Past the middle mark

Left to right: Kevin Newbury, Sir Andrew Davis, Jimmy López, Renée Fleming and Anthony Freud at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Left to right: Kevin Newbury, Sir Andrew Davis, Jimmy López, Renée Fleming and Anthony Freud at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

So here we are at the start of a new year, and a little less than two years before the premiere of “Bel Canto”. But first let’s take a quick look back at 2013: I started work on the score; Nilo Cruz completed the libretto; I had my first work meetings with Sir Andrew Davis and Renée Fleming; I met the star of our show, Danielle De Niese; we welcomed our new director, Kevin Newbury; and right before the end of the year Lyric Opera of Chicago and myself were granted the Prince Charitable Trusts “2013 Prince Prize”– the first time ever the Prince Prize has been awarded for an opera commission. No doubt last year was a very important one, but 2014 will speed things up considerably. And here’s why.

Although it’s hard to know exactly what will be in store for us, we know for sure that we are only six months away from our first workshop, where we will go through everything I’ve written so far in a reduction for voices and piano. The workshop will take place in Chicago under the auspices of the Ryan Opera Center and will be witnessed by a select group of production sponsors. This workshop will help the creative team evaluate a number of issues including: text setting (let’s remember we area dealing with several languages; mainly English, Spanish and Japanese); vocal writing; action pacing; and musical structure. It will also help our director, Kevin Newbury, to estimate the duration of transitions between scenes and will give us an idea of whether we should continue in the same direction or whether some changes are needed, e.g., adding, cutting or extending scenes and/or extending or shortening instrumental sections.

The initial goal was to have the whole opera written by mid-2014 in a version for voice and piano, but things turned out differently, not because I did less work than I was supposed to, but because of the way I work. Initially, I was expected to write only the vocal lines plus a piano part. The piano part was supposed to be a draft that would give us a glimpse of how the orchestral score would sound. After the workshop, I would sit down and flesh out the piano part into an actual full-orchestra score. My approach, however, is different and it combines writing in short score and directly to the orchestra, both very time consuming.

The issue of orchestration is a complex one, and each composer has a different way of approaching it. Some of my musical ideas are so inextricably tied up with timbre that, sometimes, right from the start, there is no doubt in my mind that in the final score a certain melody will have to be played by, let’s say, a flute. Perhaps earlier on, in my formative years (when I was still exploring all those newly found orchestral colors) I would postpone to the last minute the decision of assigning a certain melody to a certain instrument, so I used to prefer writing down a piano score with a few annotations. But as the years passed by and I felt more and more comfortable with orchestral writing, I began to write most of my ideas directly to the orchestra score. Of course, there are certain details that always need to be revised over and over again, but certain structural timbres must be in place from the beginning, at least for me. This mode of working means that there are certain sections that are fully orchestrated, and writing them down takes a lot of time.

The upside of all this is that the piece is moving forward at a solid pace, the downside is that we won’t be able to listen to the whole opera from beginning to end this coming summer. But fortunately there’s still time: after the workshop I will go back to my work desk and make all the necessary changes as I continue writing the missing sections. Up to this point I have written about 80 minutes of music, and according to my estimates I’m still missing an hour of music. Never before have I been involved in a project of this scale, but I am incredibly happy to see that I’ve gone past the middle mark. One day at a time, one note at a time. And, if you think of it, we are also at the midway point between the press conference announcement (Feb. 2012) and the world premiere (Dec. 2015).

Left to right: Danielle De Niese, Jimmy López, Nilo Cruz and Kevin Newbury after Danielle's performance of "Così" at the Met.

Left to right: Danielle De Niese, Jimmy López, Nilo Cruz and Kevin Newbury after Danielle’s performance of “Così” at the Met.

The work sessions have been quite insightful. Renée focused on text setting and vocal writing. She also stressed the need for instrumental interludes in order to give the singers time to breath and to refresh the ear. She was also concerned with the excessive repetition of certain intervals, which might end up being too tiring to the listener. Sir Andrew focused on vocal and orchestral writing, and on the connection between musical mood and text. He wanted to make sure that the music always reflected the quick changes in mood that the characters went through, not necessarily in a descriptive way, but in a way that could help their intentions come forth clearly. Kevin gave me some very positive feedback, most of it practical and therefore very useful because it was concerned with three main issues: the duration of certain sections; ensemble treatment (whether some parts should be quartets, duets, etc); and the connection between the imagery on stage and the music. Kevin’s presence was key because after I finish writing the music, I’ll have to hand over the wheel to him so we need to stay in very close contact. Nilo was unable to attend the last work session, but as a general rule I always give him a call before a tackle a new scene. This way he can share his vision of it and I can draw my own conclusions. Only then I feel fully equipped to start writing the music.


Our next collective work session is scheduled for April of this year, but I’ll be visiting New York in February to have a few individual meetings with Kevin, Danielle and hopefully Renée, although I know that during my visit she will be having a Live in HD performance of Rusalka at the Met, which I definitely look forward to attending. Last time I was in New York I was lucky enough to see Danielle in “Così fantutte”. What a delight! And Anthony Freud, General Director of Lyric, got us tickets for the General Manager’s box. It was quite a treat.

And now I should get back to work. Until soon! But before I go let me use this opportunity to wish you all health, happiness and success in all your endeavors. Happy New Year 2014!!!

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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