No opera company faces a more formidable task than commissioning a new opera, assembling the forces needed to bring it to fruition and nursing it through the long and sometimes painful process leading up to the premiere. But such undertakings are vital if opera houses are not to become museums mired in the musty past.
Lyric Opera has plunged into the breach with its seventh world premiere, "Bel Canto," a work based on Ann Patchett's best-selling novel of the same name, inspired by an actual hostage crisis in Peru in 1996-97. The world premiere, announced in February as part of creative consultant Renee Fleming's five-year artistic initiative, is scheduled for December 2015.
Sunday morning at the Chicago Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater, the Chicago Humanities Festival gave a capacity audience a glimpse of the project in its infancy. Colin Ure, a Chicago freelance dramaturge, moderated a panel discussion with the new opera's primary creative forces, Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez and Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz.
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The composer and librettist each spoke of how he was brought into the undertaking and how each approaches the process of reimagining the novel for the operatic stage.
Like the book, the opera has as its central subject "the power of art and the power of music" to raise the level of humanity of "a group of people from different backgrounds who are thrown together" in close confinement for 4 1/2 months, said Cruz. His style of writing, he added, is "realism that is magical."
"My objective is to contrast musically the clash of ideologies between the worlds of the wealthy, educated people who are taken hostage and the terrorist revolutionaries," Lopez said.
Both artists took strong issue with Ure's provocative declaration that he doesn't feel Patchett's book is "particularly suitable for opera."
While virtually the entire score will be original music, certain passages in Lopez's music will draw on native Peruvian musical idioms and make glancing reference to classic bel canto arias cited in the book, the composer explained.
He said he is closely tailoring the music of the opera's central character, the opera singer Roxanne Coss, to the voice and personality of soprano Danielle de Niese, the only casting Lyric has announced thus far.
Cruz drew laughter when he observed, "The novel depicts Roxanne as a diva. I don't like divas at all. So I tried, in developing her character, to make her less of a cliché diva and more of a strong, active woman – to bring more humanity into her."
Don't expect "Bel Canto" the opera to be absolutely faithful to "Bel Canto" the novel, the collaborators warned. For one thing, the opera will have a different ending from that in the book. (Ure called it "ridiculous," and both Cruz and Lopez agreed.)
"Ann Patchett told me I could do whatever I wanted with the material," said Cruz. "So I went ahead and rethought everything, just as I do when I am crafting a play. You have to take some license as an interpreter."
With the libretto and dramatic scheme more or less in place, Lopez is working on a target date of early 2014 to deliver the piano-vocal score to Lyric before he begins orchestrating it, he said. A series of readings and workshops involving Lopez, Cruz, director Stephen Wadsworth and conductor Andrew Davis is scheduled to begin later that year.
Ars Viva Symphony
Few conductors in the Chicago area do a better job of easing concert audiences into symphonic music they've never heard before than Alan Heatherington. He does so through his listener-friendly spoken introductions but also through the consistently high-caliber performances he draws from his north suburban ensemble, the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra.
Ars Viva continued its season Sunday afternoon at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie with a program that typically mixed standard repertory with challenging, unusual fare that turns up infrequently at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, from whose ranks Ars Viva draws its core personnel.
Nothing Heatherington has programmed with Ars Viva in recent seasons poses stiffer demands, on musicians and listeners alike, than Sibelius' Symphony No. 4, the cornerstone of Sunday's program and the latest installment of the orchestra's almost-complete Sibelius cycle.
No light shines on this spare, haunted symphony, which still sounds modern even though it was composed a century ago. Lonely woodwind lines hover over its frozen terrain. Each of the four movements ends abruptly. Harmonies refuse to resolve in ways we expect. The symphony is some kind of masterpiece.
We know Heatherington has thought deeply about it, because he told us so Sunday. But we also heard evidence of that in the vigorous way he seized on the vital currents that flow through this melancholy music. The Ars Viva strings may be shy in numbers, but they almost made up for it by the extra elbow grease with which they applied bows to strings. And the dryish but immediate acoustics helped to reveal fine detail in Sibelius' austere scoring.
After intermission, there was something completely different, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9.
The Ninth is the Russian master's 1945 victory symphony, coming between the brooding, wartime Eighth and the weighty, expansive Tenth. Heatherington kept political subtext largely out of his introduction, but the music's lighthearted surface cannot disguise Shostakovich's sarcastic mockery of Josef Stalin, just under the radar of the Politburo.
Ars Viva stuck to surface appearances, bringing out the score's bright colors and carnival jollity. There were strong solos from various first-chair players, including Jennifer Gunn on piccolo, Dennis Michel on bassoon and Gene Collerd on clarinet. Principal cello Steven Hauser similarly distinguished himself in the Sibelius.
The concert began with a brisk, steady and exuberant reading of Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture."
The Ars Viva season continues Jan. 13, March 3 and April 28 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 847-673-6300, arsviva.org.