“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!