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.”

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