A new opera takes shape behind scenes at the Lyric

No one expects the course of creating a brand-new opera to run absolutely smoothly, any more than the course of true love. Four hundred years of operatic history suggest it seldom does.

But the gestation of "Bel Canto," an operatic adaptation of Ann Patchett's best-selling 2001 novel, commissioned by Lyric Opera for a scheduled world premiere here in December 2015, appears thus far to defy conventional wisdom.

Various hitches and glitches may well crop up as pressures mount and deadlines draw nearer. But my takeaway from the most recent working session is that everything, more or less, is proceeding according to plan.

A mid-April huddle of the creative team – composer Jimmy Lopez, conductor Andrew Davis and stage director Kevin Newbury – in a bare rehearsal room backstage at the Civic Opera House found the three men deep in discussion about what could be trimmed from playwright Nilo Cruz's highly poetic libretto and what Lopez needs to add, so as to flesh out the drama musically. The two-act opera as it stands is well on its way to completion, although the final scene of each act has yet to be finished and both composer and librettist are certain to make changes prior to the premiere.

For the moment, however, the dramatic timing of the opening scene was the team's main concern.

"The sooner we get to the central characters, the better," Newbury said. "The audience wants to know what those characters are doing here."

Lopez hesitated for a moment. "We've already taken out a lot of music," he said.

Davis agreed with Newbury. "Less is better than more," said Lyric's music director, the senior member of the "Bel Canto" team. "I wouldn't think you'll need eight minutes to establish the scene."

With that, Lopez softened. "Well, there are other moments where I extend a bit, so I don't mind cutting there."

Not present for this meeting was the project's curator, soprano Renee Fleming, who serves as Lyric's creative consultant and a board member. Even so, the singer remains actively involved in just about every aspect of the new work. It was she who had proposed the Patchett novel to Lyric general director Anthony Freud as the basis for the company's first commissioned opera since 2004. And it was Fleming who suggested that Lyric cast soprano Danielle de Niese in the starring role of Roxane Coss, another celebrated American opera diva, albeit fictional.

In both the book and the opera, Coss is the guest of honor at a gala soiree for high dignitaries held at a mansion in an unnamed South American country. The festive event turns catastrophic when the party is crashed by terrorists who proceed to take the international guests hostage. The opera explores how the terrorists and captives cope with living together for several months. Mirroring the real-life events of the Peru Crisis of 1996-97, romantic relationships develop, in a Stockholm syndrome-like scenario.

And that's where Fleming's input came in again.

"Renee told me to go for more of a playful side in my music for the developing love scene between Carmen and Gen, so I did," said Lopez, 36, the fast-rising Peruvian-born American composer, who's based in Berkeley, Calif. "She felt the opera needed some respite from the darkness leading up to that point."

In the opera, Carmen is a young female terrorist disguised as a male soldier. Gen is Gen Watanabe, a young Japanese translator who works for Katsumi Hosokawa, the Japanese electronics company chief throwing the party.

Davis flipped to another page of the piano-vocal score. "Please take down the dynamics of the orchestra brass here," he suggested to Lopez. "Say forte to a brass player and it's like waving a red flag in front of a bull!" Lopez smiled and jotted down a memo to himself.

Throughout the session Lopez played passages of his score for "Bel Canto" from an electronic realization stored as a MIDI file on his laptop. The music, now agitated, now lyrical, drew thumbs up from his colleagues.

"Beautiful, Jimmy," said Newbury. "What you've done is so theatrical, it gives me all I need to work with."

Davis echoed the director's praise. "Terrific," he said. "I'm not worried about the arias – they're all drop-dead gorgeous."

But Lopez – who's been hard at work on the score practically since Lyric announced the commission in February 2012 – needs more than the encouragement of colleagues if he's to know how "Bel Canto" will actually grab Lyric audiences.

"I've written an hour and a half of music and none of it has been played yet by actual musicians," he said, sounding a tad frustrated. "The score looks very 'orchestrated,' but it will take a lot of work to polish. Before I can do that, I will need to hear it played."

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