DATE BOOK — National audiences will have a chance to experience one of the most critically acclaimed new operas of the 2015-16 season on Jan. 13, when PBS’ Great Performances broadcasts Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere production of Bel Canto, by composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz. Bel Canto kicks off a broad mix of new operas and notable new productions by U.S. opera companies scheduled for the first few months of 2017.
As Lyric’s creative consultant, soprano Renée Fleming shepherded the adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2001 best-selling novel Bel Canto, inspired by a 1996-97 Peruvian hostage crisis, and Fleming will serve as host for the broadcast. (Check local listings for the viewing time in your area.) The plot revolves around a celebrated opera diva (Danielle de Niese) hired to perform as a birthday treat for a Japanese mogul, whose good will the South Americans are attempting to lure. Relationships form as terrorists and hostages alike are trapped together in a prolonged standoff.
Here’s a look at ten other ambitious opera projects across the U.S., from companies large and small, coming soon:
Washington, D.C.: The Dictator’s Wife, an insider’s tattletale
Jan. 13 and 15, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: Full details
With a 2015 release titled Follow, Poet, Mohammed Fairouz became the youngest composer in the history of Deutsche Grammophon to have an album dedicated to his or her work. Such milestones keep coming rapidly for this unusually prolific 31-year-old creative voice, whose music draws on multiple cultures and looks both backward and forward. During two already sold-out performances, the Washington National Opera will present the world premiere of Fairouz’s second opera, The Dictator’s Wife, based on a bitingly satirical play by the work’s Pakistani librettist, Mohammed Hanif. The hour-long opera centers on the dictator’s wife, who is forced to answer for her cowardly husband’s atrocities.
The Dictator’s Wife is part of the fifth season of the National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, which also includes a presentation of three new 20-minute operas on Jan. 14: What Gets Kept, by North Carolina composer Frances Pollock and librettist Vanessa Moody, about a family preparing for the death of a loved one; Adam, by composer Zach Redler and librettist Jason Carlson, about the creation of the world’s first sentient artificial human; and Lifeboat, by composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Emily Roller, about three strangers stranded at sea.
Nashville: Three comic one-acts promise a jolt of naughtiness
Jan. 27, 28 and 29, Tennessee Performing Arts Center: Full details
Think Sex and the City meets The Twilight Zone, says the Nashville Opera about its world premiere of Three Way. The company bills this new set of three one-act operas – The Companion, Safe Word, and Masquerade – as “sexy, funny, and a little bit naughty.” It is the second foray into opera for Robert Paterson, who was named composer of the year in 2011 by the Classical Recording Foundation. His two choral collaborations with librettist and Time Out New York theater critic David Cote were recorded by Musica Sacra on a 2015 album titled Eternal Reflections. The production is directed by John Hoomes, Nashville Opera’s chief executive officer and artistic director, and conducted by Dean Williamson. The co-production between Nashville and American Opera Projects will travel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for June 15-18 performances under the auspices of the American Modern Ensemble.
Atlanta: Piazzolla’s seductive tango operita newly revived
Feb. 2-7, Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce: Full details
When the Atlanta Opera presents Astor Piazzolla’s tango operita María de Buenos Aires, it will become one of the biggest companies in the United States to mount this rarely seen 75-minute work. The 1968 opera tells the story of a prostitute, a kind of Argentinian everywoman born in the outlying slums of Buenos Aires. Lured by the rhythms of tango, she moves into the city and is abducted and killed, slipping into a kind of shadow world before being reborn. This debut production will be performed at Le Maison Rouge, a performance stage and cocktail lounge located in Atlanta’s Paris on Ponce. The offering is part of Atlanta Opera’s Discoveries series, which presents new and offbeat works in alternative venues across the city.
New York: New staging for Opolais as Dvořák’s water nymph
Feb. 2-March 3, Metropolitan Opera House: Full details
Mary Zimmerman has directed a number of productions at the Metropolitan Opera, starting with Lucia di Lammermoor in 2007. She returns to the international company for a new staging of Dvořák’s Rusalka, the only one of the Czech composer’s operas regularly performed worldwide. (Below is the Met’s video preview.) The quintessentially romantic fairy tale of love and redemption draws on Czech sources but is similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, featured in a cover story of the December issue of Opera Now, sings the title role of Rusalka, a water nymph who falls in love with a prince who hunts near her lake. The cast also includes fast-rising mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Ježibaba, a witch, and acclaimed bass-baritone Eric Owens as Vodník, the water goblin.
