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‘Bel Canto’ to debut on Chicago opera – Miller’s first play to have London world premiere

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US singer Ty Taylor of Vintage Trouble performs during the 37th Transmusicals music festival in Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande near Rennes, western France. (AFP)
US singer Ty Taylor of Vintage Trouble performs during the 37th Transmusicals music festival in Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande near Rennes, western France. (AFP)

CHICAGO, Dec 6, (Agencies): Two things make the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere of “Bel Canto” on Monday unique: Famed soprano Renee Fleming commissioned the work based on the popular novel and, rare for opera, it tells the story of a modern event.

Announced in February 2012, about a year after Fleming became creative consultant at Lyric, “Bel Canto” will be the Chicago opera’s first world premiere since 2004 and its seventh since 1961. It will re-create Ann Patchett’s best-selling, book-club sensation loosely based on the Peruvian hostage crisis of 1996-1997, when revolutionaries held hostages at an ambassador’s house in Lima.

“It’s definitely riskier to pick a contemporary subject and I wish more people would go ahead and do that,” Fleming said in an interview. “We need more things that are relevant to our lives now.”

Soprano Danielle de Niese will star in the lead role of Roxane Coss, an American opera singer who is one of the hostages. Fleming has said she chose not to take the part because she wanted to experience curating the project, and her involvement on that end has bred high expectations, said opera expert Fred Plotkin.

“She is a very highly visible and very highly accomplished artist,” Plotkin said. “I think she knows good material and I think if she didn’t think this was good material she wouldn’t pick it.”

This isn’t a vanity project for Fleming, Plotkin said, because “if this was a vanity project for Renee she’d be performing it.”

Fleming agrees.

“I think it would have taken away from the piece actually,” she said. “Once they (the audience) imagine that it’s a vanity project it takes away from the work.”

Victim

One reason Fleming was attracted to the piece was because the role of Coss offered a more ageless, intriguing role for women in opera.

“I want to see pieces that focus more on women, where women aren’t just the ingenue victim, which is the center of the plot of 90 percent of opera,” she said.

But once inspiration turned to reality, de Niese said, Fleming allowed her to create the role.

“I don’t think it’s her goal to go, ‘OK, here’s how I would do the role, but I’m not going to do it. You do it,’” de Niese said. “I think she wanted to be much more at the creative helm.”

Which she was, said Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez, whom Fleming chose for the piece. He says Fleming was often sending emails and meeting with the creative team.

“There are a lot of her suggestions and her impact that have shaped the opera,” he said.

Lopez also echoes Fleming’s support of modern stories on opera stages. Especially this piece, which the opera’s cast and creative team have said echoes violence seen recently in its premiere city of Chicago and places like Paris and San Bernardino, California.

“If we want to keep moving forward we have to have material that is relevant to audiences today,” he said. “And that’s what we have here.”

As de Niese describes it, “You’re not going to see another opera about this kind of subject matter, terrorists and hostages. It’s like bringing real life to the opera stage. Real people went through this.”

It is hard to believe that a decade after his death, and a hundred years after his birth, the first play Arthur Miller wrote could be having its world premiere, but that is what will happen in London next week.

“No Villain”, which Miller wrote at 20 as a literature major at the University of Michigan, and which won a $250 prize that helped fund his studies, will be performed at the 60-seat Old Red Lion Theatre from Tuesday into early January.

Sean Turner, a 29-year-old director, unearthed the play in an Arthur Miller archive, “courted” the foundation that owns the rights to allow him to put it on, and says that while it may not be the equal of “Death of a Salesman” or “The Crucible” it is a worthy part of the Miller canon.

“I can see why there is a temptation to say it was probably ‘lost’ for a reason, so let’s leave it there,” he told Reuters at the theatre in a pub in Islington.

“But I don’t think it was ever lost for a reason, I think he just didn’t have the means with which to produce it. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to suggest that he thought it was substandard in any way,” Turner said.

Turner went on a treasure hunt for the play after seeing a reference to it in a biography of Miller, who was one of Marilyn Monroe’s three husbands.

He said the Arthur Miller Foundation, which had heard of the play but not seen it, gave him permission to ask the University of Michigan to search its archives.

“Six weeks later they came back with a microfilm copy of it — a scanned version of his original transcript is there, complete with handwritten pencilled notes,” Turner said.

The play, like many of Miller’s works, draws on the dynamics and interactions of Miller’s own family. His father, who had immigrated from a village that is now part of Poland, owned a clothing manufacturing business in New York City but the family lost almost everything in the 1929 Wall Street Crash.

The plot centres on a student, recognisably based on Miller, returns home from university, filled with Marxist ideas, to challenge his father, who is struggling to keep the family business afloat in hard economic times.

The play shows Miller’s sharp ear for dialogue, spiced from time to time with what Turner called “those brave, rich lines that other people would shy away from”.

One example from “No Villain” is a character who says: “My God, what moves us like this, what pushes us like this? Where we don’t want to go? My good God, why do we deserve this, God in heaven?”

And why the title?

“There is ‘no villain’ — that’s the point,” Turner said, laughing.

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