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.....

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