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.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Maiden Trip to Texas

I've been in California the last few days on the mini-tour of BNF for Yale alumni with Yale School of Music students (Chrystal Williams, Eric Barry and Vince Vincent). The events went very well: curiously, the three rooms we played in could not have been more dissimilar. The space at NYU was a tiny black-box, filled to the brim with people, the singers standing three feet in front of the first row, with me at a spinet; the rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. was huge, fluorescent-lit, efficient but charm-free, with the audience having lots of room; and the University Club in S.F. put us in a beautiful, elegant room with a breathtaking view of the city. It was fun mixing with the three crowds, too.

Then I returned to L.A. to spend the weekend. I got to hear the L.A. Philharmonic in Disney Hall, which I think is one of the most thrilling architectural experiences I have had: the outside of the building, the lobbies and the auditorium are all full of wonder, detail, excitement. The sound was clean and bright. I liked it so much I'm going back to catch the organ recital today! (The program, by the way, featured a 1999 work by Qigang Chen, Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto, in a powerful and fresh interpretation by Joyce Yang, and "Ein Heldenleben," which — perhaps due to jetlag? — seemed to me, except for bits here and there, a terrific self-indulgent bore. Oh well....)

The next day I had another architectural and artistic high visiting the Getty Museum for the first time: indescribably uplifting in every way. I had no idea what I was in for. The interplay of outdoors and indoors, nature and art, curved and straight lines, colors, textures, the views! — I didn't want to leave! Just these two complexes are worth a trip to L.A. (And taking buses has been an adventure — you know, they work! — and a cheap way to sight-see. Having an iPhone to tell me where I was also helped....)

So on with the story:


I flew to Fort Worth last spring to catch FWO’s 2009 season: Cenerentola (Cinderella), Carmen, and Dead Man Walking. I had heard and read about Fort Worth’s museums, and was eager to see them; I got to the Kimbell and the Modern and they were indeed top-notch, not only for their collections but architecturally as well (and I had a great lunch at the Modern looking out on its pool). The downtown area was very cute, but deserted — I later learned I had arrived on the very day that the dread of the swine flu virus had hit its peak and the FW school system was shut down — the only one in the country to do so. Poor Darren, the general director, was fending off calls asking if the opera was going to go on or not. You bet it was!

Bass Hall, which opened as recently as 1998, was familiar to me from photos: unique and is quite unforgettable once you’ve seen it. In person it was every bit as impressive as I guessed it would be. Some have called it the higher neo-deco kitsch, but frankly we could use more of it.... Inside, the lobby was very pleasant to be in, light and all marble; and the auditorium is wonderful, not only to look at but acoustically. The theater is state-of-the-art and you can do just about anything you’d like in it in terms of theatrical production.

The first music I heard in the hall were the opening soft staccato chords of the overture to Rossini’s Cenerentola — not anything that will blow your socks off. And yet I was immediately impressed by the orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, playing in the pit. These chords, so exposed, bare and demure, sounded beguiling, rounded, telling. This superb ensemble, I thought, is going to be playing my score! Of course, I’ve had other orchestras play my music, but it is always a thrill, and this will be on an entirely larger scale. I couldn’t be in better hands!

I also met many — many! — nice folks down there who either work for the opera, are on the board, or donors, or simply opera lovers. The most amazing coincidence was finally meeting one lovely Cuban woman who had been a student of Dolores Koch back in Cuba and remained a life-long friend of hers. Lolita had told me about her: she has lived in Fort Worth for many years, married to a retired Texan doctor, and is on the board of the opera. This delightful couple is another reason I look forward to returning to Fort Worth.


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Seagle Performance

Tomorrow begins our mini-tour of Yale alumni events: I'm accompanying three singers from the Yale School of Music performing four arias, tomorrow at NYU's Tisch center, Wednesday in Los Angeles hosted by the LA Opera in a rehearsal room in the Chandler Pavilion, and Thursday in San Francisco at the University Club. Should be fun!

And yesterday I attended for the first time a Met Auditions semifinal; the finals, with orchestra, are next weekend. It was exhausting, but really no longer than, say, Meistersinger.... 25 singers, 2 arias each (piano accompaniment) — you do the math! It's very exciting to listen to all this young vocal talent, and as always everyone in the audience is somewhat mystified that the judges did not choose one or two obvious winners. Such are competitions.


The Seagle Music Colony is in Schroon Lake, NY. When you first visit the town you notice it is full of Christian camps. Seagle is not that. It is attended by young singers who have auditioned for the privilege of taking part in 6 or so productions fully staged in a converted barn seating 175. It has a unique and delightful atmosphere, as can only be created by so much concentrated youthful energy. One of Darren Woods’ brilliant ideas was to add a “post season” after the production and support staff go home, inviting a few of the singers to remain and bringing in a few “veterans” for workshops of operas in progress, with the composer in attendance.

