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.