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A New American Opera

Ode to Freedom

Through the lens of a gay Cuban immigrant

When an English professor suggested to Jorge Martín that the highly acclaimed memoir Before Night Falls be made into an opera, the composer balked.

The 1993 autobiography of the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas contained a vast cast of characters. Numerous vignettes. Multiple layers of deep, complex issues. Censorship. Political persecution. Homosexuality. Life in exile. The wracking, debilitating pain of AIDS.

“I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” recalls Martín. “I thought, ‘You can’t put that on stage.’ It was an epic, it was a whole life story.”  

But the idea of rendering Before Night Falls for the operatic stage took hold and, more than a decade later, promises to be the Cuban American composer’s breakthrough work: Martín’s first full-scale opera will debut next year at the 2010 Fort Worth Opera Festival.

At two and a half hours, the opera—performed in English with Spanish supertitles and with libretto by the composer, with Dolores Koch*—is the most ambitious and longest single work that Martín, 50, has undertaken. “I’m excited,” says Martín, whose oeuvre includes several one-act operas, chamber music, and other orchestral and choral works. “It’s very rare that new operas get produced.”

For Darren K. Woods, general director of the Fort Worth Opera and a fan of both the book and the 2000 film version of Before Night Falls, staging the work became imperative following a workshop presentation last summer at the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York.

“We performed the piece with young artists and piano. The audience was rapt throughout the entire performance and at the end erupted into an ovation the likes of which we rarely see,” says Woods. “The opera transcends the book and the movie. This is literally a story that had to be sung to reach its fullest potential.”

An Instrument to Fight Oppression
Ironically, the operatic version of Before Night Falls almost didn’t happen. Not only did the memoir seem too complex to adapt for the stage, but working on it seemed antithetical to Martín’s ardent aversion to, as he puts it, “identity politics.” As an artist, he has never wanted to be pigeonholed. So here he was, a Cuban immigrant, gay, and faced with the story of a gay Cuban artist.

“For his generation and mine growing up, there was the experience of being an outsider as a gay person,” Martín says during an interview at a corner café on Broadway in Manhattan. But, he adds, “Our experiences in many ways were totally different. [Arenas’s] experience in Cuba was harrowing; mine wasn’t. He was much older when he left; I was a child.”

And yet the idea for the opera wouldn’t go away. There was a persistence about it, much like the persistence that characterized Arenas, who responded to the Castro regime’s attempts to censor him by doggedly pursuing ways to write and smuggle his work out of the country. It was that tenacity, that passion for freedom, that struck a personal chord with Martín, who came from Cuba in 1965 and grew up in New Jersey.

“The resonance I feel with Reinaldo is not about being Cuban, not about being gay,” says Martín, a diminutive man with a youthful, friendly face. “It’s about freedom: how to become free, and the themes of beauty and memory and how these were used by Reinaldo as instruments to fight oppression and tyranny.

“Freedom of expression, sexual freedom, are involved with artistic expression and our lives and cannot be taken for granted,” Martín continues. “The freedom has to be fought for, and that was part of Reinaldo’s life.”

That resonance, that sense of a shared purpose with Arenas, erased all the hesitation Martín initially felt about an operatic adaptation of the work. “Before Night Falls is such a great story,” Martín says. “I loved it so much, [that] I thought, ‘Screw it, I’ll do it.’”

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