The summer Before Night Falls was done in workshop there were a total of about 14-16 singers learning two full new operas and one act of another, the two complete ones off-book and fully blocked. And most were in at least two if not all three shows. They would always be rehearsing one show or another; and between sessions they’d be signed up to help the kitchen set up or clean up. All without a hint of hysteria.

Toward the end a gaggle of visitors descended upon the colony; these were the folks who work at Fort Worth Opera coming up to watch the workshop performances (and incidentally to escape the high Texan summer). The nice PR person (Diane) was there and a photographer (Ellen) and suddenly on the afternoon before the performance I found myself in the middle of a photo shoot! Not a minute of fading summer sunlight to waste! Ellen was terrific, Diane tugging at my jacket sleeves to straighten out my shirt.... and these pictures turned out so well I’ve been using them on my website and in publicity materials too.

The performances were open to the public, and the houses were full. A few opera “worthies” even showed up. By this time in my career I have mastered what I think of as “performance Zen” — I know there isn’t a damn thing I can do, and it’s all in the performers’ hands. What I could do I’ve done in rehearsal, and now it’s in the hands of the gods. And I felt very confident in my performers, as it happened, which is a very Good Thing. Not just Wes, but the music director, the pianists, the stage hands, the entire ensemble — all inspired my confidence. Of course I knew some things would go wrong, but that’s in the nature of things.

As it turned out there were no major problems — only the very end was musically off, which annoyed only me (the composer, of course!) since it seems that everyone else found it unobjectionable. The work got from the audience what I would call an in-your-dreams kind of reception, as did Wes, who did a truly sensational job. The crowd went wild for him, and he was visibly moved. He is a very special person, and his is one career I can’t wait to see take off.

Most moving for me was one musician friend's reaction; he had been one of the readers of the libretto when I was shopping it around. He came up to me and with real emotion asked me to forgive him for not “getting it” when he had read the libretto! My goodness! He wasn’t by any means the only one who didn’t “get it,” and I don’t blame any of them, because an opera is not easy to imagine from just the libretto, and sometimes even from the piano-vocal. And anyway, I was trying to do things in this opera that are a little unusual and risky. I had had a real struggle getting my work “out there” and getting people to see and hear what I was seeing and hearing, and finally, finally, I had achieved it!

I had originally no hope of a production any sooner than 2012, or earliest 2011 — planning opera seasons takes time. Darren was quite excited and pleased and said “It’s stunning! We have to put this on!” He slated it tentatively for 2011. Not too long thereafter I got word that the company decided to move it up to 2010!! Amazing! It would be fifteen years from the time I signed the agreement with the Arenas Estate to the premiere. In Texas, where I’d never yet been!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Final Push

Here I am in the guest suite of Branford College at Yale, having worked yesterday with the three young singers from the School of Music on the arias we will be performing on our mini-tour. What a place my alma mater is: so beautiful, so full of talent, so inspiring. It was a pleasure working with these singers, so well prepared, enthusiastic, eager, talented. — And then, after I finished working with them, I went to meet friends at a restaurant I've always wanted to try, having heard so much about it: Ibiza. It was sensational! This isn't a food blog so I wont digress, but I had to mention it!


I was networking like mad, asking friends for advice; meeting with Marc
Scorca, the brilliant leader of Opera America, the trade organization for
all the opera companies in the U.S. and Canada; sending the opera to
directors of opera companies; meeting with the directors of opera companies such as Florida Grand
Opera — which always seemed to be everyone’s “big duh” go-to company, except
that I also realized it was not so very obvious.....(And in fact it is ideal for the opera not to be opening in Miami, where an opera about a Cuban by a Cuban could be taken for a kind of "affirmative action" programming, and its success might be written off as parochial. Of course, I do want BNF to be produced in Miami one day, but because I want it to be a popular as well as an artistic success.)

I ultimately got a consultant on board whom I knew personally and who was well known and trusted by
very many in the opera world. If this person said, take a listen to this,
my work had a much better chance of being listened to than if I had just
sent it “cold.” And still I only had a few tepid bites.