Anchorage: An unflinching look at a Vietnam POW’s ordeal
Feb. 10-18, Alaska Center for the Performing Arts: Full details
Tom Cipullo’s 2006 opera Glory Denied is based on Tom Philpott’s book Glory Denied: The Vietnam Saga of Jim Thompson, America’s Longest-Held POW. The composer writes, “Glory Denied may be the first opera adapted from an oral history. As such, it presents no linear narrative. Rather, it jumps from moment to moment, as a man’s mind might leap when subjected to horrific stress.” The work, which has four singing roles, has previously been staged by a half dozen other professional companies, including those in Nashville and Fort Worth. The younger and older versions of the central character will be performed here by tenor Kevin Newell and baritone Gregory Gerbrandt, respectively.
Sarasota: A new take on Rossini’s stranded Italian girl
Feb. 18-March 25, Sarasota Opera House: Full details
Under artistic director Victor DeRenzi, the Sarasota Opera recently completed its prodigious Verdi Cycle, a project that began in 1989 and lasted 27 years, including every opera in every alternative version by Italy’s greatest composer. Turning now to an inaugural series called Sarasota Firsts, focused on works new to the company, the Opera presents its first-ever production of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, the zany romantic comedy that premiered in 1813 when the composer was just 21 years old.
In their mainstage Sarasota Opera debuts, American mezzo-soprano Tara Venditti stars as stranded Isabella, and Italian baritone Bruno Taddia as her unwanted suitor Taddeo. Venditti recently sang Frasquita at Teatro alla Scala under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel; Taddia has sung buffa roles widely in Italy, including Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale with conductor Riccardo Muti at the Ravenna Festival. Anthony Barrese conducts; New York director Mark Freiman makes his Sarasota debut as stage director in a new production designed by Michael Schweikardt.
Washington, D.C., and New York: The opera that inspired Fidelio
Feb. 19, George Washington University; Feb. 23, Gerald W. Lynch Theater: Full details
Founded in 1995 by conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette is devoted to period-instrument productions of 18th-century French opera. Leonore, the first version of Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, traces its roots to Pierre Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal, which premiered in Paris in 1798.
The company follows up its February performances of the French original with a production of Beethoven’s original Leonore in the fall of 2017. Both productions will be overseen by Quebec director Oriol Tomas, who recently staged Henri Sauguet’s Les Caprices de Marianne in sixteen different opera houses across France.
Tucson and Phoenix: An evocation of country, canyons, and cowboys
Feb. 25-26, Tucson Music Hall; March 3-5, Phoenix Symphony Hall: Full details
As a way to distinguish themselves from the national pack and reach audiences in their hometowns, opera companies sometimes follow the dictum: Think local. That’s certainly what the Arizona Opera did in a big way by drawing on its Western heritage with the company’s first world premiere, Riders of the Purple Sage.
The opera is adapted from Zane Grey’s famed 1912 novel, a fast-moving tale of love, religious conflict and proto-feminism, all set in the panoramic canyon country of southern Utah. This adaption was created by Phoenix composer Craig Bohmler, who has written ten musicals, and librettist Steven Mark Kohn. “Though it is a true opera from start to finish, it has reprises, occasionally rhyming lyrics and an orchestration that tips its hat to the western movie score,” Bohmler told Schmopera.com. An added highlight is the production’s scenic evocations of the American Southwest by noted Arizona landscape painter Ed Mell. Arizona Opera’s first world premiere will kick off with a statewide celebration of its Western heritage through art, film, story, and song.
Washington, D.C.: New production of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking
Feb. 25-March 11, Kennedy Center: Full details
More than 45 university and professional companies worldwide have staged Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking since its San Francisco Opera premiered in 2000, making it one of the most often performed operas of our time. With a libretto by Terrence McNally, this work takes on the complex, politically charged subject of capital punishment. It recounts the real-life story of a convicted murderer, Joseph De Rocher, and Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who agrees to be his spiritual adviser and undergoes her own powerful transformation.
Highlighting Washington National Opera’s new production – by artistic director Francesca Zambello with sets by Allen Moyer – is the return of celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who appeared as Sister Prejean in the San Francisco premiere. In this version, she will take the role of De Rocher’s mother. “Dead Man Walking has been in my DNA since its inception . . . I’m sure we’ll plumb new depths and bring this amazing piece to new life yet again,” she states on company’s website. Baritone Michael Mayes and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey take the leading roles.
Denver: Revival of recent Kaminsky opera takes on gender identity
March 2-4, Performing Arts Complex, Pinnacle Charter School: Full details
Premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, Laura Kaminsky’s As One depicts the experiences of its transgender protagonist, Hannah – a story inspired by the real-life experiences of filmmaker Kimberly Reed. Opera Colorado revives the work that Washington Post’s music critic Anne Midgette called “a thoughtful and substantial piece as well as that rarest of operatic commodities – a story that lends itself to dramatization in music.” As One features a libretto by Reed and Mark Campbell, who graduated from Denver’s Jefferson High School. A baritone and mezzo-soprano portray the opera’s central character – in this version, Kelly Markgraf and Blythe Gaissert.
Kyle MacMillan served as fine arts critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.