FWO Archives: The Making of 'Before Night Falls' (World Premiere, 2010 Festival)
Updated: Apr 23
I scream, therefore I am.
- Reinaldo Arenas
How did Reinaldo Arenas survive his own youth, marked as it was by desperate poverty and family neglect? In his memoir Before Night Falls Arenas' earliest memory was of dirt. He called it "the taste of the earth," which he, like most peasant toddlers, chewed to quell hunger and amuse himself as he sat in squalor.
His boyhood ended when, shy of age fourteen, he ran off to join the "revolutionaries"- the network of youths who ushered in Fidel Castro. What Arenas witnessed in his brief time with these guerilla warriors left him no doubts as to the evils of Castro's Revolution.
Arenas (1943-1990), known as "Rey" to his friends, was a poet in the purest sense of the word. Every hardship of his life was transmuted in award-winning novels and poems. He found his muse in the lush habitat of Cuban forests and the sea. "The rain" sounded as "a concert of drums with different registers and amazing rhythms ...a fragrant resonance." He sought solace in trees, for they "have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them."
Listen to Before Night Falls on Spotify HERE.
Listen to Before Night Falls on YouTube HERE.
The beauty of nature contrasted starkly with his domestic life. Raised in an unsettled household held together by a domineering grandmother, he found himself surrounded by eleven unhappy aunts ("a house of angry women"), all rejected by the men they had loved. He adored his beautiful but impassive mother. She, too, had been abandoned by his father after three months of passionate love. To her son, it seemed that she allowed bitterness to overwhelm her life.
The world of men, Arenas observed, was quite different. His carousing grandfather commanded respect. His male relatives and the men he saw in the village expressed joy and had open horizons. They had freedom. Freedom became the goal of his life. In the society of men, he also found an absence of the debilitating bitterness that shaped his female relatives' lives. With men he found acceptance, support and love. From the age of six, he was certain of his attraction to men. And in Castro's Cuba homosexuality was a serious crime. For that matter, Castro's police worked methodically to eradicate many elements of Cuba's colorful culture. "Under a dictatorship," Arenas observed, "beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque." Arenas did little to conceal either his anti-revolutionary sentiments or his homosexuality. He, like so many dissidents under Castro's repression, found open sexuality to be one of the few ways to survive the Revolution.
It's amazing he stayed a free man as long as he did. Increasing international accolades for his novels, smuggled out of Cuba at great risk, could not protect him. Ultimately he would be arrested in 1974 and tortured until, debilitated, he denounced his own writings. After eighteen harrowing months in prison, he gained release in 1976. Release, but not freedom.
Meanwhile he had become celebrated in Europe. Yet he had no place to sleep, no typewriter, and no documentable presence in Cuban society. Arenas became that all-too common peculiarity in Communist society: the non-person. In 1980, he joined the flow of "undesirables" headed for the United States after Castro threw open the gates at the port of Mariel. Only by a last-minute ruse did he manage to board the ship. Yet the longed-for freedom in America was a double-edged sword. He found the society of Cuban immigrants in Miami oppressive and uncongenial. He languished without the inspiration of his beloved Cuba. A move to New York City with Lázaro, his beloved friend from Cuba, brought a renewal of joy as they discovered a multi-cultural city that boasted snow!
Watch some exclusive samples from Before Night Falls in the video below.
Then, the onset of AIDS darkened the horizon. Anyone reading the introduction of his memoir will be struck by Arenas' self-understanding at the approach of death, as well as his appreciation for each miracle that allowed one more leg of the journey. He writes:
"Death has always been very close to me. It has always been my loyal companion. Sometimes I am sorry that I'll die, only because then death will perhaps abandon me.
He held off nightfall long enough to finish the last novel of his Pentagonía and his memoirs. Death came in New York City on December 7, 1990."
And, that, in a nutshell, was the life of Reinaldo Arenas. But how does this life become an opera? And even if it does, how does that new opera get produced by a major American opera company?