Darren Woods and Joseph Illick — whom I had met many years before when Joe
was an assistant at then Greater Miami Opera, and later as Artistic
Director of the Lake George Opera Festival (where he programmed
“Tobermory”) — were the team leading Forth Worth Opera and had expressed some interest. They met with
me over breakfast one morning in Manhattan, before a full day of auditions
and fund-raising. They set before me a very simple task: tell us, describe
to us, what the audience sees from the beginning to the end of the opera.
Wow! It took me a little while to realize what I was supposed to do — but
I warmed to the task and I could see that by the end that they were very
interested. But still.... they would need to do the opera in workshop. I
said the only thing that would make sense at this point is to run the
opera from beginning to end, and they agreed, but that would mean waiting
one more year til there was a slot open at the Seagle Music Colony in
upstate New York (which Darren also ran).

Next coup: out of the blue, a friend informed me that their family had
just set up a foundation and wished to offer $100,000 toward production of
my opera. WOW!!! Nothing like that had ever happened to me before: that
was dreaming wild! When I notified Darren, he agreed to use part of those
funds to move up the complete workshop, shaving a year off the wait. And
Darren said – “I know who I want to direct the show. Oh, and I have just
the singer for the role of Reinaldo....”

In the summer of 2008, the Seagle Music Colony presented the complete
Before Night Falls, with two pianos, minimal sets, costumes and lighting,
no make-up — but off-book and fully blocked. David Gately was the
director. Wes Mason sang the lead role. Let me tell you about these two.

David was a dream to work with. He clearly was enjoying himself in this
task — admittedly, it’s not every day that a director gets to direct a brand new work. He had set out to observe exactly what I had written in order to see what
worked and what didn’t. I’ll never forget one moment when he stopped a
singer he was directing and said to her, “That’s a dash over the note, not
an accent.” Stunned, I had to peek in the score, and indeed that’s what I had
written! What a treat to have a director who honored the score — the score!! — in his directing. After he’d done staging the opera we had a talk
about things to consider changing, and I was happy to do this, and pleased
that there was really very little to change, a word here and there, cutting a
measure in two or three places, and that was it. (Of course David isn't the only director who honors the score, but one rarely hears about it, but rather the opposite, where it seems a point of honor to go against or ignore musical and librettistic directions. I dreaded having to work with such a director, needless to say....)

Baritone Wes Mason was still an undergraduate. I had to trust
Darren’s judgment, but I must admit to having some reservations. The role
of Reinaldo is huge, a “big sing,” as they say.  But I got e-mails and
calls from Wes that made me realize this was a very serious young man who
was doing all kinds of research into Arenas and Cuba, putting his all into this role, which he took to with uncanny immediacy. Watching him concentrate and cope with everything that was being thrown at him — memorizing this enormous role, blocking, not to mention other roles he’d had to sing that summer at Seagle! This young man is the complete package: gifted, attarctive, charming, hard-working, humble.— I knew by performance night that Wes would be a hit.

So finally, we get to see the whole of BNF, on its legs.....

Sunday, February 28, 2010

First Legs

On Wednesday I'll be rehearsing in New Haven with the singers from the Yale School of Music who will be with me on the mini-tour March 9-10-11 (New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco) arranged by the Association of Yale Alumni. We'll be performing 4 arias from Before Night Falls, and I'll be talking about the opera; the General Director of Fort Worth Opera, Darren Woods, will join us for the event in L.A. It promises to be a very exciting three days!

And if you care to hear about one of the thousand unnatural shocks that opera scores are heir to: late on Friday afternoon I stopped by the Printer at the College to see how the big job, copying and binding the orchestral score — 355 pages, 11x17 — was coming along; I was told I could take home the single-sided masters, as the copies were done and ready to be bound on Monday morning. The office had run off the masters from the pdf files I gave them (recall: my printer at home is on the fritz!). Having learned the hard way, I double-checked the pages on Saturday morning, on a sudden inspiration, to make sure they were all there and in order.... and indeed I found that p. 34-58 were UPSIDE DOWN!! I had already seen the four scores in the office, stacked and ready to be bound, so I frantically left messages on two phones at the office on Saturday so that Monday morning they might catch this snafu. I called this morning again to make sure — now I can only hope it's all going to be OK.... because I HAVE to send the scores off to Fort Worth today!!

Back to our backstory:


One day, in 2002 or 2003, I ran into an old opera friend in New York City and told him about my project. Without telling me he ran around the corner to the Barnes and Noble and
bought himself a copy of the memoir and read it — and next day told me he LOVED the book but that he couldn’t imagine HOW it could be an opera. I showed him my treatment and he came back to me saying, you know what, this could make a great opera! After all I'd been through, that felt very vindicating, let me tell you. He suggested that I get in touch with American Opera Projects, based in Brooklyn, to workshop the opera. I thought this would be
an excellent way to see the work “on legs,” as they say, and to let it be
known, out there in the opera world, that it existed, and to work out any kinks.

