The cast of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ which makes its world premiere at The Dallas Opera. (Photos by Kyle Flubacker)

COVID couldn’t stop The Dallas Opera from the world premiere of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer

On Friday, The Dallas Opera will debut a world premiere opera at the Winspear Opera House. Originally commissioned for the 2020/21 season, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly fell through due to the pandemic. However, that may have been a blessing in disguise for librettist Gene Scheer.

“Just by chance with COVID, we had more time to review and make adjustments accordingly,” he said.

Scheer and composer Joby Talbot have teamed up again to bring a brand new show to The Dallas Opera (TDO). The two created and premiered the opera Everest at TDO in 2015. Diving Bell will be TDO’s seventh mainstage world premiere.

Having the time to fine-tune the show gave the duo the chance to make it just right for Friday’s opening.

“We had a workshop and with that, we extended an aria and rewrote the ending,” he said. “Joby also made a lot of changes to the orchestrations. In large measure, the piece was done, but the opportunity to tweak felt significant.”

Directed by Leonard Foglia, the opera is based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir of the same title. A former editor for Elle, Bauby suffered a seizure in 1995 that left him in a locked-in syndrome state where he was paralyzed but his mind was at full capacity. He wrote the book by simply blinking his left eye which is all he could control and his therapist Sandrine created a system to translate. He unlocks his memories through the painstaking process into the renowned book which was also made into a movie.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the remarkable true story of a man whose determination leads to one of the most poignant memoirs ever written,” TDO Kern Wildenthal General Director and CEO Ian Derrer. “We are honored to bring this story to our stage for the first time anywhere, as well as to audiences around the globe with our livestream.”

Grammy-winning baritone Lucas Meacham starts as Bauby. The cast includes Sasha Cooke, Richard Croft, Ava Jafari and Andriana Chuchman with Deanna Breiwick, Kevin Burdette, Andrew Bidlack, Martin Luther Clark, Jocelyn Hansen and Austin Howarth.

Along with Foglia as director, the creative team includes set and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, costumes by David Woolard and lighting by Russell Champa.

Scheer finds a certain parallel with this story to the current pandemic which makes the opera’s delay even more poignant.

“I think it will resonate for a lot of people dealing with the shock of the pandemic. His situation was different but being health related, I think the public is much more attuned to that,” Scheer said. “I’m excited to premiere this. I think it’s such a beautiful piece in such a beautiful space.”

Timing is everything in some ways.

Scheer added that Diving Bell wasn’t intended in such a way but the pandemic caused the population to deal with the challenge en masse in a way that Bauby had to contend with his own obstacles.

Scheer’s research included multiple visits to Paris and meeting with Bauby’s former partner Sylvie and his children. With that, he was able to add extra layers to Bauby’s story that wasn’t in his book.

“I spent more than 30 hours with the family interviewing them. I went with Sylvie and his daughter Celeste by train to the hospital where he died,” Scheer said. “I saw his room where you could see the beach from its terrace and all these places and it was all rather moving.”

Bauby’s family will be in attendance at Friday night’s premiere.

“Seeing yourself onstage is a strange thing for anyone,” Scheer said. “But the family has been very supportive.”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens Friday, Nov. 3 and runs through Nov. 11. Livestream available Nov. 11. For more information and tickets, click here