Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban poet and novelist, dies of AIDS in
New York City, still an outsider, just as he had been in his native Cuba.
Before Night Falls, Arenas’s seething, life-teeming
memoir, is published in the U.S. to critical acclaim.
Julian Schnabel makes a film of the book, in which Arenas, by now an emerging symbol and underground icon, appears glammed-up in the macho guise of Javier Bardem, complete with an Oscar nomination.
Twenty years after Arenas’s death, and after an odyssey that started years before, the Cuban composer Jorge Martín is finally realizing his project: His opera Before Night Falls will open in May at the Fort Worth Opera.
Martín’s production follows the arc of the book, covering Arenas’s life from childhood in Cuba to exile in New York City. As a youth, Arenas joined Castro’s rebels and soon moved from the provinces to Havana to pursue writing. But his writings and openly gay lifestyle soon got him into trouble with the Communist regime. He was sent to prison, where he continued to write on paper obtained as payment for writing letters for other inmates. He managed to finish and smuggle out a novel. Arenas left Cuba in the Mariel boatlift and settled in Manhattan. When asked why he wrote, he would reply with a sneer: “Revenge.”
Before Night Falls made the New York Times list of the ten best books of 1993. Far from a traditional autobiography, it combined historical facts and delirious, exuberant fiction.
Conceiving and producing a new opera, a herculean task in any age, seems all the more remarkable if one considers the scope and themes of this work—the quest for freedom, exile as an existential condition—all against the backdrop of the cultural climate of the Bush years.
The Rail met Jorge Martín on an early Spring day in Manhattan.
Alessandro Cassin (Rail): The action starts and ends in New York City, a first for an opera.
Jorge Martín: New York was fundamental in Arenas’s life, but never an easy relationship. In the prologue, I have him singing about Manhattan: “Once my freedom, now my final prison, once my refuge, now my executioner.” One thing evolves into the other.
Rail: What did the city represent for him?
Martín: Freedom, the big world, everything he did not have in Cuba, yet always within the complex relationship he had with the whole outside world.
Rail: What was your initial attraction to Before Night Falls?
Martín: Besides the quality of the writing, I would say the treatment of the dynamic balance between memory and imagination. The more I think about any art endeavor, the more I come back to the idea of memory and remembering. We are confined, oppressed by memory, but without it we are nothing. On the opposite spectrum to memory is imagination, which is a kind of memory of a future. Which brings us to another fundamental human trait, empathy. In Arenas’s work, memory, imagination, and empathy are always in a dynamic connection.
Rail: It is rather unusual for an opera to be so closely focused on the biography of one character. What drew you to him?
Martín: The character of Reinaldo is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Whether the real person was likable or not is irrelevant. A chance to have personally known many of the people we now admire might have turned out to be a nightmare, but that is not what matters. It’s their legacy that counts.
Rail: The libretto does not read like a standard play or opera libretto.
Martín: It does not, and when the Fort Worth Opera first read it they weren’t quite sold on it. But later on, when they actually saw it in workshop, they were enthusiastic. Which goes to show that a libretto is not for reading but rather a launching pad for the musical creative work. Joe Illick, the conductor, came up to me after the workshop to apologize for not getting it the first time. There are so many styles of dramaturgy in opera, and this is not a “sung play” in the tradition of Salome, Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande, etc., which started as theater plays later set to music by the composer.
Rail: What is the function of the libretto in Before Night Falls?
Martín: I think of it as a kind of poetic scaffolding for the drama and the music, which has different images that are woven through it. There is a poetic level where the images work together; on the other hand there is the story—a level of things happening, characters, themes. It is not quite “poetry,” it is not a play, but rather something else.
Rail: For many of us, thinking of composing an opera is pretty much like thinking of becoming an astrophysicist or whatever else we perceive as close to impossible. When did you first entertain that dream?
Martín: I grew up in New Jersey and had a brother, ten years older, who was a theater major. Once he worked with a little theater company, and they did Hansel and Gretel in an all-kids production. I was accompanying on the piano. It was the proverbial coup de foudre. If you have been anywhere backstage you know: The impressions are so vivid, there are all these smells, these movements, the organized chaos, the whole ritual aspect. I was smitten.
Rail: When did you focus on opera?
Martín: I didn’t think consciously about writing operas until college, at Yale. During my junior year in Munich, a friend was studying a German romantic play by Ludwig Tieck called Puss in Boots. Those early German Romantics were breaking molds and went on whirlwinds of fantasy. I found Tieck’s play very engaging and began to conceive an opera based on it.
Rail: Puss in Boots eventually became your doctoral dissertation.
