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JIMMY LOPEZ & 'BEL CANTO': Anatomy of an Opera and Its Composer (Part I)

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Eighteen years after the Lima Crisis in Perú, in which a group of terrorists seized the Japanese Embassy in the capital -- this incident continues to attract international attention. The topic certainly hits a sore nerve locally but it has also triggered the creativity of different sources, in this case in the world of classical music.

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An new opera is in the works and it counts with some of the most prestigious professionals in classical music and literature. Bel Canto was inspired by the events that took place in Lima in 1996, but this work is truly an exploration of how music brings together two colliding worlds.

PERUVIAN COMPOSER JIMMY LÓPEZ COMMISSIONED TO WRITE THE MUSIC

Peruvian composer Jimmy López is proving to be one of the most original voices in today's classical music world. He obtained his PhD in Music from Berkeley in 2013, initially graduating from the Sibelius Institute in Finland. López was chosen among more than one hundred prominent composers for this endeavor.

It was during a tour in Scandinavia in 2011, that opera superstar Renée Fleming asked Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya for suggestions about Latin American composers. Harth-Bedoya gave Renée Fleming Jimmy López's name.

According to Jimmy López, 'I was having lunch at a Taiwanese restaurant when I received a call from my good friend, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. He said:

Harth-Bedoya: You have to go home this very minute and upload your cycle of songs on Youtube so Renée can listen to them.

López: Renée who?

Harth-Bedoya: Renée Fleming.

López: Why?

Harth-Bedoya: She is looking for a composer for a project she is working on. I suggested you.'

Videos uploaded and music listened too, Jimmy López proceeded to meet with Renée Fleming and the project's conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, at the soprano's apartment. She explained the opera's story line and the fact that, even though it was based on a real life event, it was, for the most part, a work of fiction. Renée Fleming had no idea that a 17-18 year-old Jimmy López had lived through the crisis when he was still living in Lima.

BEL CANTO IS THE INITIATIVE OF AMERICAN SOPRANO RENÉE FLEMING

In December 2010, Renée Fleming was named Creative Curator of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As part of her plan and in collaboration with colleagues in the company, she had announced her desire to present the premiere of an opera during the 2015-16 season: 'I imagined Bel Canto would work well theatrically because it’s a multinational ensemble piece, which would logically take place in a unit set: the house in South America where the hostages are being held. My friend Ann Patchett often brings her characters to their highest calling, and in this particular story she creates a utopian society based on the power of music and the sense of community it creates.'

Renée Fleming, who was determined to find a person who could really evoke South America, said she 'immediately loved the way Jimmy combines a new music aesthetic with an especially sophisticated use of orchestration' and she has spoken very highly about the education that the composer received in Perú.

The American soprano has commented on the fact that Perú is producing extraordinary talent, naming Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Juan Diego Flórez and Jimmy López and she has expressed her admiration by saying that these are distinguished representatives of Perú and that the country must be 'very proud of them.'

LIBRETTO BY PULITZER PRIZE WINNER, CUBAN PLAYWRIGHT NILO CRUZ

The works of Nilo Cruz have been produced through out the United States and Europe. In 2003, Nilo Cruz was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the Steinberg Award for Drama for his play Anna in the Tropics, which has also been nominated for a Tony Award. Nilo Cruz frequently collaborates with composer Gabriela Lena Frank, born in California to a Peruvian mother.

Referring to Peruvian composer Jimmy López, Nilo Cruz has said, 'I think Jimmy's music is very powerful. It also brings with it a very specific world, for Bel Canto, those sounds are vital... With this kind of opera we need to be constantly reminded that we're not in North America, but in South America... The novel itself has elements of magical realism... Jimmy uses some instruments beyond the traditional ones in an orchestra' to make this happen.'

OPERA BASED ON THE NOVEL BEL CANTO BY AWARD WINNING AUTHOR ANN PATCHETT

Bel Canto, published in 2001, has received the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, and the Book Sense of the Year Award. It was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York Times Bestseller has sold more than a million copies in the United States and has been translated to more than thirty languages, including Spanish.

Ann Patchett, who tends to focus on themes of isolation, has explained 'Right away when I heard the news in Perú, I thought, it's my story, the story of confinement... I find that basically when people are removed from society, they find happiness.'

Ann Patchett, who considers Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez one her literary influencers, has clearly explained that it was never her intention to try to interpret a national sentiment or to make any reference to these socio-political events that are beyond her experience and, therefore, beyond her understanding: 'My interest has been from a humanistic point of view; to explore the power that music can have to bring together people from different worlds.'

The book and the opera are loosely based on the events that took place in Lima in 1996, when a group of members of the MRTA seized the Japanese ambassador's residence during the birthday celebration of the Emperor of Japan . In the book, the residence belongs to the Vice President of Perú and the play revolves around a fictional character: the famous American soprano Roxanne Coss. This character, contrary to popular belief, is not based on soprano Renée Fleming as she and Ann Patchett had not met yet when the author started writing the book.

To read Part II of this article, please click here.

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