Today is a special day. It marks the end of an intense period of preparation and the beginning of an equally intense period of artistic creation. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has entrusted me with the task of composing a full-length opera to be premiered during its 2015-2016 season. The libretto, written by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, will be based on “Bel Canto”, by celebrated author Ann Patchett. Director Stephen Wadsworth completes the creative team, which has been assembled by Renée Fleming, now Creative Consultant at Lyric Opera.
This project has been in the works for more than a year. I still remember having lunch at a Thai restaurant with my partner, Heleno, back in October 2010 when I received a call from long-time friend Miguel Harth-Bedoya. “I’m calling you from Helsinki. Renée is looking for a composer. She is working on a new project.” To which I asked, “Renée, who?” “Renée Fleming! I’m touring Scandinavia with her right now.” Miguel asked me to go home and upload more music to my YouTube Channel, so she could have a chance to listen to it. I did as told, but didn’t know what to expect. A couple of months had gone by when I got an email from Renée’s office asking for scores and recordings. At this point I realized she was genuinely interested in my work, but it was only in March 2011 that I got an email from Renée herself asking if I had plans to come to New York anytime soon. I didn’t hesitate for a moment and arranged my flight to meet her in person.
Friday, April 22, 2011. Renée Fleming opens the doors of her home and gives me a warm welcome. Also present is Sir Andrew Davis, Music Director and Principal Conductor at Lyric Opera. The three of us spent an hour and a half sharing our thoughts on opera, contemporary music and, most importantly, the possibility of writing a brand new work based on Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto”. I had not read the novel, and I knew this was a crucial first step. I had been asked to write opera in the past, but none of those projects had come to fruition, mainly because the libretti I had encountered were either too far from my personal experience or I simply hadn’t felt I could make any significant contribution to the genre through their stories. Reading “Bel Canto” was a completely different experience.
Based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis, which took place in Lima between 1996 and 1997, the book had an immediate impact on me. Although the main characters are fictional, the story draws heavily upon real events and some of the key characters, such as the Red Cross envoy and the priest who remained as a voluntary hostage, also appear in the book. I was 18 when the crisis started and the whole country was glued to their TVs day after day. The events that took place back then have had an immense impact in the nation’s psyche and they mark the definite decline and subsequent defeat of terrorism in Peru. As soon as I finished the book I knew I had to write this opera.
The following step was to meet director Stephen Wadsworth. I drove down to Carmel on a bright Monday afternoon and had a long and fascinating conversation with him. We discussed, among other things, the need to find a librettist. Now, this is a step that can’t be rushed; in opera, it’s essential that composer and librettist get along well. Some of the most successful operas in history have been the product of great collaborations between composer and librettist such as Mozart/Da Ponte and Strauss/Hofmannsthal. It took us no less than six months to find Nilo, and it was worth the wait. Nilo’s “Anna in the Tropics” is truly masterful, but I was particularly struck by “Two Sisters and a Piano”, especially due to its parallels with the storyline of “Bel Canto”. In the former, two sisters remain under house arrest in Cuba, and practically their only contact with the outside world is a Lieutenant who falls in love with one of them; in the latter, a number of hostages remain confined within the same house for months as an inverted Stockholm syndrome unfolds. I liked how Nilo dealt with delicate political issues, and how these didn’t distract him from exploring how interpersonal relationships develop under straining circumstances, which form the true core of the story. Both “Two Sisters” and “Bel Canto” have obvious political overtones and both are based on real events from recent history.
On October 2011 I paid a short visit to Anthony Freud, General Director of Lyric Opera, where I was warmly greeted by the whole team. After agreeing on a timeline and other practical issues, the time finally came to meet Nilo. Our encounter couldn’t have been more auspicious. We met in New York, on a chilly December morning. Our encounter was supposed to last only a couple of hours, but we could not stop talking until 5:30pm (and I suspect we could have continued our conversation had I not scheduled another meeting that same evening). After an hour or so it was clear we both shared the same vision and excitement for this project and I look forward to continue working with him and Stephen as we give shape to this, the first opera that Lyric has commissioned in over a decade.
The challenges are great but the expertise of all involved is greater. I am overjoyed to find out that soprano Danielle De Niese has been cast for the title role. She is the latest addition to a team of remarkable artists that will bring Bel Canto to life. But the journey is still about to start. Our multilingual libretto will be finished just in time for me to start composing the music, around November 2012. Until then I will be busy completing two earlier commissions, an orchestral work for Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony and a concerto for cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi. From then onwards I will concentrate exclusively on writing the opera until the very day of the premiere, which I hope will exceed expectations. I welcome you to follow the creative process throughout these years as we send out updates, exchange drafts and start rehearsals. I am really excited to take on this project and I thank Renée Fleming for entrusting me with this incredibly exciting task! It’s thanks to her vision that we are all finally gathered today, making this long-awaited announcement. Until soon!