Renee Fleming shepherds a new opera, "Bel Canto," to its world premiere in Chicago

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CHICAGO >> Two things make tonight's Lyric Opera of Chicago's world premiere of "Bel Canto" 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."

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."


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