AOP presented a piano reading of the first 2/3 of Act One in 2004, and the
second 2/3 of Act One in 2005 in Manhattan, which the New York Times
reviewed, most unusually, for an unstaged piano partial reading of
a work in progress.... and a very nice review it was. Unbeknownst to me,
David Gately was in the audience at the first reading, and he advised
Darren Woods this might be a work to keep an eye on. But at that time both
those gentlemen were quite unknown to me.

Funding, however, ran out, and AOP dropped BNF. Mark Shapiro, who had been
music director for the first reading, and an old college classmate of mine
from Yale, had an idea: why don’t I prepare a suite, a cantata, of music
from the opera for his chorus in New Jersey to perform, with orchestra?
What a great idea! He cast five soloists, including Met veteran Barbaba
Dever as the Sea and Angela Meade as the Moon; Meade would win the Met
Auditions the week after the premiere of the cantata! I called the resulting suite
“Stronger Than Darkness.” One great thing about this performance was that I then had a tape to show what the orchestration sounded like — and
happily, the Monmouth Civic Chorus won a programming award for having
premiered a new work.

But still, there I was, with one act of the opera read, and no interest.

The other great coup came in 2006 when I received a call from Allison Voth
at Boston University. BU’s Opera Institute had produced my one-act “Tobermory” a few years before as part of their fall Fringe Festival, and they wanted to know if
I had anything about an hour long, and, oh, by the way, the theme of the
festival this year is “Freedom.” I said, well, would you consider
presenting the 55-minute Act Two of my opera Before Night Falls? And it was a deal! I
suggested they hire the stage director Beth Greenberg, who had been a
great champion of BNF and a great friend. Beth worked stage magic with minimal means, in a black box. With a young ensemble of five
instrumentalists, with William Lumpkin conducting, and a cast ranging from undergraduates to Master’s
candidates, they put on four performances, double cast. Now I could offer
a recording of the entire opera from three different readings, and also
excerpts with orchestra.

But that was still not enough to get movement toward a full production of the opera....

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Theater of the Imagination

So finally, having finished the 4th Horn part, the parts are all proofread: a milestone! The copyist got a mild flu the last week, creating a small delay; my printer flashed "Fatal error" which is never heart-warming. The manufacturer sent me the links to update the firmware (huh?) but Mother Nature meanwhile sent us 24 inches of what was supposed to be maybe 6 inches, and a 13 hour power outage, just on the day that I had planned to finalize the score. Not the happiest day. But here I am back with electricity, without which, we should all remember, we'd be practically back in the stone age, or at least a century or two or three ago — so let us be thankful.


From the start I wanted to create an opera that could be staged in
a number of different ways, according to the imaginative inspiration
of the creative production team. I did not envision big elaborate sets,
but the suggestive use of theatrical magic. The story is very much of a
particular place and time, but the themes are entirely and profoundly human and

The big “through line” that I lacked on first reading of the memoir I found to be
Reinaldo’s perpetual, perhaps unconscious, need to escape, be it as a
young man from his little village, the constraints of society and
politics, later from prison and eventually from Cuba itself. Even once
“free” in the “free world” he found new shackles needing to be thrown off,
but it was to the “prison” of AIDS that he finally succumbed. So an escape
narrative seemed to be the model on which to hang the action; the theme a
grand one, so proper to opera: the quest for freedom.

The other big themes that seemed to recur naturally and inevitably were
that of “beauty” and “memory.” The artist and his art stand in opposition
to the tyrant and repression. The story-teller and his Muse keep stories
against forgetting. The idea of the Muse offered itself; the daughters of
Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory, were the nine Muses of the
several arts, including History. The cast for the opera seemed to be made
up entirely of men, and I wanted to have the feminine represented. Rey’s
mother was an obvious choice, but she does not play a role throughout the
story. The idea of having two Muses seemed very appealing, as it also
allowed the story telling to take on a magical quality entirely consonant
with Arenas’s style. At the end of his memoir Rey addresses the Moon, and
I took that hint; for the other, I realized that the Sea was a character
of the utmost importance in the story — and in Rey’s imaginative world.
Both are cyclical phenomena and traditionally feminine.

Thus a whole nexus of imagery and themes began to weave themselves
throughout, tying together the strands of language and action. I feel in a
way that the libretto is in a way an “analysis” or “reading” of the
memoir, teasing out the many threads and weaving a new garment from the
gorgeous materials.

I showed then the first draft of the libretto to about ten trusted and
knowledgeable colleagues and got all sorts of good feedback and
suggestions, many of which I incorporated. Finally, Jack, with his fine-tooth comb went through it with me and pronounced it — not bad. High praise from Jack....

