean instrument made from the conch shell (played by one of the horn players), as well as Peruvian bird whistles (played by members of the chorus). Much of the show’s rhythmic drive comes from Afro-Peruvian rhythms, as well as a rhythmic motif pulled from the name of the terrorist organization, “Túpac Amaru.” To illustrate his opera singer character, Mr. Lopez hints at Donizetti’s aria “Una furtiva lagrima.”
As fate would have it, the premiere of Bel Canto is shaded by this autumn’s violence. Onstage, as performers wave machine guns at ladies in cocktail dresses, their audience will likely reflect on Paris and San Bernardino. If the piece has legs, however, it won’t be because of associations with the 24-hour news cycle.
To the credit of the creative team, terror creates the circumstance for this opera, not the story. Instead, this piece rests on qualities that propel many great dramas: mixed loyalties, the haves versus the have-nots; love, compassion, and a world that will not yield to the longings of the main characters. It’s the same substance that drives Aida and Il trovatore. It may very well work for Bel Canto.