Sunday, March 28, 2010

Memory and imagination

I found these two quotes once side by side and I kept them because they bear directly on themes from Before Night Falls:

"Although with regard to the past, when this is reported correctly, what is brought out from memory is not the events themselves (these are already past) but words conceived from the images of those events, which, in passing through the senses, have left as it were their footprints stamped upon the mind. My boyhood, for instance, which no longer exists, exists in time past, which no longer exists. But when I recollect the image of my boyhood and tell others about it, I am looking at this image in time present, because it still exists in time present." — St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 398

"Memory is the same as imagination." — Giambattista Vico, New Science, 1725

Memory and imagination are central themes of the opera. Arenas, the poet and memoirist, is writing to preserve the memory of what happened to him and others in Cuba, but by his own admission, he is writing his memoir as a form of vengeance against his tormentors — by recording “the truth,” or what Augustine calls “the past, when this is reported correctly.” And yet, as both Augustine and Vico remind us, memory is a form of imagination. The way we report the past is the way we imagine it, individually and collectively. That is not to say we may falsify it, but we must remain aware that there is a telling involved.

This dedication to the truth is not the only constraint the past places on an artist. The artist is also powerfully aware of his predecessors, the past of his own art forms, the history of the culture, all that’s been done before. Artists build on that past and also take a sledgehammer to it, if not a chisel. But whatever his stance toward it, the past must be reckoned with.

Yet the future is also an act of the imagination: of possibilities that are yet to be realized, stemming from the individual, and collective, imagination. We “write” our future: we imagine it into being. So both the past and the future are acts of the imagination, although different in kind. The past really has happened: the future not so.

Memory makes the artist the most unfree of men; imagination the freest.

Imagination, therefore, can be a tool against repression and tyranny: we can imagine a better world, which we can work toward and build. The artist perpetually reminds us of this; hence the frequent antagonism between artsists and governments. We are always free to use our imagination, and imagination can make us free — and lead to action. Reinaldo was always seeking freedom, from his tiny childhood village, from Cuba’s repressions, and he acted to liberate himself from these “prisons,” but in the end an untimely death, from AIDS in 1990, at age 47, threatened to be his ultimate unfreedom. Even then, he sought to free himself from the horrible debilitations and humiliations of the the ravages of AIDS by taking action: by taking his life at a time of his own choosing, “freeing” himself from the prison of a hopeless situation, facing the truth head on.

Hope, and beauty, are two more themes important to the opera that tie in to memory and imagination, and I will take them up next time. Also, the two Muses, the Sea and the Moon....

Thursday, March 18, 2010



So now it’s wait, wait, wait.... But I’m enjoying this time, all anticipation. The orchestra parts were churned out by the copyist (in Ohio) from September to early March; I met with David Gately up in Montreal where he was directing a show and in Seattle where he lives, getting to know each other better. I’ve see Darren Woods up at the Seagle, which is just an hour from my house (and the wonderful shows the young singers put on there), and also in New York City. I even got to meet the set designer, Riccardo Hernandez, who lives in New Haven CT with his family, while I was at a Yale reunion. Riccardo is Cuban too, but his family left Cuba and he grew up in Buenos Aires (his mother is Argentinian); he went to the Yale School of Drama to study set design — specifically opera design, with Ming Cho Lee! I loved hearing Riccardo’s story of his father playing records of great singers and quizzing his son on them. (And thinking: we forget there are hetero opera queens too!)

Need I tell you I can’t wait to see what the designs look like? Well, I did get to see a video of the production deisgn meeting held in D.C. last August, but horribile dictu, the sound went haywire so I couldn’t hear what they were discussing for the entire middle hour of the meeting!! I could see what the set was meant to look like from Riccardo’s mock-up, and learned there’s a little law or two of physics that will make the construction of it, shall we say, challenging. It involves a kind of curve in the backdrop. The set is quite abstract, with panels flying in for projections suggesting place.

Reminds me of the anticipation waiting to see what the poster design would look like. The poster design was one of the first things that had to be pinned down, as it would be the main promotional image for the production. I’d gotten a call from Diane, the promo person at FWO, who wanted me to take a look at some artwork — I was on a train, and I was able to sneak a look on my iPhone, which was for me at the time a revolutionary idea! — and I liked the images I saw. The artist was Jerrel Sustaita, a local artist in Fort Worth. I was asked for my ideas, and I spoke with Jerrel. Still, you never know, until you actually see something.... And finally when I did get to see the poster, I was very happy with it: the colors were just right! And then, the season brochure, unveiled at this year’s festival: there is was, big as life: Don Giovanni, L’Elisir D’Amore (The Elixir of Love), and Before Night Falls. As a friend of mine put it, I’m in pretty good company! And Don Giovanni was THE opera that got me started, making me fall in love with the artform. That is a lovely, unintended symmetry.