That process took me to 2003, when I started to compose the music December of that year at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs. That winter, Yaddo was just finishing some renovations, which meant I had a magnificent room, but without the piano that was meant to be there. So I was eventually placed into different rooms — in one it was so cold I could see my breath! So I was given their recital hall to work in: what an amazing experience! Yes, it was cold (it was then that I learned to drink black coffee from the thermos, just to keep warm, huddled next to the one radiator that was working!) but I got the concert Steinway to work on, and that magnificent room to inspire me.

The composition took about two years, and then the orchestration about another year. Meanwhile, I had to get the work “out there,” somehow, to see if anyone might be interested. I had always had misgivings about the practicality of writing
an opera on spec with a gay protagonist set in Castro’s Cuba. Opera
companies are  notoriously — and understandably — conservative and
jittery, and this might be asking far too much, and adding to that, a work
by a relative unknown — with full orchestra, chorus and dancers! I was, I admit it, crazy. But it could be SO GOOD, I kept telling myself.....

Monday, February 22, 2010

Further Libretto Follies


I decided to ask Dolores Koch, or Lolita, as she insisted her friends call
her, to help me with the libretto. She had no experience writing
either for the stage or heaven forbid a libretto, but she attended and
enjoyed the opera — she lived right behind Lincoln Center — and most
importantly, I felt: she had known Arenas personally and as the translator knew his work inside out. I said to her: I had already worked out the dramatic
structure of the libretto, which is at least half the battle, and all she had
to do was feed me text she felt appropriate for the scenes I had laid out,
occasionally filling in with a passage here or there from a poem of
Reinaldo’s. My task would be then to turn this into singable theater. I had been reading other works by Arenas to get a better feel for his vision, and found he had two distinct voices, as I saw it: the high modern, difficult “artwork” voice, and the more immediate, accessible raconteur’s — the voice in Before Night Falls. In all cases his imagination was utterly free and delightful.

But in the meantime, something else happened. The magnificent duo of baritone Sanford Sylvan and pianist David Breitman were preparing my big song cycle, The Glass Hammer, for performances in 2000, and Sanford put me in the way of an opera project that was already underway, just in need of a composer. I learned that the original composer had withdrawn, a detail I forgot until later. There were
already one or two opera companies seriously interested in this project, which had been originated by the librettist. I liked the project, so I set aside BNF, since this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and besides, BNF was entirely speculative. Perhaps if this other project was successful, it might even open the door for BNF....

To make a long story short, within about a year and a half the project came to nothing. But I had learned a lot in that experience, and was also exposed to important opera people, got my name a little more “out there,” and returned to BNF with redoubled determination to write my own libretto — with Lolita’s help.

Meanwhile in 2000 the film adaptation by Julian Schnabel starring Javier Bardem in an outstanding performance had already come out! I was eager to see how Schnabel had adapted the material for the medium of film, and saw that he had in fact chosen many of the same passages as I had for treatment, and invented a few things for the film — a good idea, I think. But the film, being a medium still too caught up in “realism,” failed to capture something about Arenas’s work. I decided not to see the film again until I was finished lest it influence me.

I showed Jack Beeson my new treatment and he was less scathing. It was
taking shape. Lolita came up with a brilliant name for a composite
character. I wanted to capture, for dramatic purposes, in one
character, certain themes so prevalent in the memoir: the mentors (Reinaldo’s
“great writer” models), the betrayals, and the suicides. No one person ever
personified all these three themes, so it would be a delicate matter
to give this fictional person a name, lest it offend the memory of a
historical and famous writer who neither betrayed Reinaldo nor
committed suicide. I had loved the names Lezama Lima and Virgilio [Piñera], but it would be too deeply wrong to use the names of Rey’s dearest mentors and
honorable artists who resisted the regime as best they could without either succumbing or compromising their ethics. Lolita came up with “Ovidio,” the Spanish version of “Ovid,” the Roman poet author of “Ars amatoria” and the “Metamorphoses,” creating thereby wonderfully apposite allusions.

An odd thing kept on happening: I found that people would get the name
of the opera wrong. I thought “Before Night Falls” is such a beautiful
title, but people would ask me how I was coming along with “When Night
Falls,” or “Before Nightfall” or “Night Must Fall”..... Sort of the
way people would see my name “Jorge” and pronounce it in all sorts of
ways other than the one I had just pronounced. (The “Cuban thing”
again....) But the title seems so clear and poetic to me: it’s about
getting something done before the dark sets in, a task to finish —
before one dies, Before Night Falls....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Librettist, Where Art Thou?

This week I'm proofreading the lower trombone parts and the lower horns, and that will be the end of proofreading. How many parts are there, anyway? 31, I think.... 5 of which are the strings, which then get copied as many times as there are players (although several pairs share one part on a stand). I believe the orchestra will be a total of 53 players, which is quite swank nowadays, although ideally the sound in my head would've had 8 more strings or so. Never mind....!

