The world premiere announcement last February at the Lyric Opera of Chicago left us all with an incredible feeling of expectation. We were mesmerized by the extensive press coverage that followed and by how fast the news spread throughout the opera world. What a relief to be able to discuss the project after a yearlong oath of silence! Now that all preparations were over, it was time to sit down and get to work.
Nilo Cruz started to work immediately on a treatment and sent it to Renee Fleming, Stephen Wadsworth, Anthony Freud and myself. We came back to him with comments and suggestions. Nilo’s text was more than just a treatment; it contained several pages of fully-fledged lyrics, outlining the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the main characters. It also helped me understand how the action would unfold, giving me an idea of the overall structure. In this sense, we are really lucky to count with Ann Patchett’s blessing. She has left us complete liberty to adapt her novel; otherwise the task of translating “Bel Canto” to the stage would be utterly impossible.
Working through email and phone calls can be really frustrating so Nilo, Stephen and I decided to get together in New York last May. Stephen arranged a wonderful space for us at the Juilliard School of Music, where we sat down for four days trying to come up with a solid frame for Nilo’s words. One of the most exciting things for me was to contrast Nilo’s and Stephen’s vision of the piece. Stephen had made a detailed list of the events that had struck him most from the novel, so we could go through it and decide which ones to take and which ones to leave out. Nilo, on the other hand, had continued to further develop his own treatment and out of it, an altogether different structure had emerged. During those four days we worked on finding common grounds and understanding each other’s needs, always aiming at creating something new and convincing.
Each one of us had something different to bring to the table. Although we were all working toward the same goal, our backgrounds couldn’t be more diverse. There you had it: a man of words, a man of images and a man of sounds. Stephen’s ideas were visually rich and had a direct relation to the spatial distribution of the characters and elements on stage. His comments were always action-driven and his ideas always challenging. Sometimes he would suggest scenes without words, where the action and the music would take over. Nilo, as a man of theater, does have a keen understanding of how to present things on stage, but his main concern was to deliver the story through words. In this sense, we encountered an almost insurmountable difficulty when it came to characters like Gen and Hosokawa. Gen, the translator, is extremely verbal and although his role can be easily contained in the novel, he threatened to become too prominent on stage. And what is worse, since he is a translator, many things would need to be said twice, slowing down the action instead of helping to move the story forward. Hosokawa, on the other hand, barely says a word throughout the novel and that posed an enormous obstacle for Nilo and for myself, while it offered enormous possibilities to Stephen. I was mostly concerned with how to bring these elements together and convey them through music. In opera, music marks the pace of the action, so the dramatic rhythm is very much at the hands of the composer. I find a great source of inspiration in Nilo’s words and great excitement in Stephen’s visions, so I am not short of material, quite the contrary, I must find a way to condense and allow these elements to coexist and develop within a musical framework.
A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Renee where I shared the outcome of our meeting, and she had the wonderful idea of sending me a copy of the correspondence between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I’ve been reading the book and I find it incredibly enlightening and at times even amusing. What great inspiration! Their style of writing is as diverse as their personalities, and one has the impression that Hofmannsthal’s delicate phrasing is always at the brink of breaking apart against Strauss’s direct and blunt manner of expression. That they understood each other is already a miracle, but that they were able to create such a string of masterpieces is truly astounding. Perhaps these differences are what made their collaborations so richly varied. In any case, it does make for a great read and it fully reveals the inner workings along the process of creating an opera.
Our next meeting is schedule for August. Only Nilo and I will meet this time around and we will take a look at the complete libretto. We expect to have yet another meeting in September with Stephen where we plan on polishing off the details so I can finally start working on the music in November. In the meantime, I have made a point of revisiting the standard and not-so-standard opera repertoire; there is much to learn from the old and modern masters. Being confronted with the challenge of writing an opera of my own has completely changed the way I listen to it. I’ve become more analytic and critical but I’ve also become aware of the difficulties of creating such a complex artwork. Among them, expressing a character’s mood, behavior and psychology; conveying the story musically in a convincing way; eliciting a wealth of emotions on the listener, and keeping the audience alert at all times. The challenges are great but the excitement is far greater.