I’ve worked on other musical projects in the meantime; one project is a version of the score of BNF for a smaller instrumental ensemble, for smaller opera companies. This has been a fairly common practice lately. I’m reworking the score for a group of 20 players. There may be a couple of bites from opera companies, and one lives in hopes....

From the fall of 2009 on, things began to accelerate, slowly. In September FWO kicked off its new season with a Gala dinner fund raiser — the theme this year was “A Night in Havana”! That was quite a show, for which FWO flew me down. All the stops were pulled: from the music greeting you as you came in, with cigar rollers and vendors, mojitos, and the female dancer in the central platform dressed up with an enormous peacock “tail” — to the food, the floor show, and the assemblage all in their finest gowns and suits.

So this brings us more or less up to the moment: it’s about ten weeks before the premiere; in six weeks I will be going down to Fort Worth to begin rehearsals. Next installment I will write about the mini-tour I just finished with Yale musicians.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Maiden Trip to Texas

I've been in California the last few days on the mini-tour of BNF for Yale alumni with Yale School of Music students (Chrystal Williams, Eric Barry and Vince Vincent). The events went very well: curiously, the three rooms we played in could not have been more dissimilar. The space at NYU was a tiny black-box, filled to the brim with people, the singers standing three feet in front of the first row, with me at a spinet; the rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. was huge, fluorescent-lit, efficient but charm-free, with the audience having lots of room; and the University Club in S.F. put us in a beautiful, elegant room with a breathtaking view of the city. It was fun mixing with the three crowds, too.

Then I returned to L.A. to spend the weekend. I got to hear the L.A. Philharmonic in Disney Hall, which I think is one of the most thrilling architectural experiences I have had: the outside of the building, the lobbies and the auditorium are all full of wonder, detail, excitement. The sound was clean and bright. I liked it so much I'm going back to catch the organ recital today! (The program, by the way, featured a 1999 work by Qigang Chen, Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto, in a powerful and fresh interpretation by Joyce Yang, and "Ein Heldenleben," which — perhaps due to jetlag? — seemed to me, except for bits here and there, a terrific self-indulgent bore. Oh well....)

The next day I had another architectural and artistic high visiting the Getty Museum for the first time: indescribably uplifting in every way. I had no idea what I was in for. The interplay of outdoors and indoors, nature and art, curved and straight lines, colors, textures, the views! — I didn't want to leave! Just these two complexes are worth a trip to L.A. (And taking buses has been an adventure — you know, they work! — and a cheap way to sight-see. Having an iPhone to tell me where I was also helped....)

So on with the story:


I flew to Fort Worth last spring to catch FWO’s 2009 season: Cenerentola (Cinderella), Carmen, and Dead Man Walking. I had heard and read about Fort Worth’s museums, and was eager to see them; I got to the Kimbell and the Modern and they were indeed top-notch, not only for their collections but architecturally as well (and I had a great lunch at the Modern looking out on its pool). The downtown area was very cute, but deserted — I later learned I had arrived on the very day that the dread of the swine flu virus had hit its peak and the FW school system was shut down — the only one in the country to do so. Poor Darren, the general director, was fending off calls asking if the opera was going to go on or not. You bet it was!

Bass Hall, which opened as recently as 1998, was familiar to me from photos: unique and is quite unforgettable once you’ve seen it. In person it was every bit as impressive as I guessed it would be. Some have called it the higher neo-deco kitsch, but frankly we could use more of it.... Inside, the lobby was very pleasant to be in, light and all marble; and the auditorium is wonderful, not only to look at but acoustically. The theater is state-of-the-art and you can do just about anything you’d like in it in terms of theatrical production.

The first music I heard in the hall were the opening soft staccato chords of the overture to Rossini’s Cenerentola — not anything that will blow your socks off. And yet I was immediately impressed by the orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, playing in the pit. These chords, so exposed, bare and demure, sounded beguiling, rounded, telling. This superb ensemble, I thought, is going to be playing my score! Of course, I’ve had other orchestras play my music, but it is always a thrill, and this will be on an entirely larger scale. I couldn’t be in better hands!

