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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.’”

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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