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 I learned that the original composer had withdrawn, a detail I forgot until later.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....

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