Sunday, May 16, 2010

From Rehearsals

Well, it's been a long time since I last blogged: I guess I've been kinda busy!

I flew down to Fort Worth on Thursday April 29 and plunged right into rehearsing that very evening. After three days of purely musical rehearsals — the singers and chorus having learned their parts — the staging rehearsals were set to start on the Monday. On the Friday evening I heard the chorus for the first time, 32 singers, and it was my first overwhelming thrill: to hear that mass of trained big voices singing the music was spine-tingling. And then on Sunday was the first (of three) orchestra "reads" (as the rehearsals are called) with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. This was my second overwhelming thrill: to hear that fantastic ensemble just read for the first time all those parts of the score I had never heard except in my imagination was — indescribable. And it'll only get better as they learn the music and bring all their beautiful musicality to bear on the score. When I finally hear the orchestra, with the chorus, and dancers, AND the soloists — and in the theater, with the sets and lights and costumes and action.... I'd better be sitting down!

Oh — just because I have not singled out the soloists yet does not mean they are taken for granted: these magnificent singers were all known to me (except for one — who arrived ill so I wasn't able to hear her sing out for another week!) and are all superb singers AND actors!

Every evening we all receive an e-mail with our marching orders for the next day. The festival is mounting three productions — two simultaneously and one (BNF) also simultaneously but a week later — so each production’s personnel knows who is called to rehearse which scene at which time and where. The place is the Fort Worth convention hall, and the room is enormous and is set up with most of the set furniture and other pieces and props, although the main set won’t be seen until it’s built and brought into the hall. It’s a rather huge “shell” but I won’t give it away except to say that it — sets the tone.... And there will be lots of projections too....

So a typical rehearsal day might be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a lunch break, or 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. with a dinner break, or sometimes from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with lunch and dinner breaks! And occasionally I’m whisked off to do some promo work, at a local public TV station in Dallas, or for a local paper or magazine. I pitched the opera to a convention of music critics! And there’s a public event this week with me and a couple of the singers.

The dancers had their first rehearsal; the supers (that’s the “supernumeraries”) will come in soon. Every rehearsal has, besides the singers — and their “covers” or understudies — the music director, or his assistant, who taught the chorus their parts, and who covers for Joe Illick, the conductor, who is also leading the Don Giovanni — the stage director, David Gately, and his assistant; the stage manager and his two assistants (who give stage left and stage right cues); and occasionally guest observers. Oh and of course, the accompanist, Chris Devlin, who has to negotiate a merciless and sometimes unplayable score — just because orchestral music sometimes doesn’t translate well onto the keyboard — for hours, following the conductor.

Sometimes in will waft Darren Woods, who runs the company and loves to attend the rehearsals whenever he has a break from everything else he’s doing. Darren was himself had a very successful opera singing career, so he knows and loves all about the opera house and rehearsals.


And today is the first “Sitzprobe,” a German word used to mean a rehearsal in which the singers “SIT” (that is, with none of the stage blocking) and sing their parts with the orchestra. We will have two such rehearsals. This is a very special moment, because the singers have only ever sung and rehearsed their roles with piano accompaniment, which most of the time doesn’t sound much like what the orchestra will be playing. I realize that sounds strange, but in truth, it is a bit like make-believe with the piano! And of course, the orchestra has yet to hear how what they’ve been rehearsing fits with those missing vocal lines THEY will hear for the first time! The only two people in that room that “know the score” going in will be the composer and the conductor.

And now it is less than two weeks to the opening night. I stepped into Bass Hall the other day for the first time this trip and — it is sensational! I hope I can stand the excitement.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Roots and Self-Invention

Next week, on the 29th, exactly one month before the opening night, I leave for Fort Worth to start rehearsals, and indeed if the flight gets in on time, I’ll barely have time to drop off my things before I set off to start rehearsing! I’m trying to keep perspective and enjoy all of this as much as I can and not let minutiae interfere with my enjoyment. After all, this is one of my dreams come true. I remembered yesterday that practically ever since I moved to Vermont, I’ve been telling friends “I’m working on this opera....” and every time I’d see one at a gathering, say a few months or a year later, they’d ask “So how is your opera coming along?” and I’d say something reporting on some micro steps I’d taken toward its realization... and so on year after year! I was truly afraid of becoming a broken record, or deeply suspect in my friends’ eyes, pursuing some kind of “impossible dream,” dreading the moment when it would be given up. SO: I was immensely pleased to be able to tell — perhaps surprise — my friends when I could say to them, “Yes, my opera is being produced! In TEXAS!! By a REAL opera company....!”