I also met many — many! — nice folks down there who either work for the opera, are on the board, or donors, or simply opera lovers. The most amazing coincidence was finally meeting one lovely Cuban woman who had been a student of Dolores Koch back in Cuba and remained a life-long friend of hers. Lolita had told me about her: she has lived in Fort Worth for many years, married to a retired Texan doctor, and is on the board of the opera. This delightful couple is another reason I look forward to returning to Fort Worth.


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Seagle Performance

Tomorrow begins our mini-tour of Yale alumni events: I'm accompanying three singers from the Yale School of Music performing four arias, tomorrow at NYU's Tisch center, Wednesday in Los Angeles hosted by the LA Opera in a rehearsal room in the Chandler Pavilion, and Thursday in San Francisco at the University Club. Should be fun!

And yesterday I attended for the first time a Met Auditions semifinal; the finals, with orchestra, are next weekend. It was exhausting, but really no longer than, say, Meistersinger.... 25 singers, 2 arias each (piano accompaniment) — you do the math! It's very exciting to listen to all this young vocal talent, and as always everyone in the audience is somewhat mystified that the judges did not choose one or two obvious winners. Such are competitions.


The Seagle Music Colony is in Schroon Lake, NY. When you first visit the town you notice it is full of Christian camps. Seagle is not that. It is attended by young singers who have auditioned for the privilege of taking part in 6 or so productions fully staged in a converted barn seating 175. It has a unique and delightful atmosphere, as can only be created by so much concentrated youthful energy. One of Darren Woods’ brilliant ideas was to add a “post season” after the production and support staff go home, inviting a few of the singers to remain and bringing in a few “veterans” for workshops of operas in progress, with the composer in attendance.

The summer Before Night Falls was done in workshop there were a total of about 14-16 singers learning two full new operas and one act of another, the two complete ones off-book and fully blocked. And most were in at least two if not all three shows. They would always be rehearsing one show or another; and between sessions they’d be signed up to help the kitchen set up or clean up. All without a hint of hysteria.

Toward the end a gaggle of visitors descended upon the colony; these were the folks who work at Fort Worth Opera coming up to watch the workshop performances (and incidentally to escape the high Texan summer). The nice PR person (Diane) was there and a photographer (Ellen) and suddenly on the afternoon before the performance I found myself in the middle of a photo shoot! Not a minute of fading summer sunlight to waste! Ellen was terrific, Diane tugging at my jacket sleeves to straighten out my shirt.... and these pictures turned out so well I’ve been using them on my website and in publicity materials too.

The performances were open to the public, and the houses were full. A few opera “worthies” even showed up. By this time in my career I have mastered what I think of as “performance Zen” — I know there isn’t a damn thing I can do, and it’s all in the performers’ hands. What I could do I’ve done in rehearsal, and now it’s in the hands of the gods. And I felt very confident in my performers, as it happened, which is a very Good Thing. Not just Wes, but the music director, the pianists, the stage hands, the entire ensemble — all inspired my confidence. Of course I knew some things would go wrong, but that’s in the nature of things.

As it turned out there were no major problems — only the very end was musically off, which annoyed only me (the composer, of course!) since it seems that everyone else found it unobjectionable. The work got from the audience what I would call an in-your-dreams kind of reception, as did Wes, who did a truly sensational job. The crowd went wild for him, and he was visibly moved. He is a very special person, and his is one career I can’t wait to see take off.

Most moving for me was one musician friend's reaction; he had been one of the readers of the libretto when I was shopping it around. He came up to me and with real emotion asked me to forgive him for not “getting it” when he had read the libretto! My goodness! He wasn’t by any means the only one who didn’t “get it,” and I don’t blame any of them, because an opera is not easy to imagine from just the libretto, and sometimes even from the piano-vocal. And anyway, I was trying to do things in this opera that are a little unusual and risky. I had had a real struggle getting my work “out there” and getting people to see and hear what I was seeing and hearing, and finally, finally, I had achieved it!