Martín: Yes, it was in 1983. Only then did I realize what a daredevil thing writing an opera really is. You have to have a certain level of cojones! [Laughs.]
Rail: Then what happened?
Martín: Then I tried a more pragmatic approach: Instead of a full-length opera I switched to a one-act chamber opera. At that time I was working in New York with the American Chamber Opera Company. I discovered a shared interest in the writings of Saki with the director, Andrew Joffe, and decided to attempt to do Tobermory as an opera. Andrew was the right partner, and our Tobermory turned out to be a success. Later we decided to make an evening of Saki one-acts, chose three other stories, and called the whole evening Beasts and Super-beasts. This was successfully reviewed in the Times, although it was hard to put it into a category.
Rail: You grew up in Union City, New Jersey. Was it mostly Cuban?
Martín: Oh, massively Cuban! At the time, one of largest Cuban communities in the U.S. I was the first generation that spoke English; my parents did not.
Rail: I imagine endless discussions about Fidel Castro and the situation in Cuba.
Martín: Oh my God, the warring camps! For instance there were those for whom the United States was just a way station: They were going to go back to Cuba, take over, and reclaim their old lives. But my family was of a different camp which decided that the old life was behind us, we were never going back.
Rail: Emigrants as opposed to exiles.
Martín: The exile theme is a major one in the opera, as in Arenas’s memoir. For him it had to do with the feeling of being an outsider. In my own biography this was not the case except, eventually, sexually. Arenas said, “I scream therefore I am,” and my initial inspiration for writing this opera was that in a way operatic singing is a kind of cultivated scream. I think that a lot of people who react adversely to opera, are unconsciously reacting to that: Opera is such a big noise!
Rail: In your blog (musicbyjorgemartin) you write eloquently about preferring the melting-pot myth to the identity politics that began to sweep American culture in the 80s. So far you have avoided incorporating “Cuban elements” into your compositional style, yet a theme like Reinaldo Arenas’s life allows or perhaps requires references to Cuban music.
Martín: That was one of the first things I had to decide. I had never written anything with overt Cuban references, yet here I felt it was indeed called for. The question was how. There are so many kinds of Cuban dances that are famous and I tend to like mostly the older ones.
Rail: For instance?
Martín: Danzón and Son. I grew up not even knowing the names of these genres. In terms of folk music this Caribbean stuff is mostly defined by rhythmic patterns. For the most part the melodic and harmonic material is straight European. It is different from when Bartók went into the hills of Romania and found exotic scales. Or Africa, where you don’t really have standardized scales and every instrument is slightly different, leading a composer to a specific tone color. With Cuban music I don’t have that to work with.
Rail: What were the potential problems with making Arenas’s life into an opera?
Martín: First of all that he was not only gay, but a “way-out-there gay.” Yet again his “in your face” gayness can be seen as a strength in terms of the operatic need for larger-than-life emotions. The other problem was the setting in Cuba. The combination of homosexual theme and the Communist revolution seemed a bit much for opera companies, traditionally a bit shy. Interestingly, what are now “safe” operas like Rigoletto or Traviata were once highly political subjects loaded with tons of subtexts, yet they’ve turned into just “a night at the opera”!
Rail: Conveying Arenas’s unbound eroticism must have been yet another concern.
Martín: I conceived of dance scenes, for instance, for his arrest on the beach. What is more erotic than seeing a dancer’s body moving on stage? I wanted it embodied in a way that is both stylized and visceral.
Rail: Do you think that when Julian Schnabel’s movie came out it helped your efforts with the opera by making Arenas better known?
Martín: Yes. And a lot more people have seen the movie than have read the book, which is unfortunate, because although the film is wonderful, the book is the source.
Rail: What would you like to say about the music?
Martín: Benjamin Britten said that in order to write opera one has to be able to write lots of different kinds of music. Before Night Falls is a number opera, which is to say that there are numbers but no real applause points: One number goes into another. A lot of the drama resides in the musical contrast between the numbers. It’s got tunes, which is unfortunately no longer common in opera, it’s tonal, it even has a couple of dance numbers, not rah-rah dance, but there is dance!
Rail: Do you feel there is an audience for new American operas?
Martín: I think so. The art form of sung theater, whether you call it a musical or whatever, opera is part of that.
In Arenas’s strong and colorful telling, the difference between getting a kick in the ass in Communism and Capitalism was that in Communism one had to applaud when getting kicked; in Capitalism one could scream. “I came here to scream,” he said.
With Jorge Martín’s new opera, Arenas’s scream will have a chance to resound with fresh power.