Opera Based on Ann Patchett’s ‘Bel Canto’ Airs Jan. 13 on NPT

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Bel Canto the Opera, an adaptation of Nashville author Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel about a hostage crisis in a South American embassy, will air on PBS’ Great Performances series, Friday, Jan. 13, at 8 p.m. on NPT. The new opera was composed by Jimmy López with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and curated by legendary soprano Renée Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, who hosts the broadcast. This performance was recorded in Chicago last January.

‘Bel Canto’ world premiere at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

NPT spoke with Ann Patchett recently about the experience of having her book adapted for the operatic stage, an occurrence none too common these days, but undeniably appropriate for this particular book. Yet Patchett wasn’t entirely convinced it would happen.

“The thing about Bel Canto is that it has almost been so many things,” Patchett said by phone from her home in Nashville. She ran through a list of proposed adaptations: an opera in Santa Fe, a Broadway musical, a stage play. “It has almost been a movie more times than I can count,” Patchett said. “It’s not that these things didn’t happen because it was so hard, it’s just the process of doing collaborative art is hard.”

What was different this time around? Patchett’s good friend Renée Fleming approached her after being named creative director at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “I said, sure, go ahead, knock yourself out. But I didn’t actually think it was going to happen; nor did I think that it wasn’t going to happen. I’d been down this road so many times before that I just didn’t think about it very much,” she added.

Not thinking about it meant not being involved in any way; all creative decisions were left to Fleming and others at Lyric Opera. “What do I know about opera? I think if you make a decision to sell your work, you’ve sold it,” Patchett said. As it turned out, she didn’t see Bel Canto the Opera until opening night, after a delayed flight cancelled her plans to attend a dress rehearsal with Fleming. By the time Patchett reached Chicago, there was just enough time to get to the pair’s speaking engagement.

“I’m glad in a way that’s the way it turned out,” Patchett said. “It was a beautiful experience and I genuinely loved the opera.” The lighting, the sets, the staging all brought out aspects of the story the author hadn’t previously considered. And she admits to enjoying taking a bow after the performance (though she protested at the time) and staying out late for the cast party. Patchett isn’t planning a party for Friday’s broadcast — but will be watching.

In the production, internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese stars as the American opera diva Roxane Coss, who is making a special appearance at a diplomatic gathering in Lima when terrorists storm the mansion. The hostage situation becomes a siege as government forces surround the compound. During the months-long crisis, lines blur and unexpected alliances form between captors and captives, with Roxane’s singing becoming a powerful, humanizing force.

Among the hostages are Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (who is obsessed with the opera singer and who is the reason she was invited to perform) and his translator Gen Watanabe, portrayed by Jeongcheol Cha and Andrew Stenson, respectively. J’nai Bridges sings the role of guerilla Carmen; with Rafael Davila as General Alfredo; William Burden as Rubén Iglesias, the vice president; Anthony Roth Costanzo as César; and Jacques Imbrailo as Joachim Messner, the Red Cross intermediary for the hostages, captors, and government officials.

Bel Canto the Opera is sung in Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin and Quechua, with projected English translations. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric production directed by Kevin Newbury.

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