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A New American Opera

Ode to Freedom

Through the lens of a gay Cuban immigrant

The Road From Cuba to Texas
The road to the Texas debut of Before Night Falls began in Santiago, Cuba, where Martín was born in 1959. It is there that he recalls falling in love with classical music at the age of three, when his older sister brought home records he found mesmerizing. “I loved it instantly,” says Martín.

“My favorite toy was a little piano,” he remembers. “I took piano lessons, but opera was never on the screen. Opera seemed kind of ludicrous, something that I’d hear people make fun of.”

Then, as a teenager living in New Jersey, he heard operas composed by Mozart. “I

was blown away,” he says. “I got more operas, and soon I was hooked.” And he knew early on that he wanted to compose. “That was my fantasy. It was not to be a pianist,” Martín says. “It was a creative impulse I felt. I didn’t question it, that’s just what I knew I wanted to do.”

His creativity fed off an eclectic musical mix: Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Motown, Broadway music, Buddy Rich, big band jazz, and Cuban music blaring on the radio.

He headed to Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music; then to Columbia University, where he completed his graduate and doctoral degrees in music composition. Honors and distinctions came steadily, including prestigious fellowships, an Academy Award in Music by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, artist residencies at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1993 and 2003, and many others.

Settled in Vermont since 1994, Martín has gradually made a name for himself. A number of his works have already been recorded and others are routinely performed in the United States and abroad. Artists like baritone Marcus DeLoach, smaller groups like the Cantori New York chorus and Close Encounters With Music, and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Vermont Philharmonic regularly commission works. 

Martín “was the perfect choice” to compose “a fresh, new, accessible commission for our 50th anniversary season,” says Louis A. Kosma, music director of the Vermont Philharmonic. The result, Toccata for Orchestra: City Lights, Country Sun, is featured in every program during the Philharmonic’s 2008–2009 season. With brass fanfares and “sparkling woodwinds,” says Kosma, “it’s a wonderful picture of life in the Vermont countryside—where he lives—and visits to the big city.”

Reviewers agree, touting Martín’s knack for turning out compositions that are rich and textured and full of personality. Wes Mason, a 23-year-old baritone who has been cast as Arenas in Before Night Falls, was struck by the depth of the composer’s work.

“Before I ever spoke with Jorge, I listened to his music and was instantly taken by his beautiful and intricate scores,” Mason says. “The prologue in Before Night Falls begins with gentle melancholy, like waves. You listen and you see the beach at night, the moon reflecting in the water; you think of Cuba immediately.”

In Texas, Martín hopes to create that same sensation for his biggest audience yet.

“There is something for me, and for those who love opera and the theater, that you only get from hearing those beautiful voices singing melodies, the orchestra playing, and being inside a theater,” he says. “It’s to move an audience, to take them outside themselves and their common experience for an evening, and open them up to a world that is unfamiliar and magical and thought-provoking.”

*Editor's note: Dolores M. Koch passed away in June, shortly after giving this interview.

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