And truth to tell, I have been overwhelmed by the number of friends who are coming to Fort Worth to be there for the premiere. The outpouring of support and affection has been incredibly moving to me. Actually, it occurred to me it’s a little like attending my own funeral, given the number of people I know who’ll be there!! But it’ll be a New Orleans type funeral: with lots of parties and merriment and joy. But meanwhile — I’ll enjoy the hard work and concentration that will be demanded to put on the show. I’ll have to tell you about the folks at Fort Worth Opera soon: boy am I lucky!

Sidebar -- Roots and Self-invention

I stopped short in the last post of drawing this conclusion between identity and imagination: that you are whom you imagine yourself to be. We imagine ourselves into being. For the most part we are told who we are from birth, and we more or less unconsciously accept and internalize that identity, and in turn tell the world who we are in myriad ways, how we talk, how we dress, walk, eat, behave. But at the same time we also hold in great esteem those individuals who are “self-created.” This may be a reason why actors are simultaneously admired and reviled: they show us, with alarming clarity and utter believability — or is it deception? — that we can step into and out of “roles” or imagined identities. This protean quality has to be one of the reasons why pop stars such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga command such awe: they self-invent, sometimes seemingly at the drop of a hat, and we believe in them in each incarnation. In this way, art (and artifice) and politics mesh with imagination and identity.

And yet! This Sunday the New York Times published an essay by Richard Taruskin on Stravinsky’s musical, and personal, identity: how Russian was his music, was he himself? It’s a wonderful essay — I always love reading Taruskin; he never fails to be thought-provoking. At a certain point Stravinsky decided to stop identifying his music as “Russian” but yet he could never really be free of his roots, as none of us can be either, ultimately. Rooted, self-invented: so are we all, to varying degrees.

The question of rootedness is one that has vexed me: I was “uprooted” at age five and transplanted in new soil, but with the same caregivers and remnants of the birth culture. I have always felt hybrid, betwixt-and-between. My sense of identification with one group or another has always been tentative, and I have always been suspicious of strong group identification, feeling smothered rather than empowered. And what I saw of crowd behaviors simply disgusted me. Nevertheless I could never escape the desire to “belong” even as I have stood apart. From very early on I was made to feel “other,” and that feeling does not go away easily. Push and pull.

The sense of being an “outsider” is certainly something I share with Arenas: the exile always bears that feeling, especially when exiled in adulthood. And the Outsider or Exile is an enduring theme in art, and in opera. Indeed, Genesis describes man’s being in the cosmos as that of being alienated from paradise, exiled and banned from the Garden of Eden.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Update on production progress report: I have now gone through the Spanish translation, by Graciela Edith Lomonaco, that will be used for the projected supertitles. Translation is always a fascinating task. I think Gabriela has done a wonderful job. There was one word that stumped us: Cubans in Havana found themselves living in close quarters, many families now living where only one used to live, in great old colonial houses with very high ceilings. Reinaldo for a time hired himself out to build "lofts" (the word used in the English translation), or raised platforms with stairs or a ladder leading up, thereby creating an extra "room" which the Cubans called "barbacoas." But if we used that word to translate the English back into Spanish, most Spanish speakers in the audience wouldn't know what this modern Cuban slang meant! And it was difficult to find another word to describe this structure -- I told Gabriela, in any case, whatever it is, the audience will SEE it onstage, so let's not sweat it! We used the word for platform, tarima.

On the music front: just as in the days of old, the composer has transposed two pages to suit a singer -- in this case a half-step up, with some puntature, as they're called in Italian, rewriting a few notes up to suit his voice. Fortunately it was easy to do musically, as these pages are basically two strophes of a duet which are led into and out of, by chance, by means that were extremely easy to adjust. And truth to tell, I had always wondered whether I shouldn't've gone that route to begin with....

