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Born in 1978, Jimmy López completed musical studies at UC Berkeley in 2012. That year, Lyric Opera of Chicago announced the commission of 'Bel Canto', an initiative led by Renée Fleming and Sir Andrew Davis. This Monday, López' first opera, based on the December 1996 hostage crisis in Lima and Ann Patchett's novel, premieres at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, featuring a libretto by Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz and starring Danielle de Niese. The late Andrew Patner called López "one of the most interesting young composers anywhere today,". Below is the transcript of our November 18, 2015 conversation with the Berkeley-based composer Jimmy López.
EH: I would love to hear about your family and the role they played in your musical development. Who were some of the musicians who influenced you early on in Lima ?
López: That’s actually a question nobody’s asked me that before. I’m really happy to hear that because for composers, the most crucial are the first five or six years, which really influence the rest of your life. I don’t come from a musical family at all. My father is an architect, my mother, a kindergarten teacher – retired, both of them – and my sister is a biologist. So there was no musical background, and the only thing that pulled me toward music was when my sister began playing the piano.
I decided to study the piano, by default, as well. I was five years old, why not ? (laughs) I took piano lessons without thinking becoming a pianist or a musician. When I turned twelve, I was exposed to the music of Bach. My high school music teacher played an Invention of his, and I don’t know why I hadn’t been exposed to it before, but something about the polyphony and the complexity really appealed to me. It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. I went home and researched the other Inventions, the fugues, and so on, and that was really my beginning. After that, I discovered Mozart, and around that time, fifteen or sixteen, I decided that I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t know what I would do with music, but I knew I wanted to be a classical musician.
My parents were skeptical at first, but they were always very supportive, which is quite unusual in Peru. Western classical music isn’t taken that seriously as a profession there, and we don’t have a lot of symphony orchestras. But my parents saw that I had this determination to study. At fifteen, I was very lucky because the Lima Philharmonic was founded. They didn’t have an auditorium to rehearse in, and luckily, they started using my school auditorium. They had some sort of agreement with the orchestra, and some of the orchestra musicians began teaching at my high school. I would go to rehearsals every night, I would bring my scores, and after a year, the principal conductor invited me to become the assistant librarian. From then on, I fell in love with the orchestra and decided to become a composer. My parents accepted it, but they always knew it would be tough to attain my potential in Lima. Being a professional composer there is really hard, and to be a freelancer is even harder. So they pushed me to go abroad.
There were actually two key people who helped me during this time. The first is the composer Enrique Iturriaga, who was born in 1918. He’s still alive, and turned ninety-seven in May. He is really an inspiration – I call him my personal Yoda (laughs) – because when I met him, he was probably seventy-eight or so, but so full of life and energy. My lessons would be at his house, in his personal library, and sometimes they would last from 2pm until 10 pm. When he wanted to explain a single counterpoint rule to me, he would show four different methods, revealing that there are no fixed rules, that this is a craft where you have to just keep trying. Everything is based on logic, on acoustics and your hearing. In a little over a year, we covered Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, and we started writing small compositions, which led me to apply at the National Conservatory. I got in, and continued my studies with him, there. Iturriaga was the one who gave me a solid base in counterpoint, harmony, music theory, etc. By the time I arrived in Finland, I was quite ahead of everyone else in those subjects because of what he taught me.
The other person I have to mention is Miguel Harth-Bedoya, a conductor who’s ten years older than me. We didn’t know it until years later, but we actually grew up on the same street! He’s the one who established the Lima Philharmonic in ’93 or ’94, when I was still in high school, and he was the one who invited me to be the library assistant. We lost touch when I went to Finland for five years, but we re-connected. And when I arrived to the United States in 2007, he was and has been very supportive of my career. Miguel has done everything he can for me, and I think he really likes my music.
EH: Every composer has a slightly different method of operation. Schumann was sometimes unaware of the complexities of his writing until the very end. How do you generally begin your pieces ?
López: When I write for orchestra, I barely touch the piano. I only go there to consult harmonies, because I really don’t want the piano to inform my writing for any other instrument, and so I’ve learned to detach from it. In terms of composition and method, it really depends on the specific piece and what you’re writing it for.