THE MAKINGS OF A WORLD PREMIERE
The premiere of a new opera - a newsworthy rarity today - was once as ordinary as the opening of a film. For centuries, operas were the prime form of entertainment. They had to be "hot off the presses." And that meant portraying timely topics, including controversial ones. Composers, librettists, directors and singers worked frantically as each minute ticked closer to the opening curtain. That creative push fueled opera to ever-greater heights.
Precisely this energy surrounds the Fort Worth Opera's 2010 World Premiere of Jorge Martin's Before Night Falls. The production of this opera is significant for the company and for everyone involved.
Consider this fact: operas are rarely written these days without a specific commission. But Martin wrote Before Night Falls because he wanted to. It was an act of conscience. Martin himself had emigrated from Cuba with his family as a six-year old in 1965. Although too young to understand the rationale, he remembered the smell of fear around him. Those memories strengthened his musical instincts.
But instincts were not enough, so he relied upon the vision of his co-librettist, Dolores M. Koch (d. 2009). She provided invaluable insight, especially since she had known Arenas and translated his writings.
Martin and Koch took every step to ensure accuracy, calling upon Cuban emigres for advice, particularly for the prison and interrogation scenes. They made the decision to compress several of Arenas' literary colleagues into the composite character Ovidio, a role based in part on Arenas' mentors, dissident Cuban poets Virgilio Pinera (1912-1979) and Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976).
Yet as personal as the story was to Martin, he yearned for it to be universal in its appeal - to portray "an individual set against the sweep of history," he stated. The story offered the same qualities, he believed, as one of his favorite operas, Verdi's Don Carlo. But to make it all work, much would be required of the singer portraying Arenas. In a turn of fortune worthy of Arenas' life, fate cast the die. At the high-profile Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, in the summer of 2008, a student named Wes Mason stunned listeners with his performance of Arenas in a workshop rendition of Before Night Falls. The composer was in the audience, and so, too, were Fort Worth Opera's General Director Darren K. Woods and several members of his staff. They sat, spellbound, rising with the rest of the audience to cheer at the final curtain.
Woods' decision immediately to book both the opera and the young Mason was made with "a cold heart, a sharp eye, and sharpened pencil." Woods knew what he had, and so heeded easily the advice of Director David Gately who said "You've got to trust me, but there's nobody on earth who can bring what this kid [Wes Mason] is going to bring to it."
Mason's youth and stamina are invaluable. Arenas' character is almost continuously on stage, a strenuous demand unknown in opera until the early 20th century (Strauss' Elektra comes to mind). But the composer has paced the role by writing what Mason calls "perfectly gorgeous and lyrical phrases that provide nothing but support for the interpreter."
Still, how does a singer (especially such a young one) navigate an opera that begins with a final illness in the Prologue, springs back to boyhood and then wends itself through a chain of difficulties to reach his character's death? Mason credits the composer for weaving these transitions directly into the melodic writing. The teenage Reinaldo has the most "lyric and playful" vocal lines, he says. The younger adult gains "more depth and weight...hint[ing] towards his full maturity." The older Reinaldo is more on the "grittier or dramatic side of vocal color and is certainly the most heroic."
The opera is rich in memorable characters, starting with the ethereal voices of Arenas' two Muses - allegorical figures of the Moon and the Sea who, at critical points, break through the darkness and save the writer from self-destruction. Martin composes shimmering music for these roles, particularly in their first trio with Arenas, which Mason says moves "as one person or thought ... one sweeping big phrase of collaboration." The composer cleverly double-fast the soprano role, sung by Janice Hall, as both the Sea and Arenas' mother. Both roles are maternal and inspiring.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking role is that of Arena's literary mentor, Ovidio, sung by Jesus Garcia in his debut with the Fort Worth Opera. After mentoring Arenas earlier in Act One, Ovidio denounces him at the act's end after he, too, has been broken by Castro's regime. Victor, an idealistic revolutionary turned murderous interrogator sung by Seth Mease Carico, makes a stark foil to Arenas.
The chorus, too, plays an enormous role in Before Night Falls. Choral singers appear in guises as varied as Castro's guerillas, angry prisoners, revelers in Times Square, and, most hauntingly, an offstage halo enveloping the Muses' melodic lines.