On the recording: the producer for Albany Records has plotted out the recording sessions and is working with the engineer on the question of setting up mics. The recording will take place in Bass Hall itself the week between performances, so the cast will have its brush-up and the orchestra will have that much more rehearsal for the second performance! Not that's killing two birds with one stone!

Politics and Art, and Identity, again

When I was starting out, my instincts were to shun politics, to keep
Art as aloof from Politics as possible: Art as a refuge from the Real
World, perhaps, or the idea of Art as a Better World. I think this may
have stemmed from my experience, as a 5-year-old boy, of the time when
my family fled Cuba, when I unconsciously imbibed the fear and dread,
the insecurity of an uncertain future as we left our country forever with
nothing but one suitcaseful of clothes and precious photos -- the rottenness of politics was plain to see. What good was it? Steer clear.

My youthful naïveté was gradually chipped away as I realized ever more
fully that Art is very much In The World, if not necessarily Of The
World. Art is a social act, between creator(s) and audience or
“public,” and therefore in a deeper sense “political” -- meaning of the
polis, the city or community.

Indeed opera, in its birth, was in part an explicitly political act: opera was
a means to project wealth and power to the spectators, themselves
nobility. Opera was a tool of the court; the musicalized theater of
mythic and classical stories of gods and mortals, in which the virtues
of the rulers are extolled and the resolution of humans’ travails
leads to contentment, celebrated the status quo. But these operas were not merely pageantry. They were exalting, a pinnacle of art and civilization, brought with the Europeans wherever they colonized the globe as the sign of the sublimest flowering of their culture. (The current issue of Opera News features opera houses from around the world: Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Vietnam.)

As the French Revolution approached, the lower classes — in the comic operas, themselves a development in operatic entertainment originating “from below” — began to be found increasingly in the operatic mix. Then
“revolutionary opera” sought to counter and challenge the status quo. Fidelio is among the first but certainly the greatest of the first wave. The Italian Risorgimento operas, most famously of Verdi, belong to this lineage. The American musical I think is the ultimate celebration of the common man in the tradition of lyric theater.

The subject of an opera (or play or novel) doesn’t have to be
explicitly political; the work’s esthetic assumptions will already
imply a kind of politics, a view of being-in-the-world. Style itself
can be viewed as political stance. So when I started to think about
working on Before Night Falls, I found myself dealing with a subject
that had “politics” written all over it! And yet my instinct was not
to play it up at all: just let it be there, let it arise naturally,
inevitably, as it comes. This is about people, individuals, acting out
their lives, making good or bad or fatal decisions, saying or not
saying certain things.

(Speaking of not saying: in Act Two, the character of Reinaldo remains
silent in two scenes. But the two silences are of profoundly different
qualities. The first, without giving away too much, is spurning, a cold, angry rejection; the second is about dread and holding one’s tongue. Silence and shouting are two more threads that weave through the story.)

And yet when politics invades art too overtly, the artistic value almost always is diminished. Art should reveal deeper truths, whereas politics is all about the here-and-now surface. The “surface” of an artwork may be set in the “here-and-now”, but underneath we look for more unduring verities.

This tension between art and politics, between the fleeting moment and duration, can be actually quite fruitful, and reminds me of the tension between the individual and the group, an individual’s truths and the group’s demands. This is one reason why I have resisted identity politics: I, as an individual, am required to follow the herd, something I have never felt comfortable with, and which demands that I submerge my identity, or selfhood, in the larger group’s.

An enormous irony in the fact, as I mentioned in an earlier post, that I and Arenas are both — on the surface — gay, artists and Cuban, is the counterfact that my experience of these three attributes is profoundly different from Arenas’s: there are many ways of living a life as a gay man (there no such thing as “a gay lifestyle”) and mine is nothing like his; his medium was the novel, poem and essay, and mine is music, moreover his esthetics and sensibility are arguably quite different from mine; and his experience as a Cuban could not be more unlike mine. He suffered, spiritually and physically, at the hands of the Castro regime and lived his life in that country until the age of 37; I left as a five-year-old and grew up middle class in the United States, a privileged life compared to his. So in important ways it was still as much an imaginative stretch for me to “identify” with Arenas as it might be to identify with any character I might create. Of course, the greatest dramatist of all time, Shakespeare, makes nonsense of the question whether he identified or not with the vast panoply of unforgettable and contradictory characters he created. I consider it a modern fallacy that creators have to create characters they “know.” This is just another diminishment of our capacity to imagine and empathize. The whole point, it seems to me, is to discover — as creators and as audiences — connections and sympathies that we never suspected existed.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Justice and Freedom — and Curry

“Justice does not prevail, life does.”