For this opera, my first, you start with a story, and then you begin adapting the story to a libretto that speaks to you; then you begin to understand and internalize the words and what they mean to you. When it comes to a symphonic work, I give a lot of attention to structure and harmony and counterpoint - my father was an architect – and I’ve come to appreciate form very much. Having studied in Finland as well, Sibelius being one of the great composers who really tackled form masterfully, I really try to tackle the form and lay the groundwork. For this reason, I never compose chronologically. I prefer to really work on the pillars, building a solid base, and then building on top of it.
What you remarked about Schumann is interesting because the more solid your base is, the more you’ll find hidden connections that you yourself may not have been aware of. When I write certain motifs or melodies and enter into a certain work rhythm, within two or three weeks, I can keep producing themes that are initially not connected, apparently, but when I look at them later, I’ll find very strong thematic connections. It’s really important to be as conscious as possible of one’s work, but that’s precisely what intuition gives you. When you’re exploring new ground, you don’t have much but the support of this artistic intuition. And I believe that many great works, like the Rite of Spring, were written this way. Stravinsky, I believe, said he wrote it in a short time, relying on his ears. Of course, when you analyze it, it’s a very sound structural piece. When you learn how to hear, you learn what’s essential to leave out and what to leave in. So in my case, I rely first on drafting an overall form; if it’s a long, big piece, then I start working on what’s essential.
For the opera, I started working on the main arias because these are the places where the action does not move forward. It’s very static, so the music is definitely the main leading force there, not action or drama. Then, once I have that, which allows you to characterize the figure, to picture them, you’ve given them a certain characteristic, a certain motif, an orchestration, a way of singing. You can then start bringing those elements around them.
In Wagner, for example, he has his leitmotifs associated with every character. When I work, I like to call them ‘musical auras’, and the way this works is actually a whole thing that involves the harmonic world of that character, the way it sings, the timbre and soundscape that surrounds it. For one character that I use, for example, I use more brass, for another, more melismatic writing, and another more straightforward writing, etc. All of these things are distinguishable, and once you have them, you can go for the moments in between and work on the dramatic pacing, etc. I think I may have deviated from your original question (laughs).
EH: No, not at all (laughs). Did you compose these arias with specific singers in mind ?
López: Right from the start, we knew that Danielle de Niese was going to star in Bel Canto. Then there was another singer whom we booked early on named Jacques Imbrailo, a South African baritone. He’ll be singing the role of Messner. Later on, I found out about the other main characters: Andrew Stenson, Jeongcheol Cha and J’nai Bridges. So with these five characters, I knew the kinds of voices I had in mind, which really helped. But the others, not so much. Essentially, with the four main characters, I had an idea of who I was writing for.
With Danielle, she arrived so early on that we actually molded the character for her, even while writing the libretto, as I was a part of that process, too. We announced the opera in February 2012, and Nilo Cruz began writing the libretto soon after, and we spent more or less a year working on it with Renée Fleming and Sir Andrew. Even then, I was thinking of the possibilities of what Danielle could do. She is a great actress, she has this magnetic quality to her, and so we molded the character for her. When I came to writing the music, I studied her recordings and performances, and I knew the kind of voice she has. So yes, this was definitely written for her.
For the other characters, I didn’t know who would portray them, and so the least I could do was know the voice type that I wanted. And so we then sat down and began thinking of who would be right for these parts, etc. For some, we held auditions, and for others, we called to see if they were available.
EH: Were there any operas that influenced or offered insight into the specific kind of production you wanted to create ?
López: You know, yes, actually. Well, I did look back at some of the John Adams operas. I like very much Nixon in China, and especially the first act of Doctor Atomic. I looked back at Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles as well. Of course, I looked back at the classics, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and early Strauss with Elektra. Strauss is actually one of the composers I studied the most because he had a very successful collaboration with Hofmannsthal. I read all of their correspondences, which was really fun, from a book called A Working Friendship, which Renée Fleming sent me as a gift; Nilo read it as well, I think. I went through all his operas, and there were a lot of things I took from.
