There’s no feeling like flying back home; especially after a rewarding stay in Chicago, a city that has welcomed me on more than one occasion and always succeed in making me feel like one of its own. This flight is finally providing me with a moment to reflect on the past few weeks. Intense, is the word to describe them. I’ve had to juggle my time between traveling, finishing my cello concerto and holding the final round of conversations regarding the libretto. I can’t complaint; being busy does feel good indeed, especially when doing something I love.
But let me go back to the last week of October, when I went to New York for the first meeting of the Bel Canto creative team in full: Renée Fleming, Nilo Cruz, Stephen Wadsworth, Anthony Freud and myself. Our first meeting took place at the Juilliard School of Music on Friday, October 26, where we had our first round of auditions for some of the title roles in the opera. As of now, only one star has been engaged, Danielle DeNiese, so we are still far from done in regards to casting. We listened to six promising young singers, all of who made a lasting impression on us. Listening to them was a wonderful experience (the level was extremely high indeed) but the most interesting part for me came when we had to share our impressions. It was fascinating to see how our respective backgrounds informed our opinions and how each one of us focused on different aspects.
Renee was mainly concerned with vocal technique and prowess; her extensive knowledge and experience allowed her to pinpoint exactly the virtues and shortcomings of each voice type. Not only that, she was also able to extrapolate what she had just listened to in the audition room and to mentally project it to the stage of an opera house, with its massive differences concerning size and acoustics. Nilo was mainly interested in the acting skills of each singer, and he had a clear idea of what he was looking for: poise, vocal projection, histrionic versatility; all of these factors played and essential role in his evaluations and he was adamant in finding a singer who could not only deliver a wonderful musical performance but who could also imbue with life the characters he had designed and created. Stephen, being a director, had an all-encompassing vision. He was able to foresee whether a singer would be capable of impersonating a certain role and whether his specific voice skills would allow him to deliver a convincing performance. He also served as a moderator, making sure that all opinions were heard. Anthony, with his keen intellect, extensive knowledge as director of major opera houses, and ability to listen attentively, often summarized and put our opinions in contrast. This way, he gathered all the scattered pieces of information we had delivered trying to make sense of them while also adding his own observations. Finally, as the composer, I would listen to each candidate and imagine him (all singers present at the audition were male) singing my own music. This constitutes the ultimate test for me. Can you bring the necessary energy to the role I will write for you? Do you have all the qualities that the character in question needs? Are you capable of taking the notes on the staff and elevating them to greater heights, to places where not even I am capable of envisioning right now? As abstract as it may sound, vocal technique and acting skills alone won’t do it. There is something beyond that only a few can deliver but that everyone in the audience can feel. Of course none of us present in the jury took into account just a single factor; but each of us brought something different and unique, which is what made those exchanges of opinion so incredibly interesting.
The following day I went to the Metropolitan Opera of New York and saw Verdi’s “Otello” and Adès’ “The Tempest”. Renée Fleming was sublime as Desdemona and I was really heart-torn by her performance, especially during the second act. “The Tempest” was a true adventure in regards to direction; Robert Lepage is a fountain of striking and outlandish ideas that made this opera extremely watchable. It was refreshing to listen to two diametrically opposed visions of Shakespeare on the same day, one from Verdi and the other from Shakespeare’s countryman, the remarkable Thomas Adés.
The final meeting took place on Sunday, October 28 where the creative team plus Andy Melinat, Director of Artistic Administration at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, met for the final discussions on the libretto. This meeting gave us all a chance to voice our views on the latest draft of the libretto. It most definitely saved us dozens of emails and phone calls; we were finally able to contrast or visions regarding the text and to make a few much needed decisions in order to speed up the completion of the libretto. Now that I have finished my cello concerto I can finally devote myself entirely to “Bel Canto”, so I intend to start with some of the most structurally important sections of the opera. I do not have the final version yet with me, but I have enough material to start working on the music. There is enough material for me to start working, especially instrumental sections and arias that won’t be changed. The next step is to get the final version from Nilo in the coming weeks and to make the translations of the text to the other languages used in this opera, mainly English, Spanish and Japanese, but also bits of French, Russian and Quechua.
As for my Chicago trip, I went there to attend the Chicago Humanities Festival, specifically the panel “Creating an American Opera from scratch”, which was moderated by Colin Ure and where Nilo and I explained in more detail the work we have been doing during the past few months and the work that lays ahead of us. The audience was remarkable in that at least 80% had read Ann Patchett’s best-seller and the questions were really insightful. It was a fun hour were we gave the audience a taste of how the process of creating an opera is like.
Also during my brief stay in Chicago I had the chance to attend performances of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Lyric Opera and Sondheim’s “Sunday Afternoon in the Park with George” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, both excellent performances.
I am excited to be back home to work on Bel Canto. As you may all imagine, I’ll be fully devoted to this project during the next three years, so it’s a good thing that I have had a very productive past couple of years. In total, five works of mine remain unperformed: Ccantu, for solo piano; Warped Symmetry, for solo flute; Synesthésie, for orchestra; Perú Negro, for orchestra and Lord of the Air, for cello an orchestra; all of which are scheduled to be premiered within the next six months in New York, Helsinki, Paris and Fort Worth. Exciting times lay ahead of me. Being busy is good indeed.