Watch the exclusive panel discussion with KERA's Arts & Seek, Jerome Weeks, about Fort Worth Opera's Before Night Falls. Video includes performance by soprano Janice Hall.
THE INTERPLAY OF STORY AND MUSIC
With any opera, particularly if it has a challenging subject, it's important to see how the time-honored devices of the genre function. Before Night Falls opens with a very brief prelude, instead of a more traditional overture. The orchestral music of the Prologue is melancholy as we meet Arenas. He enters, winded after climbing many flights of stairs upon return from an exhausting trip to France, undertaken to help ensure his literary legacy. He is startled to find a bottle of rat poison, which he takes to be someone's sinister allusion to suicide.
In arioso lines that gather strength as he sings, this poet who has survived vilification and torture ends on a triumphant note. He cries for inspiration and health sufficient to stave off death, so that he can finish his work "Before Night Falls."
His pleas catapult him, and the audience, into the past, where the story begins. The first act of the opera is rich in the musical device that so effectively transforms drama into sound: tone painting. The contrasts are invigorating, from the beatific sounds of nature to a cheery guerilla tune that turns dark once the "idealistic revolutionaries" become murderers in their own right. His mother's poignant, soaring aria begging him to keep his dreams ("Promise me, child") lingers long in the listener's ear.
Winsome and unforgettable are the bubbling patterns suggesting typewriter keys in the lovely trio where Arenas' Muses urge him to keep writing ("Send it out"). Winsome, too, are the sultry arabesques and syncopated effects that color the simmering scenes of Cuban dance and erotic love. And, of course, there is frightening music, first when Rey is vilified by his aunts, and later when he is arrested with other Cuban "undesirables" on the beach.
Standing in a long tradition of operatic prison scenes, the chorus starkly laments their "dark and ancient fortress." Arenas and his nemesis Victor face off in a forceful duet: both are true believers ("We meet again on the field of battle"). Eventually Victor forces Arenas to watch a television broadcast of the poet Ovidio repudiating a host of Cuban writers, including Arenas. The revelation crushes Arenas. Above trembling, quiet and dissonant chords, Victor reads him the prepared confession. Devastated, Arenas signs it. He is freed from prison, yes, but in an arioso punctuated by bursts of chords and choral sighs he cries: "What kind of freedom is this?"
In Act Two, the composer uses a tighter palette of sound. In the musical depiction of emigration, a spunky repeated pattern, or ostinato, underlies the tense scene where Arenas must pass through guards who rubberstamp his unsuitability to remain in Cuba. The action moves in concise scenes. The composer uses strong orchestral interludes to portray the transitions in Arenas' circumstances and state of mind. Arenas will sing again of nature, but now the liberating sea has become a jail's implacable bars." ("What magic color is the Sea?"). He finds joy, particularly in his relationship with a troubled, but endearing young man named Lazaro. Their meeting in the opera is marked by a magical swirl of arpeggio ("My name is Lázaro...I love to read good books."). And there are tense encounters with some who had betrayed him.
Finally, night does fall. A weakened Arenas prepares his suicide after handing his finished manuscript to Lazaro: "Cuba will be free. I already am" - the last words in his suicide note. The chorus, orchestra and Muses gently sweep in with radiant music as Arenas' ashes are cast out upon his beloved sea.
Before Night Falls accomplishes what every important opera seeks to do by transcending a specific time and place to capture universal themes. Fascinated by what he calls "freedom, memory, imagination, beauty, the questing human spirit and our individua land collective frailty," Jorge Martin has woven these themes into a vibrant music drama. Before Night Falls leads us into the tragic circle of Arenas' life and draws us out again, tugging at the indestructible heartstrings of our common human experience.
- Dr. Carol Reynolds
Dr. Carol Reynolds spent 21 years at Southern Methodist University as a Music History Professor. She lives on a ranch in Montague County, Texas, raises goats, and has just published a lively multimedia course for secondary students and adults: Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History & Culture (DVDS, CDs, Text). www.professorcarol.com