Of course, I also took a look at the Mozart-da Ponte collaboration. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I liked because Mozart’s operas are one of my ideals. I find them so perfect, musically, and I always love that the music is never quite subservient to the words; it’s really the leading force. And with Mozart, you can actually listen to the music alone, without lyrics, and feel completely satisfied, which is not the case with all operas.
I looked at modern opera as well. I think during the process of writing, Thomas Ades premiered The Tempest. I liked very much his first opera as well, Powder Her Face. I’ve always enjoyed listening to what my colleagues are doing, but also, I felt it was important to look into the past. When you write your first opera, you are making a statement about what opera means to you, how you envision it. You’re putting your own seal on it.
What I want is to bring a bit of this heightened dramatic pacing that I sometimes do not find in opera. The pace of Bel Canto is a lot faster, more exciting than the classic examples of the operatic repertoire. It might be because we live in a different time, but we’re influenced by cinema and musicals (our fantastic director Kevin Newbury has actually directed both), and we want to bring this exciting aspect to opera. We want to keep the audiences engaged all the time. That’s been one of the challenges, because we have avoided the sequence of duets, quartets, ensembles, etc. In Bel Canto, we try to move the action forward most of the time, to give new information that alters the course, which changes the musical atmosphere. The arias then come as welcome breathing points for all of us, so that we’re not just waiting for the aria to end. So that’s more or less what my mindset has been for Bel Canto. Who knows what will happen when I write a second opera (laughs).
EH: Given the events in Paris last week, will the opera satisfy the prevailing thoughts and the general mood of this sensitive time ? Will people come away feeling with a sense of healing from this music ?
López: Yes, I would like to think so. The attacks in Paris affected me personally as well. I lived there for a year, and I have a lot of friends who still live there, and thank god they’re safe, but they’re all shaken. Kevin, Danielle and I were talking about it, and it’s so timely but so tough. For them to be able to be in rehearsal, which can be so emotional, as these events have reminded us that what we are depicting on stage still happens in real life. Even though it’s about an event that happened in 1996, somehow history keeps repeating itself.
There are differences, of course. The terrorists in Paris were not there to negotiate at all. Their only intent was to cause harm to everyone. But Bel Canto brings those two worlds together, the aggressors and the hostages, what happens there, the transformation, the power of music, when you have all these people that don’t even speak the same language, literally, who come from different countries, different classes and mindset, and are forced to deal with each other, what comes of it. This is condensed in the last aria of Roxane, which you’ll hear, which is gorgeous. I want to believe that there is a possibility of redemption through music. If people keep their minds ears open enough, we can find a common ground and come together, which is obviously not what happened last weekend. But it’s something we have to aim for.
I love what you framed because Bel Canto is not there to open wounds. It will remind us of what keeps happening, but it will help us to heal, that there is a humanity that unites all of us, even the most monstrous of people, that there still has to be some humanity left. And this is what the character of Roxane embodies, this transformational aspect that manages to break through every shield.
I know for Kevin, he found it more intense than what he envisioned it would be. We are ready to go, and will continue and keep working. It’s going to be sensitive, for me as a Peruvian. I was eighteen when these things happened, and it’s a part of our written history. A lot of people who lived the events are still alive.
EH: You mentioned John Adams and his influence. Are you concerned that audiences and critics will treat Bel Canto as they have Klinghoffer, given the subject matter ? How difficult is it to consider the two sides of the story ?
López: Well, I’m not worried about it. I think it would be fruitless to be too concerned about what other people will think. Nilo and I will put it out there and see how people will react. In the United States, I don’t think it will elicit the kind of reaction Klinghoffer did, because people associate Bel Canto more with the book than with the actual event. If it were to be staged in Lima, it would be a different story. But interesting that you bring up Klinghoffer because I think neither Nilo nor I try to take sides, and I think it’s important as an artist to believe in your characters. You cannot cast moral judgment on your characters while writing the piece. Otherwise, it goes back to the classical times where the story ends and you think ‘what have we learned from this story ?’. That’s definitely not the purpose of our opera (laughs).
