When American novelist Ann Patchett watched news of a four-month siege of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, by young rebels in 1996, she saw its potential as a compelling story and used it as the template for her multiple award-winning 2001 novel, “Bel Canto.” The siege had begun during a large party and to add a bit of glamour to the story, the novelist created a fictional American opera star, Roxanne Coss, who was to be the entertainment at the party.
When international opera super-star Renée Fleming accepted Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2010 invitation to become its first-ever creative consultant, one of her goals was to find material for a new opera to premiere during the 2015-16 season. She had read “Bel Canto,” and saw its dramatic potential, as well as its very human story of how a large number of diverse people trapped against their will find a way to live together. That one of the main characters was an American soprano was an intriguing bonus.
Thus began the journey of that work from page to a world premiere opening on the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Dec. 7 for seven performances at intervals through Jan. 17.
During the press conference in the Civic Opera House on Feb. 28, 2012, when Lyric announced plans for a world premiere based on Patchett’s novel, the writer was asked whether she had soprano Fleming in mind. After all, the first aria the diva Roxanne Coss sings in “Bel Canto” is “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s one-act comedy “Gianni Schicchi.” Since that aria has been one of Fleming’s signature pieces, many readers assumed that Patchett had patterned Coss after Fleming.
“I knew nothing about opera when I began to write the novel,” Patchett admitted, “so I listened to Fleming’s recordings.” But they did not meet until after “Bel Canto” was published. “We were introduced backstage at the Metropolitan Opera by a mutual friend,” the writer said. “I heard Renée greeting people in six languages!”
“We hit it off right away,” she continued. And by the time they were on the stage of the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library the evening of Nov. 18, they were like two girlfriends chatting about their very different lives. Patchett, who lives and runs an independent bookshop in Nashville, recounted the relentless rigor of six-week book tours, which start with morning TV shows, include radio interviews, luncheons, afternoon book signings and late-night television. “Sometimes I am so tired, I am in tears,” she said.
“I get pampered,” Fleming allowed. “I am picked up in a limo and given time to rest. The voice is a physical instrument. It’s like riding a horse, you have to be careful.”
The singer let the audience in on a bit of gossip. “When it was announced that we were making ‘Bel Canto’ into an opera, famous people from Hollywood started calling me,” she said, among them director Miloš Forman, Disney Studios, and even Meryl Streep.
“But when I said I didn’t have the rights to the book, I never heard from them again,” she added, laughing.
Operas come from multiple sources — mythology, plays and novels, and if the playwright or novelist is alive there might be a problem. That was not the case with Patchett, however.
Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud spoke before inviting the two women to the stage at the Harold Washington Library and praised Patchett’s attitude toward the use of her novel. “When Ann met the composer and librettist she said ‘It’s yours.’ It gave them freedom, a sense of ease as they put the opera together. She was very generous.”
Later Patchett demurred, saying, “Oh yes, I can just see myself saying to the composer, ‘Shouldn’t that note be a C-sharp?’”
The composer is Jimmy Lopez, who by what everyone calls an “alignment of stars” is from Lima, Peru, himself and watched the drama unfold in his city when he was 18 years old. He was initially recommended to Fleming by Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and after she and Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director and permanent conductor, had researched him and more than a dozen others, Lopez was given the commission. For his librettist, he chose Cuban-born American playwright Nilo Cruz, the first Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play “Anna in the Tropics.” Cruz also wrote “Two Sisters and a Piano,” a play set in Cuba, which was performed at the now shuttered Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.
Patchett sent her novel to 10 publishers before it was accepted by HarperCollins. “Only one editor knew there had even been a hostage crisis in Peru,” she observed, wryly. Her bestseller, which she set in an unnamed South American country, has been translated into more than 30 languages. True to the languages used by the rebels and hostages during the actual siege, the opera will be sung in Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin, and Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire, now spoken by about 8 million people in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina.
“Don’t worry,” Fleming assured the November audience, “there will be super-titles.”
The two women took questions from the audience, and Fleming was asked why she was not singing the role of Roxanne Coss. “I don’t think I would have been able to be objective,” she insisted, “and it would just seem to be a vanity project. We have the beautiful, charismatic soprano Danielle de Niese as the diva.”
The respect between the two friends was palpable. At one point Patchett spoke about her admiration for Fleming, who is referred to as curator of the “Bel Canto” project. “She works with so many people. The composer, the conductor. I will not collaborate. I work alone.”
“I only interpret what other people have written and composed,” Fleming countered. “You create something out of your own imagination. I’m in awe of that.”
The popularity of Patchett’s bestseller will surely draw more than the usual opera lovers to the Civic Opera House. In fact, book club members who want to attend on the same night are urged to get in touch with group sales for a special price. “Bel Canto” is presented as part of Lyric Unlimited, established in 2012 to explore ways Lyric can collaborate with cultural and community organizations, as well as expand its long-standing educational programs.
For tickets and information on “Bel Canto,” visit Lyric Opera’s website or call 312-827-5600.
You Said It
Pam Payton, Deer Path Art League Coordinator, attended opening night of “Bel Canto” and says, “… the opera was fabulous.”
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