I read that sentence in an article — I have it cut out somewhere! — quoting the Finnish film-maker Pirjo Honkasalo, and I immediately thought of Before Night Falls: certainly in Reinaldo Arenas’s life it was never a matter of justice prevailing, except through his imaginative work. Indeed it was his life and his story, and stories, that prevailed over the harsh injustices he suffered. The idea that life is the force that ultimately prevails encapsulates, for me, that essential quality of Arenas that makes him so winning, attractive, singable. And yes, operatic!

And that life also embodied what is for me one of the most compelling themes in some of my favorite operas: the fate of individuals caught in the sweep of history, enmeshed in and struggling against the historical time and place and condition they are born into. These individuals used to be often high-born — in Don Carlos, Boris Godunov, Aida, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and others — but Reinaldo Arenas is a commoner, in fact quite “low born,” a guajiro from the Cuban countryside, who becomes a noted writer and runs right into the maw of history: Castro’s repressive regime demonizing and criminalizing homosexuals and dissident writers.

Arenas soon learned, even before the onset of the Cuban Revolution, what it was to desire escape: he longed to flee the tiny village he was born in, the house full of angry women; he longed to see the ocean, the wider world. Freedom would become the great project of his life: freedom to think his thoughts, to write, to protest, to move, to be who he was, to be a gay man, to be sexually extravagant, to be a thorn in our side.

I realize that I’ve laid out quite an array of “big ideas” to weave into an opera, like so many spices to flavor a curry! Memory, imagination, beauty, hope, muses, justice, freedom, and other ideas: escape, dictatorship, betrayals, suicide — but do not despair: this is no tract! I think of it as really one big poem, in words and music, where the themes, musical and verbal, weave fluidly through the story being told, and one needn’t, in fact, be aware of any of these “big ideas” to enjoy the opera or even “get” it. I tried at all times to create theatrically compelling scenes, to set transparent language, to write music that is always in the moment, and I further set myself the challenge of composing a few tunes. This may be (not entirely facetiously) the most daring aspect of BNF: an opera with a few actual tunes. Not just lyricism or “melodic writing,” but honest-to-goodness memorable tunes.

This, I assure you, is not easy (it never has been) but especially in modern works that strive for “seriousness,” either as operas or even as musicals. For reasons that have always seemed to me extremely fishy, tunefulness — except in the now revered old masterpieces — is considered to be facile, cheap, and (gasp, horrors!) popularizing. The thing, of course, or at least as I see it, is not to write facile, cheap or sentimental tunes. The thing is: to write a tune that’s just right for the moment on many levels, when it is appropriate, when there is a reason for a tune to arise there and then.

As I understand it, the reason we go to the opera, the reason we love musical theater, is to experience the feeling of being transported by great theater that is created by music and remarkable singing. Of all the elements necessary to create this experience — libretto, sets, lighting and so forth — the paramount components, the essential ones, are the voices and the instrumental accompaniment: the music. I know, I know, this is a composer speaking, and I’ve gotten into arguments over this. It’s not simply which comes “first,” la musica o le parole. Either can come first, but without the music, it’s a play, not an opera. It’s words and music. As Isolde says to Tristan: without that little word “und” there’d be no — well, no Tristan und Isolde!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Muses, Beauty, and Hope

