Arts / Article

The debut of “Before Night Falls” in Miami is sure to elicit controversy, mixed emotions and nostalgia. Ahead of its premiere with Florida Grand Opera (a Knight Arts Challenge winner) this Saturday, we spoke with composer Jorge Martín, whose work is bound to resonate not only with the Cuban exiles living in South Florida, but also with all those who are in one way or another outcasts, rejects and survivors.

Martín was born in Santiago, Cuba, and left the island in 1964, never to return. He was 6 when his family settled in New Jersey. His memories are hazy, but the first time he tasted guava, he vividly recalled his birthplace, as if for an instant he were back there. A graduate of Yale and Columbia, he won a National Opera Association award for his chamber opera “Tobermory”–the first of many achievements. In 2003, he premiered “Before Night Falls,” his first full opera, in Fort Worth, Texas. Based on the poet Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir, the work finally arrives in Miami on March 18.

“Before Night Falls” composer Jorge Martín. (Photo courtesy Florida Grand Opera.)

What should the audience at your opera expect?
At the Texas premiere, an Australian tourist who had never seen an opera happened to sit next to me. She had decided to attend out of pure curiosity. She was fascinated, and to me it indicated that anyone–without knowing what kind of work it is or what it is about–can become involved, entertained and moved by it. It may be a cliché, but we have to keep stressing that opera is a complete experience that has everything: theater, voice, music, dance. In addition, this is an important story that people need to know about.

Why “Before Night Falls”?
Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir was published in 1993. I had just graduated with a degree in composition and was starting on opera. I was looking for a subject. A friend gave me the book and I loved it, but I never thought of it as possible subject matter. Reading it, I laughed, cried, recognized a very distinctive form of Cuban humor. It is a book with hundreds of situations and characters connected only by Reinaldo’s voice. I was eventually persuaded to consider building an opera around it. I reread it and then Reinaldo’s character grew. I began to see him as a classic hero, an extraordinary human being with an extraordinary life full of extraordinary situations that deserved to be told through music. For example, the escape from Cuba after many failed attempts resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale.

Why? Because the essential theme is the pursuit of freedom. And not only physical, external freedom, but also the internal kind, the freedom to be, the desire for personal, artistic, political and other freedoms. Arenas’ story reminds us that the government under which you live has a lot to do with who you are or who you end up being, that without freedom it is impossible to develop and grow as a person and as an artist. But I have to stress that I detest pigeonholing. It was the main reason I initially resisted the project. I didn’t want to be “the Cuban writing about another Cuban.” That labeling annoys me tremendously. It is a subtle form of racism. Also, and perhaps foremost, Reinaldo’s “Cuban-ness” was totally different from mine, primarily for generational reasons. There are similarities between us, but above all he was a writer and I am a composer. Right there you have different perspectives, profound conceptual differences. That I created this character in my opera had nothing to do with the fact that we were both Cuban. They are totally independent.

How would you describe the opera, musically?
It has elements of Cuban music, a Caribbean flavor. I added that influence to my American, tonal, melodic, romantic style. The Cuban influence, though very subtle at times, is immediately recognizable. It is a work divorced from the modernism of recent times, so austere and minimalist. Quite the contrary, it is exuberant and, essentially, entertaining.

Was it difficult for you to adapt memoirs to the opera format?
I mentioned “Eugene Onegin,” which was recently staged here, and there are some similarities in narrative and format. In my opera there are two acts, but in fact there are five scenes. In Tchaikovsky’s opera there are six, and they are independent. Here, in contrast, the five sequences are connected. It’s  a sort of dream in progress.

Did you resort to magical realism?
Yes. In fact, I invented two muses–the sea and the moon–because of their tacit leading roles in the book; those presences become characters. On the other hand, I made the decision not to mention Fidel Castro in the entire opera. It was another way of universalizing the subject. We know who he is, but he is not named, and I think not mentioning him lends him even more power.

Did Julian Schnabel’s film influence you?
When I saw the movie, I had already written the script. For five years, I had owned the rights. Nevertheless, I became interested in the director’s decisions, his visual treatment, as Schnabel is a painter. The visual element is less emphasized in my opera, given that my elements are theater and music. The camera is more literal, more naturalistic, whereas music is more abstract; it belongs to another dimension.

Have you since made any changes or revisions, since so much has happened since the premiere? 
To the score, I made practically none, other than some retouching. At one time, I would have liked to premiere the opera in Miami. Unfortunately, it was not to be. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and the premiere in Texas–of all places–was a smashing success that proved to me the validity of the message and its universality.

As to historical changes, Fidel died and nothing has changed. The incredible paradox is that in this country, we are now struggling with the same question that Cubans asked and are asking themselves. The parallels leave me speechless. Hearing so many lies–and having a government that doesn’t tell us the truth–is a new, unprecedented situation in the United States. Cubans like me left that behind, and half a century later we are witnessing something similar.

Finally, what is “Before Night Falls”–and what is it not?
For one thing, it is not a cautionary tale, nor a sermon, but rather an enriching work, capable of satisfying the audience mentally and emotionally. Above and beyond the story, it is an entertaining opera that shows the way beauty is an escape and also an effective means of combating dictatorial power.

The Florida Grand Opera will present “Before Night Falls” on March 18, 19, 21, 24 and 25. For more information, visit the FGO website or call the box office at 1-800-741-1010.

Sebastian Spreng is a visual artist and freelance arts writer. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sebastianspreng.