What we have to do is get into the head of the terrorist and find out what he thinks, what’s driving him. Whether we believe it or not is not relevant. But what we have to be convinced of is that the character is absolutely convinced of his cause, that it’s fair and just, even if it isn’t. And the same goes for everyone else in the opera. As an artist, you cannot cast judgment on your character, otherwise, it loses its power, its efficacy. If you cast judgment, you’ll have this cartoonish evil-guy good-guy portrayal.
In other words, the characters explain or give their manifestos, why they’re doing this, and they sound convinced of it. Whether we side with them is irrelevant – which we don’t – and the same goes for the hostages. What we’re trying to tell is a human story. The politics is a frame. What’s interesting is how the young terrorist, Carmen, falls in love with the translator because she’s never been exposed to someone who’s educated, someone from a different country. There’s this clash that breaks through. There, she finds her humanity, through him. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with what Carmen-the-terrorist is doing, but we’re trying to portray what she has been exposed to. So if there is controversy, it’s beyond our control. But just to let you know, we are not presenting two sides of the story; we are presenting many sides. Each character has their own story, their own reasons, etc. Some of them stop believing in their cause, some are aggressive, and others passive. It’s a very complex story.
EH: Can you describe the experience of exploring the mind and motivations of a terrorist ?
López: It is dark, definitely, but it’s also a great opportunity, musically. It allows you to bring the very best and the worst, somehow, to bring people from the most sublime music to the most violent and visceral of it. So yes, it might bring you to dark places, but great art should do that. Art should also have the capacity to bring you to bright places, regardless of the subject.
Some of the most incredible, most powerful works I’ve experienced have the ability to shake your emotions. In the moment of the attack, for example, I actually had to rewrite the whole thing. I presented it to my collaborators and they were not convinced of it, and I agreed. So I went back and did it again. It ended up being very violent, very convincing - as it should be, you know ? So yes, you have to explore these things to tell the story, to get into the psychology of the characters.
When you’re working on something like this, you have to learn to be immersed in it, but also to detach from it. As I wrote or explored each character, I couldn’t allow myself to get sucked in – you lose control of things – because you need to keep a certain distance while giving everything you can. It’s a complex thing. It was emotionally taxing to write those types of passages. The most difficult were those when the character dies. I had heard this from so many people, writers and such, and it sounds so cliché (laughs), but it’s true that you live with these characters for so long that killing them is not an easy thing. And when you have someone who’s beloved, it brings you back to real moments you’ve experienced. You try to connect these to your personal experience. And yes, when there’s a character who’s violent, you have to explore those aspects of yourself as well, things that you don’t want to take a look at. Such is the work of a composer, but it is anopportunity. That’s why opera is so great. You bring all of your tools in your arsenal as a composer, and you put it out there all at once, in three hours of music.
EH: What else can you tell us about your very first experience writing an opera ?
López: Working with Renée has been fabulous, for sure. I was able to work with her from vocal writing to dramatic pacing, and so on and so forth. She’s been at hand for a number of years now, and we’ve become friends. Sir Andrew Davis as well!
What I love about Lyric Opera is that they haven’t commissioned a work for the main stage in, I think, ten years, since Bolcom, and they were really determined to nurture this. The announcement happened almost four years before the premiere. We have had workshops, meetings, I’ve met people in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, New York, even in England. This is really what I consider a collaborative endeavor, and even Sir Andrew said there are very few examples in the history of opera where everyone involved has been working together for so long. Usually, it’s just the composer and the librettist. But in our case, it’s been the curator, the conductor, the stage director, etc.
The other thing is that the opera is completely different form the book and the actual events. It is based on the book, and you will recognize the characters. But we are also influenced and informed by the real events that happened in Peru. If someone goes to the opera to see a reenactment of historical events, they will not find that. And if someone tries to find a literal translation of the book on stage, they will also not find that. There are things that work in narrative that do not work on the stage. There are things, for example, some ordering of the events that we had to alter.
