All things must come to an end, but sometimes the end can signify new beginnings. Just a few days ago I delivered the final piano/vocal score of “Bel Canto”: over 400 pages of some of the most inspired music I’ve ever written. There it was, the culmination of two and a half years of hard work; the product of thousands of hours of intense mental concentration and emotional investment; my largest and most ambitious work to date. Writing “Bel Canto” has not been, however, a lone endeavor. Quite the contrary; much like the gears of a Swiss watch, it is the result of finely-tuned cooperation between myself and librettist Nilo Cruz, director Kevin Newbury, creative consultant Renée Fleming, conductor Sir Andrew Davis, soprano Danielle de Niese, general director Anthony Freud, Filarmonika Publishing House, and the wonderful staff of Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Bel Canto” has now ceased to be a project and is now starting to make its transition into becoming a reality.
Much has happened between November 18, 2010 (the day I got an auspicious call from conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya asking me to upload my vocal music to YouTube so Renée Fleming could listen to it) and now. Among the highlights: I completed my PhD at UC Berkeley; had my music played at Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, and Gewandhaus Leipzig; was granted an EB1 visa; lost two dear friends (Martín Portugal and Andrew Patner); completed six new compositions; had an new orchestral album recorded for Harmonia Mundi; and recently, in May, got married to my loving husband, Heleno, in the wedding of our dreams. I am five years older –and I’d like to think wiser- than I was back then, and I am ready for future challenges. But let’s take one step at a time: much of the second half of this year will be devoted to making “Bel Canto” the best possible show, so it can live up to the mounting expectation that has been surrounding it.
The world premiere announcement took place over three years ago, on February 28, 2012, but I still remember distinctly one of the questions, posed by the late Andrew Patner. As the conference was drawing to a close, he asked: “Jimmy, I’ve been looking at you throughout this announcement and you don’t seem the least intimidated by the scale and prominence of this project. How do you feel about all this?” I replied: “Far from being intimidated I am happy and relieved that I will finally have the opportunity to pour all the ideas I’ve been accumulating over the years”. And that’s exactly what happened; what a luxury it has been having the opportunity to write a three hour-long opera for full orchestra, two choruses and 16 soloists! It has given me the chance to explore new musical and emotional territories, and it has forced me to find creative solutions to seemingly impassable problems.
Language, for example, was a major issue that Nilo and I discussed at length. We have several different languages in the opera (English, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, French, German, Quechua, Latin, and Italian) mainly because we made a decision early on to have each character speak on his/her own language whenever possible. One of our characters, Gen, the interpreter, could have easily become a nuisance had we not found ways to make him interesting. Since all opera houses are equipped with supertitles nowadays, having him repeat the same text in a different language could have turned out to be extremely boring and redundant. Fortunately in opera many people can be made to sing simultaneously without creating chaos, and since each language has a particular cadence, I decided to exploit both aspects musically so that Gen’s translations never come across as superfluous. Another thorny issue was setting languages I don’t speak to music. I am fluent in English and Spanish, can speak a little bit of French, and recognize the structure of Latin and Italian because of their proximity to Spanish. The other languages I speak, Finnish and Portuguese, are not featured in the opera, so I had to seek help for all the other languages. I was lucky enough to count with the talent of three excellent translators: Michiko Kitayama Skinner (Japanese), Derek Matson (French, Russian, and German), and Odi Gonzáles Jiménez (Quechua). I asked each of them to supply me with four things: a standard written translation, an additional translation where each word was separated into syllables highlighting which syllable carried the stress, a recording of the text at conversational pace, and finally, a recording of each phrase at a very slow pace. Only after studying and analyzing these materials was I able to set the text to music. In addition to this, I would contact them whenever I didn’t understand the structure or thought process, the latter being especially true for Quechua, which comes along with a different perception of the world. The most challenging, however, was definitely Japanese, not only because I understand nothing of it, but also because every idea requires almost twice the amount of syllables as in English, and this got me into trouble quite a few times. One duet between Roxane and Hosokawa is particularly telling in this regard. In the first scene of Act II Nilo has them exchange a few brief verses, each one averaging five words, much in the manner of haikus. The problem, however, was that the symmetry was completely broken when I got the Japanese translations, because while Roxane keeps uttering short English verses, Hosokawa, on the other hand, ends up having much longer verses in Japanese. Let’s take a look at their duet as originally conceived:
Outside, the flight of a bird.
