Lesbian director Francesca Zambello has successfully ferried the Spanish-language opera Florencia en el Amazonas (Florencia in the Amazon) throughout its entire existence.
Zambello not only staged its wildly successful world-premiere launch at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996, but she has also captained numerous revivals across North Americaincluding the Lyric Opera of Chicago debut of Florencia en el Amazonas this November.
"What exciting about doing it now is that the Lyric is committed to doing a beautiful, new production that is more lavish and visually rich," Zambello said. "It mirrors the music, which is full of romantic melodies."
Created by the late Mexican composer Daniel Catan (1949-2011) and Mexican librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, Florencia en el Amazonas takes its inspiration from the works of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Marquez (1927-2014). Although it's not directly based on his novels like Love in the Time of Cholera or One Hundred Years of Solitude, Florencia en el Amazonas is redolent with Márquez's use of magical realism.
"I try to echo that in the production," Zambello said. "There's a lot of enhanced visuals, and dance is a major component to convey the world of the Amazon."
The opera largely takes place aboard the river steamship El Dorado as it journeys to a remote opera house in Manaus, Brazil. Among the passengers is the world-famous opera singer Florencia Grimaldi, who returns to her homeland for a special concert and to reconnect with a former lover.
"Twenty-five years later, your entire take on characters have changed," said Zambello, reflecting on "the way that love at different points in your life speaks to you, and how it changes you."
Zambello said she previously related more with the opera's young lovers. But now Zambello aligns herself more with the title character who has "traveled and seen the world through art" while also feeling the important pull of returning home.
"I spent 18 months at home in central New York with my wife and son," said Zambello about her situation during much of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Home has a lot more power for people now after everything we've been through."
Like so many people who have been re-examining their lives and careers, Zambello has announced some major professional changes.
Next summer, Zambello is to step down as the artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival of opera and music theater in Cooperstown, New York. It will be her 12th and farewell season.
"It's time to explore new fields," Zambello said. "When you've done something well and you're proud of it, sometimes it's time to let it go."
Yet Zambello still plans to hold onto her other major job as artistic director of Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C.
"The company is expanding over the next five years," Zambello said. "I will be focusing on many things not only inside the Kennedy Center, but outside it as well. There will be big announcements about that soon."
But in the meantime, Zambello is happy to return to the Lyric where she previously staged productions of Show Boat, Salome, and Porgy and Bess. She hopes that Florencia en el Amazonas will attract new audiences.
"This is a great opera for newbies. The story draws you in, and the music is listenable and transports you to both the Amazon and into the souls of the characters," Zambello said. "And its two acts last about an hour each, so amid COVID you don't have to be there too long."
Now the Lyric has previously staged the two mariachi operas Cruzar la Cara de la Luna and El Pasado Nunca Se Termina by the late composer Jose (Pepe) Martínez as part of its Lyric Unlimited initiative. But technically Florencia en el Amazonas marks the company's first mainstage opera performed in Spanish.
"Florencia has been staged at many regional companies, but to come to a major city and one of the biggest opera companies in America is an honor," Zambello said. "It's a wonderful statement to the community that the Lyric is presenting a piece in Spanish, based on the works of one of the world's most important writers and with a Mexican composer. It has an incredible pedigree."
Florencia en el Amazonas receives five performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Nov. 18 and 26, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21 and 28. Sung in Spanish with projected English translations. Proof of vaccination with government ID required for entry. Tickets are $39 to $319. Call 312-827-5600 or visit lyricopera.org .