In the book there are two exciting events, the beginning and the end - the storming and the liberation. In the opera, we had to create tension in the middle, too, so that people will want to come back after the intermission. So we manipulated time in a way the book does not. But I hope, at least, that people will be happy with the result. It is a unique kind of piece. It is really something that couldn’t be anything but an opera. The director, Anthony Freud, wanted something meant to be an opera - not a movie or a play.
We have really pushed the genre of opera to its limits, to create something that is impossible to transcribe to any other medium, and for that to happen, we really had to recreate Bel Canto, to distill the book and events to their essence, and come up with something new. It’s true that the staging looks very much to the actual events for inspiration: the way people dressed, props from the 90’s like the huge cell phones, the uniforms, etc., things that weren’t quite explicitly described in the book. But I want people to be enthralled by the opera. Come with open ears and minds. You can definitely expect to find something that surprises, whether you know the book or the events.
EH: Speaking of open ears and open minds, one of the most commonly accepted ideas of our time is that of relativism. In your opinion, is there such a thing as bad music, or are all positions and opinions on music equally valid ?
López: Interesting. I think relativism can be a very dangerous concept. Art is a bit more difficult to determine. If you go to a sporting event, either you score or you don’t. It’s about numbers. You may have played better, but the point is still to score. In art, in competitions especially, people will side with different people. But I do think that in my experience, there are works that manage to transcend all of this, the test of time. You might have whatever opinion of it, but you can’t doubt their excellence, their power of communication. No one can say ‘Beethoven’s Fifth is terrible’. I would doubt their judgment. Based on what ? I would ask. If music were only based on emotion, you could answer, ‘I felt nothing’. But there is a lot more than only emotion. Beethoven built all of it on a single motif, and you cannot say that is not remarkable. Whether you like it or not, you have to accept it.
A lot of my friends in the music world are horrified by this, but I don’t love the Brahms Symphonies. They’re okayyy (laughs), but even if I don’t like Brahms, I respect him a lot. His writing is extremely intellectual, he has a unique harmonic world and sound, so there’s nothing I can really criticize. He just doesn’t arouse as many emotions in me. Great works of art will speak to different people.
But of course, we also need to detach from our little worlds and transcend that, enter another area where we can give a more detached evaluation of whatever we’re listening to. So yes, everyone has different tastes, but I will say that relativism as the absolute norm is very dangerous. We have to escape that. It forces us to live in a very small space, our personal space, and everything that informs us. As artists, we have to be able to escape that little circle and see the larger picture. If you’re a composition teacher who loves twelve-tone compositions, and there comes a student who loves minimalism – I’ve actually seen this (laughs) – you don’t have to like the student, but you have to see things from their perspective and find the value of it. You have to be objective. So that, I think, is key. I think it would be very dangerous to say everything is good, nothing is bad. That is actually not the way the world works.
EH: Arthur Rubinstein, at the end of his autobiography, said “The proclamations of the new composers of music, painters and sculptors, that no emotion need be expressed belies the very reason for the artist’s existence,”. What are your thoughts on this ?
López: Well, let me tell you this: I’ve always believed music as a complete experience that contains not only emotion, but that exists in four dimensions: emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. It has the capacity to embody all of these at once. This is the appeal of Bach.
In his music, you find very clear mathematical structures, complexity of counterpoint, the fugues, it’s all very intellectual, very sharp. Of course, there’s the emotional aspect -- it has to generate some kind of emotional response in you, otherwise you’d be completely indifferent. It is also spiritual because Bach was a very religious man – and I am a believer – and there is that connection with a higher realm. It is physical because it is transmitted by sound waves. If you hear an organ in a church and you hear the bass, you’re really feeling it, too. These vibrations, the fortissimos of an orchestra, you feel all of them. It is the kind of integral experience I do not experience in any other art form. So I agree with Rubinstein. Emotion is important, but it is for me just one aspect of music. I would disagree with anyone who believes emotion in music is irrelevant. That I cannot agree with.
EH: Jimmy, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time, and best of luck next Monday.
López: Thank you, Elijah. I enjoyed this, too!