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.

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