Outside, a boy shouts…
…a woman runs…
…a butterfly dies unseen…
There’s a certain musical cadence to this exchange that begs for a kind of contrapuntal question-answer treatment. But notice how the delicate balance that Nilo managed to create is broken when Hosokawa’s phrases are translated to Japanese:
Outside, the flight of a bird.
Sotono sekai de-wa, otokonoko ga sawaideiru.
…a woman runs…
Chyou ga, hitoshirezu, shindeyuku.
After many hours of head banging and almost giving up, I came up with the idea of having Hosokawa sing each word as if reciting it, bringing a drone-like quality to it (especially because he doubles the bass line every second measure) while Roxane simply floats above him in an ever-ascending melodic line. Finding this solution encouraged me to tackle other more complicated sections. As I mentioned in an earlier article, I don’t work chronologically, so even though this duet belongs to the second act, I wrote it in August of 2013, way before I wrote the second and third scenes of Act I. I won’t say that the task of setting many languages became easier after this, but I would definitely say that I became more confident and resourceful when facing similar challenges.
If I ever write another opera, and I certainly hope to do so, I will be much better equipped to face the challenge. For starters, now I know that I can’t possibly produce a piano/vocal score before the orchestral score because I very much prefer to write either a short score or a full score right from the start. Many of my ideas are very strongly associated with a particular timbre right from the start, so it’s really hard for me to conceive a fully abstract piece of music and decide its instrumentation later. Could you imagine the beginning of Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après midi d’un Faune” played by any other instrument but the flute? Neither could I. Another thing I’ve learned is that when working with a creative team, it is much more helpful to hear their ideas and suggestions before writing the music rather than getting their feedback after the music has been written. Both are good of course, but their real chance to help shape and influence the composer comes before he/she sits down to write; that way everyone agrees with the inner conception and structure, which are things that are very difficult to change after the fact. Once the music is written one can alter many things, but the architecture of the piece is sounder when it doesn’t have to undergo major structural changes later in the process. I have also learned how to make the most out of a workshop. When we had our workshop back in the summer of 2014, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but to my surprise, almost everything turned out to sound exactly as I had imagined. The good thing, of course, is that by the time we reached the workshop, we had had several work sessions with the creative team, so I had been able to polish many of the details before we played through the score. In this sense the workshop helped everyone get a better idea of the piece, especially our stage director, Kevin and our set designer, David Korins. I, however, didn’t gain as much from it as I would have wanted to. For example, were I to have another workshop, I would ideally request to have the exact voice types. The effect is quite different when a mezzo sings the part of a countertenor or a baritone sings the part of a bass. Also, rather than just singing through the score, I would encourage the singers to interact a little as if they were actually on stage, so that I could gain a better feeling of the dramatic tension of each section. Finally, I would have the workshop at a very early stage of the process, let’s say six months into the writing, rather than a year and a half later, when most of the score has already been written down. Live and learn, they say, and I have certainly learned much from this experience. Thanks be to Lyric Opera of Chicago for sparing no effort or expense when it comes to ensuring the success of this show.
I am now in Chicago for tech rehearsals and a few media interviews. Now that the piano/vocal score has been delivered, the chorus and cast members can begin studying their parts; (the full orchestral score will be ready by August 1st). It is now time to hand the reins to Kevin and Sir Andrew, so they can translate my score to the stage. Renée Fleming is the dedicatee of the score and I am convinced that no one deserves it more than her; her vision and determination have been instrumental in the creation of this piece and her support has been an unending source of inspiration to all of us in the creative team. Last but not least, I have to thank my dear husband Heleno for his undying support during these past five years. He and I met in September of 2010, shortly before that auspicious phone call. He has seen my ups and downs, joys and struggles, and he has been with me all along, supporting me in every possible way that a partner -now husband- could. I can’t wait to see “Bel Canto” on stage. It will mark the culmination of an important period in my life which has seen me reach a great degree of artistic maturity, and which points to the beginning of a new and exciting time where I will apply everything I have learned during this extraordinary journey called “Bel Canto”.
I want to dedicate these last few lines to two extraordinary men who left us too soon: journalist, broadcaster, and critic Andrew Patner, and Ken Piggott, former President and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Their departure has left a hard-to-fill void in Chicago’s vibrant cultural life. May their genuine love for the arts continue to serve as an example for future generations. They were truly excited about the premiere and I am sure that they will be with us in spirit on that long-awaited date: December 7, 2015.