I had originally no hope of a production any sooner than 2012, or earliest 2011 — planning opera seasons takes time. Darren was quite excited and pleased and said “It’s stunning! We have to put this on!” He slated it tentatively for 2011. Not too long thereafter I got word that the company decided to move it up to 2010!! Amazing! It would be fifteen years from the time I signed the agreement with the Arenas Estate to the premiere. In Texas, where I’d never yet been!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Final Push

Here I am in the guest suite of Branford College at Yale, having worked yesterday with the three young singers from the School of Music on the arias we will be performing on our mini-tour. What a place my alma mater is: so beautiful, so full of talent, so inspiring. It was a pleasure working with these singers, so well prepared, enthusiastic, eager, talented. — And then, after I finished working with them, I went to meet friends at a restaurant I've always wanted to try, having heard so much about it: Ibiza. It was sensational! This isn't a food blog so I wont digress, but I had to mention it!


I was networking like mad, asking friends for advice; meeting with Marc
Scorca, the brilliant leader of Opera America, the trade organization for
all the opera companies in the U.S. and Canada; sending the opera to
directors of opera companies; meeting with the directors of opera companies such as Florida Grand
Opera — which always seemed to be everyone’s “big duh” go-to company, except
that I also realized it was not so very obvious.....(And in fact it is ideal for the opera not to be opening in Miami, where an opera about a Cuban by a Cuban could be taken for a kind of "affirmative action" programming, and its success might be written off as parochial. Of course, I do want BNF to be produced in Miami one day, but because I want it to be a popular as well as an artistic success.)

I ultimately got a consultant on board whom I knew personally and who was well known and trusted by
very many in the opera world. If this person said, take a listen to this,
my work had a much better chance of being listened to than if I had just
sent it “cold.” And still I only had a few tepid bites.

Darren Woods and Joseph Illick — whom I had met many years before when Joe
was an assistant at then Greater Miami Opera, and later as Artistic
Director of the Lake George Opera Festival (where he programmed
“Tobermory”) — were the team leading Forth Worth Opera and had expressed some interest. They met with
me over breakfast one morning in Manhattan, before a full day of auditions
and fund-raising. They set before me a very simple task: tell us, describe
to us, what the audience sees from the beginning to the end of the opera.
Wow! It took me a little while to realize what I was supposed to do — but
I warmed to the task and I could see that by the end that they were very
interested. But still.... they would need to do the opera in workshop. I
said the only thing that would make sense at this point is to run the
opera from beginning to end, and they agreed, but that would mean waiting
one more year til there was a slot open at the Seagle Music Colony in
upstate New York (which Darren also ran).

Next coup: out of the blue, a friend informed me that their family had
just set up a foundation and wished to offer $100,000 toward production of
my opera. WOW!!! Nothing like that had ever happened to me before: that
was dreaming wild! When I notified Darren, he agreed to use part of those
funds to move up the complete workshop, shaving a year off the wait. And
Darren said – “I know who I want to direct the show. Oh, and I have just
the singer for the role of Reinaldo....”

In the summer of 2008, the Seagle Music Colony presented the complete
Before Night Falls, with two pianos, minimal sets, costumes and lighting,
no make-up — but off-book and fully blocked. David Gately was the
director. Wes Mason sang the lead role. Let me tell you about these two.

David was a dream to work with. He clearly was enjoying himself in this
task — admittedly, it’s not every day that a director gets to direct a brand new work. He had set out to observe exactly what I had written in order to see what
worked and what didn’t. I’ll never forget one moment when he stopped a
singer he was directing and said to her, “That’s a dash over the note, not
an accent.” Stunned, I had to peek in the score, and indeed that’s what I had
written! What a treat to have a director who honored the score — the score!! — in his directing. After he’d done staging the opera we had a talk
about things to consider changing, and I was happy to do this, and pleased
that there was really very little to change, a word here and there, cutting a
measure in two or three places, and that was it. (Of course David isn't the only director who honors the score, but one rarely hears about it, but rather the opposite, where it seems a point of honor to go against or ignore musical and librettistic directions. I dreaded having to work with such a director, needless to say....)

Baritone Wes Mason was still an undergraduate. I had to trust
Darren’s judgment, but I must admit to having some reservations. The role
of Reinaldo is huge, a “big sing,” as they say.  But I got e-mails and
calls from Wes that made me realize this was a very serious young man who
was doing all kinds of research into Arenas and Cuba, putting his all into this role, which he took to with uncanny immediacy. Watching him concentrate and cope with everything that was being thrown at him — memorizing this enormous role, blocking, not to mention other roles he’d had to sing that summer at Seagle! This young man is the complete package: gifted, attarctive, charming, hard-working, humble.— I knew by performance night that Wes would be a hit.

So finally, we get to see the whole of BNF, on its legs.....