The opera Bel Canto (based on Ann Patchett’s novel by the same name) had its world Premiere at Chicago’s Lyric Opera Monday night, and I’m going to tomorrow night’s performance. It will be the first time ever that I’ve attended an opera.
When I was a kid, the only opera I knew was the Merrie Melodies cartoon one. you know, the one where Strauss music follows Viking Elmer Fudd as he bellows “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” and chases Bugs Bunny? It still makes me smile, just thinking about it.
I ditched a day of high school for the movie premiere of The Who’s Tommy, and I played the double-album to Jesus Christ Superstar at high volume in my basement bedroom, but I never did see a rock opera live on stage. Opera was not on my radar in college, and after I lost my sight I figured that with all the over-the-top costumes and staging and lyrics in foreign languages, opera would be forever off my list. But then came a sequence of events more outlandish than most opera plots:
- Ann Patchett, one of my favorite authors and a woman who didn’t know a thing about opera before, came out with a bestseller with a world-renowned soprano as the main character.
- Mike and I moved to Chicago.
- Real-life renowned soprano Renee Fleming signed on as the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s creative consultant.
- Ms. Fleming saw to it that the Lyric obtain rights to the novel Bel Canto.
- And now, tomorrow night, this blind woman will debut in the Lyric’s audience.
The Lyric Opera’s trailer for Bel Canto
I’ve been preparing for my debut ever since I heard that the opera Bel Canto would be opening here this year. I started by rereading the book, then I went to the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago with friends a few weeks ago to hear Ann Patchett and Renee Fleming talk about the making of the opera, and then last week I went to the Lyric with a friend to hear the men behind-the-scenes give a panel about all the work involved in developing a new opera for the stage. Thanks to them, I now know what a “librettist” does.
Still, I wasn’t sure I’d attend the opera. Tickets can be pricey, and not only would I miss out on the costumes and the staging, but without being able to read the subtitles (this opera is sung in nine, count them, nine different languages) I wouldn’t understand most of the dialogue. I’m pretty game for trying new things. Experience has shown me, however, that at times overreaching can leave me feeling worse about my blindness than staying home. Maybe going to an opera would be an overreach.
Eyebrows up! My positive experiences with other Chicago cultural institutions in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year spurred me on. I wrote Nora O’Malley, Facility Operations Manager for the Lyric Opera of Chicago with my questions about accessibility — namely, the subtitles. “I am guessing it is unconventional to ask for the libretto of a brand new opera ahead of time,” I wrote. “But if I promised not to share it with anyone else, might you find a way to email it to me before the opera? That way I could use my talking computer to read it before I come…”
Nora wrote back write away. Turns out she remembered me from a talk I’d given in September at Greater Together, a cultural accessibility summit here in Chicago. “A Word version of the program is attached,” she wrote. “We’ll also have Braille programs available if you’re interested.” She asked where I’d be sitting and said they’d find a way to accommodate my Seeing Eye dog Whitney if I bring her. “If you do plan on bringing her, you can notify me via email, call me or simply ask for the House Manager when you arrive and we’ll make it work.” The program she attached outlines the plot, and before I head to the Civic Opera House I’ll read through it to see how the libretto (did I mention I know what that word means now?) might differ from the original book version
As for the subtitles, turns out I may be able to hear them at tomorrow night’s performance. “Lastly, the December 10th performance of Bel Canto is our Audio Described performance,” Nora wrote. “Would you be interested in listening in?” I am! I will! Time to dig out my ball gown and opera-length gloves – I’m off to the opera.