The Muses

When I was dreaming up the dramatis personae for Before Night Falls I realized there were no major roles for female voices (I decided the soundworld of the countertenor was not for this particular work) and I did not feel that BNF was like Billy Budd or From the House of the Dead a work depicting an almost exclusively male milieu — aboard a naval battleship or in a prison. BNF takes place in the wider (if oppressed) world. Reinaldo’s mother was an obvious choice although she is not a character that remains central to the story beyond his childhood days. But it occurred to me that I could introduce two magical creatures, in the guise of Muses, a soprano and a mezzo, to accompany Reinaldo throughout his journey and to lend the story-telling that dimension of fanciful imagination which is a hallmark of Arenas’s style. Further, toward the very end of the memoir he addresses the Moon, which immediately suggested it as one of the Muses; then I thought of the Sea as being the perfect companion Muse: that other presence that filled so large a part of Arenas’s consciousness. Both are traditionally personified as female deities and share a phasic nature, waxing and waning, rising and ebbing, like fate or fortune, ever-changing and eternally so.

Of course, the challenge of how to actually stage or portray The Sea and The Moon onstage is one I left to the director.... Musically they certainly inhabit their own world, and dramatically they weave in and out of the story in differing guises. The Sea Muse is sung by the mezzo, who also plays Reinaldo’s mother in the childhood scene. The two play a “mysterious couple” who smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba; they appear at crucial moments to inspire him, either in his creative process or in moments of crisis, as when he is about to board the boat to get out of Cuba.

In my last blog post I wrote about memory and imagination: the Muses are famously the creator’s inspirers, invoked at the start of a long imaginative journey, to guide and light the way. The nine Muses were moreover the daughters of Zeus by Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory: their offspring are the guardians of arts traditionally transmitted down generations in a culture — comedy, tragedy, history, music, dance, poetry (lyric, choral and epic), and — astrology: The collective memory and wisdom of a people, their story.

Beauty and Hope

In the middle of the memoir Arenas has a remarkable passage on beauty and its powers, particularly against repressive political regimes. The idea is that tyranny is inimical to beauty, and therefore desires to suppress it, because beauty, and the acts of artistic imagination, challenges its audience to imagine other possible ways of being — reminds us that the present reality is not the only possible reality, and that therefore change, for the better, can be brought about by human agency — and gives one hope.

I decided to assign this passage to the character of Arenas’s literary mentor, Ovidio, who plays a surrogate father-role for Reinaldo, who never knew his father. And whereas Ovidio exhorts Rey to ponder the power of Beauty, his mother had urged him, upon leaving his childhood village and embarking on adulthood, to ponder the power of Hope, which is, like the imagination, future-oriented. It also turned out that these two characters sing the only big aria set-pieces in the operas besides the several that Reinaldo sings.

Next time: how all these abstractions tie back to the Real World, or Reinaldo, the opera, music and pleasure.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Memory and imagination

I found these two quotes once side by side and I kept them because they bear directly on themes from Before Night Falls:

"Although with regard to the past, when this is reported correctly, what is brought out from memory is not the events themselves (these are already past) but words conceived from the images of those events, which, in passing through the senses, have left as it were their footprints stamped upon the mind. My boyhood, for instance, which no longer exists, exists in time past, which no longer exists. But when I recollect the image of my boyhood and tell others about it, I am looking at this image in time present, because it still exists in time present." — St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 398

"Memory is the same as imagination." — Giambattista Vico, New Science, 1725

Memory and imagination are central themes of the opera. Arenas, the poet and memoirist, is writing to preserve the memory of what happened to him and others in Cuba, but by his own admission, he is writing his memoir as a form of vengeance against his tormentors — by recording “the truth,” or what Augustine calls “the past, when this is reported correctly.” And yet, as both Augustine and Vico remind us, memory is a form of imagination. The way we report the past is the way we imagine it, individually and collectively. That is not to say we may falsify it, but we must remain aware that there is a telling involved.

This dedication to the truth is not the only constraint the past places on an artist. The artist is also powerfully aware of his predecessors, the past of his own art forms, the history of the culture, all that’s been done before. Artists build on that past and also take a sledgehammer to it, if not a chisel. But whatever his stance toward it, the past must be reckoned with.

Yet the future is also an act of the imagination: of possibilities that are yet to be realized, stemming from the individual, and collective, imagination. We “write” our future: we imagine it into being. So both the past and the future are acts of the imagination, although different in kind. The past really has happened: the future not so.