Sidebar: I've been rediscovering the recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies I grew up with: Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic. What thrilling interpretations! Some may say "over the top," but I say: genius! And of course, the sound on the CDs is so much clearer than what I was used to. I've always thought it was utterly unbelievable that Tchaikovsky was ever considered to be a lesser composer. Pure snobbery as far as I can tell — and it may have begun with more than a whiff of homophobia in his own day and right after he died. By the way: the idea that he committed suicide is one of the longest-running falsehoods in music history. The latest scholarship has debunked that myth (read Pozhnansky and Taruskin). I never thought an artist, who was at the very top of his form, having just opened Carnegie Hall in New York, finished the 6th Symphony and the Nutcracker, and — to me most tellingly — with plenty of ideas for new works, would commit suicide. Suicide is born of despair, and he was full of ideas and had plenty to look forward to. The worst part of his depression, dealing with the repression of his sexuality, had already peaked many years before with his "show" marriage and divorce, after which time he felt much more at peace with himself. (A propos of nothing, one of my favorite vignettes I read about somewhere: when Saint-Saens visited St. Petersburg, he and Tch. got along famously; apparently one day they donned tutus and danced for Rubinstein at the Conservatory! How gay is that!?)


Librettist, Where Art Thou?

I was already in touch with J. D. McClatchy, who even then,
to my mind, was the most notable librettist out there, for another project (which alas came to naught), so I thought, hm, what about Terrence McNally? He was a well-known “out” playwright, and I knew he was an opera buff. He had not yet written a libretto, but I thought it would be a coup to get him to collaborate with me on his first. He read the book, and we met in his Chelsea apartment. He was very sweet, but assured me he had no idea how to adapt the book for the stage, for which I did not blame him. My consolation was that while I was visiting, Joe Mantello, whom I had seen on Broadway in the original production of Angels in America — and fallen immediately in crush with! — stopped by: ohmygod, there he was! My star-struck moment....

Going down the list of gay playwrights (clearly I was playing the
identity game by now full tilt!) I approached Bill Hoffman, who had
written the libretto for Ghosts of Versailles. Again, very nice, but
that didn’t work either. I thought of asking Tony Kushner, even though at one point he was sitting two feet away from me at a house concert — but I lost heart and didn’t. I started to think the unthinkable: going for it
myself, to which end I began to reread the book culling from it the
passages that I felt were most important, emblematic, striking, stageable or
dramatic. But still — I decided to approach Andrew Joffe, who had
written the libretto for my Saki opera Beast and Superbeast, on which he did
such a great job. Admittedly this was quite a different “beast.” He
was over the moon with the idea, and although he admitted to feeling
intimidated by the greatness of the book, we launched into it.

We came up with a treatment, the most salient aspect of which was that
Andrew came up with the idea of having a dying Reinaldo telling the
story and the younger Reinaldo acting it out. I showed this treatment
to a few folks whose judgment I trusted. Most memorable was Jack
Beeson’s assessment. Jack had been my teacher at Columbia and the
composer of Lizzie Borden, so he knew more than a thing or two. He was
lacerating. He made his position entirely clear, and convinced me, as
a matter of theatrical experience: in dividing the character you also
divide the audience’s identification with the protagonist, and that’s
a really bad idea. I went back to Andrew with this, and we mutually agreed to
drop further work on the libretto.

I came up with a treatment of my own and learned another thing, from
Jack again. I was working from the largest elements down to the small,
and came up with a framing prologue and epilogue with five main arcs of
action in between, which I, in my naïveté, called “Acts.” When Jack saw Five Acts plus prologue and epilogue he went nearly berserk. I tried to explain that this wasn’t a French grand opera; the term “act” was just.... Forget it. Anyone seeing “Five Acts” wouldn’t give the work another look.

Mind you, from the first I was powerfully aware of “union rules,”
which stipulate, essentially, that any opera that goes over a set time, usually three
hours, incurs killer overtime fees, so my opera had to have no more
than 2 and a half hours of music, accounting for one intermission, and
preferably less, or it would be rejected out of hand as too expensive.

So I kept my five structural arcs and just renamed them; Act One (a
prologue and three big arcs, or scenes) and Act Two
(two more arcs and an epilogue). I decided to keep the book’s own
framing device of the writer in the present, looking back on his life, and
returning to the present at the end. Not original, but effective. But
still, I felt I couldn’t quite write the libretto by myself, so I had
an idea....

