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.