CHICAGO — Lyric Opera of Chicago has shied away from commissioning any new operas over the last decade, at a time when other major American opera companies such as the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Los Angeles Opera have actively cultivated new stage works from inception to premiere.
Lyric will attempt to catch up with the pack during the 2015-16 season, when the company will present its first world premiere since 2004.
The newly commissioned opera, “Bel Canto,” will have a score by the up-and-coming young Peruvian-born composer Jimmy Lopez, and a libretto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.
The text will be based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel of the same name, which was inspired by a real-life hostage crisis in Lima, Peru, in 1996-97.
Andrew Davis, the Lyric’s music director, will conduct, and the staging will be by American director Stephen Wadsworth. Soprano Danielle de Niese will sing the leading role of Roxanne Coss, a fictional operatic singer. Further casting, production details and funding will be announced later.
The commission has been in the planning stages since late 2010, when soprano Renee Fleming was named Lyric’s first creative consultant and a member of the board of directors. With the diva as curator, the company is presenting “Bel Canto” as the keystone of its five-year Renee Fleming Initiative, a collaborative venture involving education, outreach and marketing.
It was Fleming who chose Patchett’s 2001 novel as the basis for the Lyric commission and who also selected Lopez from a field of more than 100 composers. She narrowed the pool to a short list before deciding on Lopez — one of the most admired among the younger generation of South American composers — in consultation with Davis and Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director.
“Andrew, Anthony and I were on the same page in terms of our tastes and the musical direction we thought ’Bel Canto’ needed,” Fleming told a news conference Tuesday in the Civic Opera House, at which Lyric revealed details of the commission. Also present were Lopez, Cruz, Patchett, Wadsworth, Davis and Freud.
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.
Asked why De Niese will be performing the leading role instead of her, Fleming replied, “It was my choice not to sing the role of Roxanne. 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.”
Although “Bel Canto” will be Lopez’s first opera, his vividly colorful orchestral works have been widely performed in such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore and Seattle. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played his “Fiesta!” as part of an all-Latin American program in 2008, and the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra is scheduled to premiere and record his “Synesthesie” in May. The composer is concluding his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, this spring.
Lopez said he was drawn to the operatic possibilities of the book because the story is about an opera singer and about “how opera can redeem characters who are (thrown) together in a dangerous situation.” The actual hostage drama literally hit home with him, he added, because he was a teenager living in Lima at the time the revolutionaries took over the Japanese ambassador’s home.
It was Fleming who suggested Lopez collaborate with the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, whose works have been produced widely around the U.S. and Europe. In 2003 Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, along with a Tony nomination, for his play “Anna in the Tropics.” Several of his stage works have been mounted by Chicago theaters, including “A Park in Our House” and “Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams” at Victory Gardens Theater, and “Lorca in a Green Dress” at Halcyon Theatre.
“I’m thrilled to be writing opera because I think my language lends itself to music and because my dialogue tends to be lyrical,” said the playwright, who lives in New York and Miami. “Bel Canto,” Cruz said, is about “the transformative power of art.” The love stories at its center are what drew him to the project. “Whenever there’s love, there’s the possibility to sing and to create soaring music. And the clash of people from two different social strata offers great dramatic possibilities.”
Wadsworth has long experience not just as a stage director but as a dramaturge — a person who helps to shape and frame an operatic drama — and that experience makes him a useful partner for an operatic newbie such as Lopez. Wadsworth wrote the opera “A Quiet Place” with composer Leonard Bernstein, and, more recently, created the story for Daron Hagen’s “Amelia.”
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 Renee and Lyric Opera.”
“Bel Canto” will be the seventh world premiere Lyric has commissioned for its main stage since 1961. The most recent was William Bolcom’s “A Wedding” (2004), the last of three Bolcom works with librettos by Arnold Weinstein to debut in Chicago, including “A View from the Bridge” (1999) and “McTeague” (1992).
Other Lyric commissions first seen in Chicago were Anthony Davis’ “Amistad” (1997), Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Paradise Lost” (1978) and Vittorio Giannini’s “The Harvest” (1961).