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Rights Page

"I’m excited about new opera, anybody’s new opera! And so should we all be. Putting on an opera is an Herculean Feat and I stand in awe of any composer who has forded that particular river...."

Thus spake Nico Muhly, and good for him! The big buzz last couple of days has been the Met's announcement that it has commissioned Nico to write an opera. This is terrific news and I wish him well. Can't wait to see it! (In a few years....)

It would be a brave new world if the Met produced two new operas a season, and revived two recent works (of the last 25 years or so) in addition, American or imported.

Thus spake I. For what it's worth. Meanwhile:


The very first thing I had to do was to obtain the right, or
permission, from the copyright holder, to adapt this work. I turned to
that page in the front of the book that’s full of small print. I saw
what a mess I was in for: The Estate of Reinaldo Arenas. Estates are
notorious! I would have to write to the publisher, and from my
previous experience, any letter to a publisher enters a time swamp and
I wouldn’t be hearing back in any foreseeable future, and after that the
Estate — and I’m beset by the vice of impatience, alas. I saw the name
of the translator: Dolores M. Koch. Well, Reinaldo lived in Manhattan,
and there I was, in Manhattan, and I had a copy of the Manhattan White
Pages; why not give it a try and look up the name there?

And there it was! I called her up and asked, “Are you the
translator....?” And lo, she was!! And she was marvelous: I
immediately felt at ease, lapped up her Cuban accent, and told her
about my crazy idea. She was charmed — she told me the Estate — oy,
that Estate! — was besieged with letters requesting the permission to
adapt the book into a film, and they had not made up their minds yet
whom to award. She explained that the Estate was divided — divided! — into two parties: one lived in Paris, and the other
lived in Queens.

These people, of course, were familiar from reading the
memoir; I would have to be meeting with them, in the flesh! In
addition, Arenas had left behind a Committee for the defense and
promotion of his work, comprised of five more people. Dolores was one.
But fortunately a short time thereafter this committee was disbanded,
so I only really had to deal with the two heirs, whom I duly courted
and met separately, in Queens and Paris, after I sent them some of my
music, and indeed they were enchanted by the idea of an opera — a film
was the obvious adaptation idea, but no one had thought of an opera! It was, moreover, a thrill to meet these amazing people.
The agreement was signed in 1995, indeed before the Estate awarded
the film rights — which was a stroke of luck for me. But I knew that
it would be a long time before any opera I wrote would reach the
stage, as it was unlikely to be commissioned, and I was an unfamiliar

The next step: find a librettist. Oy....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

“The Cuban Thing”

So now I'm waiting for the last few orchestral parts for the opera to arrive from the copyist so I can proofread them. This is a process that began back in September, I think. First came the strings: they're the fussiest, and the concertmaster just finished a couple of weeks ago bowing the string parts (and found a few more errors or questions). After sending the corrections back to the copyist, he will prepare the bound parts for the orchestra and I will prepare the final score with all the tiny edits and corrections — until, who knows, we hear the orchestra play it and I might want to make more changes! But at that stage it becomes difficult to make big changes; tweaks might be OK. Brass mutes on or off? That's a big color change, but we need to hear the balance with the voices. Frankly, I can't wait not to have to make any more edits or changes to the score: it can be endless! Right now the deadline is March 1, when I will send two copies of the final score to the company: one for the conductor (Joe Illick) and one for the orchestra librarian. Now, back to the backstory:


I deeply hated the wave of identity politics that was beginning to sweep American culture in the 80’s and 90’s; I had grown up with the, to me, superior myth of the melting pot. I was born in Cuba the year Castro took power, but my family fled when I was five, and I went to school from grade one in the United States — New Jersey, to be exact. Union City, where we lived for most of my time growing up, boasted at that time one of the largest concentrations of Cubans outside of Cuba itself. Older Cuban exiles, like my parents, had a choice of Spanish language newspapers and television stations, and plenty of acquaintances from Cuba nearby, so learning English — a difficult task for the older folks — was not a pressing need. So the elders did not “melt,” but as a kid I picked up English fast and instinctively preferred to “melt” into the wider pot. Nevertheless, I had to keep my Spanish, because my parents spoke only Spanish, and they did not want me to forget the mother tongue — for which I am very grateful.

From the start, as a little child in Cuba, the music I loved was “Classical” music, unequivocally. I was one of those children who found their task in life very early and stuck to it, with my parents’ blessing. Later, when, as a young adult at a social gathering in New York City, I would meet someone and introduce myself — “Jorge,” an exotic name — the following pattern often ensued:
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Cuba.”
“Oh, and you say you’re a composer. Do you write Cuban music?”
“Well, no, I write classical music.”
“And do you use Cuban influences in your music?”
Disappointment, incredulity, visible end of interest in my interlocutor.