Memory makes the artist the most unfree of men; imagination the freest.

Imagination, therefore, can be a tool against repression and tyranny: we can imagine a better world, which we can work toward and build. The artist perpetually reminds us of this; hence the frequent antagonism between artsists and governments. We are always free to use our imagination, and imagination can make us free — and lead to action. Reinaldo was always seeking freedom, from his tiny childhood village, from Cuba’s repressions, and he acted to liberate himself from these “prisons,” but in the end an untimely death, from AIDS in 1990, at age 47, threatened to be his ultimate unfreedom. Even then, he sought to free himself from the horrible debilitations and humiliations of the the ravages of AIDS by taking action: by taking his life at a time of his own choosing, “freeing” himself from the prison of a hopeless situation, facing the truth head on.

Hope, and beauty, are two more themes important to the opera that tie in to memory and imagination, and I will take them up next time. Also, the two Muses, the Sea and the Moon....

Thursday, March 18, 2010



So now it’s wait, wait, wait.... But I’m enjoying this time, all anticipation. The orchestra parts were churned out by the copyist (in Ohio) from September to early March; I met with David Gately up in Montreal where he was directing a show and in Seattle where he lives, getting to know each other better. I’ve see Darren Woods up at the Seagle, which is just an hour from my house (and the wonderful shows the young singers put on there), and also in New York City. I even got to meet the set designer, Riccardo Hernandez, who lives in New Haven CT with his family, while I was at a Yale reunion. Riccardo is Cuban too, but his family left Cuba and he grew up in Buenos Aires (his mother is Argentinian); he went to the Yale School of Drama to study set design — specifically opera design, with Ming Cho Lee! I loved hearing Riccardo’s story of his father playing records of great singers and quizzing his son on them. (And thinking: we forget there are hetero opera queens too!)

Need I tell you I can’t wait to see what the designs look like? Well, I did get to see a video of the production deisgn meeting held in D.C. last August, but horribile dictu, the sound went haywire so I couldn’t hear what they were discussing for the entire middle hour of the meeting!! I could see what the set was meant to look like from Riccardo’s mock-up, and learned there’s a little law or two of physics that will make the construction of it, shall we say, challenging. It involves a kind of curve in the backdrop. The set is quite abstract, with panels flying in for projections suggesting place.

Reminds me of the anticipation waiting to see what the poster design would look like. The poster design was one of the first things that had to be pinned down, as it would be the main promotional image for the production. I’d gotten a call from Diane, the promo person at FWO, who wanted me to take a look at some artwork — I was on a train, and I was able to sneak a look on my iPhone, which was for me at the time a revolutionary idea! — and I liked the images I saw. The artist was Jerrel Sustaita, a local artist in Fort Worth. I was asked for my ideas, and I spoke with Jerrel. Still, you never know, until you actually see something.... And finally when I did get to see the poster, I was very happy with it: the colors were just right! And then, the season brochure, unveiled at this year’s festival: there is was, big as life: Don Giovanni, L’Elisir D’Amore (The Elixir of Love), and Before Night Falls. As a friend of mine put it, I’m in pretty good company! And Don Giovanni was THE opera that got me started, making me fall in love with the artform. That is a lovely, unintended symmetry.

I’ve worked on other musical projects in the meantime; one project is a version of the score of BNF for a smaller instrumental ensemble, for smaller opera companies. This has been a fairly common practice lately. I’m reworking the score for a group of 20 players. There may be a couple of bites from opera companies, and one lives in hopes....

From the fall of 2009 on, things began to accelerate, slowly. In September FWO kicked off its new season with a Gala dinner fund raiser — the theme this year was “A Night in Havana”! That was quite a show, for which FWO flew me down. All the stops were pulled: from the music greeting you as you came in, with cigar rollers and vendors, mojitos, and the female dancer in the central platform dressed up with an enormous peacock “tail” — to the food, the floor show, and the assemblage all in their finest gowns and suits.

So this brings us more or less up to the moment: it’s about ten weeks before the premiere; in six weeks I will be going down to Fort Worth to begin rehearsals. Next installment I will write about the mini-tour I just finished with Yale musicians.