This syndrome was not uncommon, from what I could tell. Cuban music had given the world many great dance forms, so on the one hand, as a Cuban it seemed perverse not to participate in one’s heritage. But from within the classical music world, I also felt withering disdain if one sullied the modern (essentially European) “serious” tradition with those unserious Caribbean dance rhythms. They make you want to dance and move your hips, and the music I was studying at Columbia — which I often intensely disliked — rigorously avoided anything like a steady beat. So I was caught between two worlds.

The identity politics, which essentially hold that if you are X you do all things X, (and to do things Y made you inauthentic) rubbed me the wrong way. Where in this mode of thought is autonomy, or the imagination, mankind’s greatest gift, without which empathy is impossible? And who are you to tell me who I am and what I am supposed to be doing, if I am to be authentic? So the thought of me, who am, among other things, Cuban, gay, an artist, writing an opera about a protagonist who was, among other things, saliently, Cuban, gay, and an artist, immediately sent me running in the other direction. The last thing I wanted to do was play that identity game!

But darn it all, Before Night Falls was such a great story! I realized, to exclude a possibility out of hand was as reflexive a response, and as mindless, as to include only certain possibilities. To deny myself this opportunity, out of my own anti-ideology, was as much to cave in to outside pressure, to another ideology, to toe a different party line. And the character of Reinaldo kept calling me back: what a spirit! If ever there was someone who could hold the stage, whose passion was eminently singable and lyrical, this was it! I figured, let me give it a try.

Next: where to begin?!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Book, in my Hands

OK! So let's get started! I thought I'd start by giving you the backstory on how Before Night Falls became an opera. I'm calling this part of my blog "From (Prose) Page to (Opera) Stage." It's quite a story, so I'm going to give it to you in installments, and I'm hoping to have them for you about twice a week. Now and then I will also write about random thoughts and occurrences as they come leading up to the premiere — and after!


Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban poet and writer, died near Times Square in
Manhattan in the fall of 1990. His memoir (in Spanish, “memorias,”
literally “memories”) Before Night Falls was published in English in
1993, and I remember clearly the New York Times Sunday book review,
with a big color photo of Arenas’s handsome face on the front page, the lead review, praising the book. The book was consistently receiving raves. But I didn’t immediately rush out and buy the book. I certainly was intrigued and wanted to get to it, but I was in no hurry. I think part of that was resistance to the “Cuban thing,” a resistance to identifying on a kind of one-to-one basis, as a gay Cuban-American artist — in my case a composer — reading about another Cuban artist — in his case, a writer. I’ll tell you more about that later. Meanwhile the work quickly became very popular, especially among gay men.

Fate soon stepped in, in the form of a friend of mine who lived in the same building, an English professor (and yes, gay), who bought me a copy, and although I don’t remember it now, he insists, and I don’t dispute him at all — as he’s a passionate and knowledgable opera buff — that he said to me as he put the book in my hands, that I should consider turning this into an
opera. Sure, OK. In 1994 I was beginning to make my mark on the opera scene with the success of my comic one-act chamber opera “Tobermory,” based on the story by Saki (a minor gay icon, incidentally — caviar, really) so my friends were making all kinds of suggestions for operas.

I read Before Night Falls and swiftly found out why it was so popular: it is a
great read. Reinaldo’s narrative voice is immediately engaging, the
story he has to tell is engrossing, the characters he portrays are
fascinating, it’s passionate, highly political and by turns scurrilous
and high-minded. I laughed out loud at times, and I became teary
towards the end, knowing that Reinaldo is writing in the full
knowledge that he is dying, and that before he became an unendurable
burden to others he would — like a good ancient Roman — take his life
in his own hands. I felt bereft. And yet I felt uplifted: what a
spirit! What a life-story! I joined all those others who were
exhorting the uninitiated: you have to read this book!

But turn it into an opera? No way: way too many characters, way too
many episodes, no “through line” — it was, after all, the story of a
life, from birth to death, and that’s not anything you can
successfully put on stage. Part of the pleasure of the reading was
precisely the profusion of characters and vignettes, the kaleidoscopic
whirl of narrative across years and space and people. This I protested
to anyone telling me to turn Before Night Falls into an opera.

Until one day, I was gushing about the story to my therapist, and he
said, in full therapeutic earnest, with all this enthusiasm, why don't I turn this book into an opera? I gave my spiel. But he suggested I
should really think about this. By the way, he too was an opera lover,
and his name is engraved in the marble among the names of the many
donors to the Metropolitan Opera (alas he is no longer with us). Well, another reason I was resisting the subject, I admitted, was precisely the “Cuban thing.”