Writing an Opera About Writer Reinaldo Arenas

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 02:45 PM

Nonetheless, he acquired rights to the book in 1995 and wrote the libretto before knowing of a film version of Before Night Falls being made by Julian Schnabel that was released in 2000 with Javier Ba 'Before Night Falls,' an opera about Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, premiered in 2010 in Fort Worth and has now opened in Miami. (Ellen Appel)

There are not too many operas about writers. Given that writers have created almost all of the subject matter on which operas are based, one would think that some might have looked inward to produce texts about what it means to write for a living. The act of writing is not dramatic to anyone except the writer himself, for whom it can border on the traumatic. Staring at a blank computer screen or, for most of history, a blank page, and feeling the obligation to produce something meaningful and perhaps beautiful can feel daunting.

If you are not a writer, you might not realize a first draft is just that. Writing is really continuous rewriting and then knowing when to stop. The same phenomenon affects many composers. While Mozart and Rossini might have benefited from limitless inspiration and fluidity, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini persistently rewrote to get closer to being satisfied that the music expressed the characters and situations depicted in the librettos they used.

Probably the most famous operas about writers are Massenet’s Werther and Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Things end badly for both protagonists. The former kills himself when he cannot be with his beloved Charlotte. The latter returns to writing and searching for his muse when he repeatedly fails at finding a woman to love.

Rodolfo in La Bohème ekes out a meager existence writing articles but, as he pines for his beloved and dying Mimí, complains “Non sono in vena,” and declares that he is not finding the mood or inspiration to do his writing.

Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) led a life full of dramatic events tinged with tragedy and sadness. While dying of AIDS, he committed suicide in his apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan because he did not want return to a hospital.

His autobiography, Before Night Falls, was published in 1993 in a translation by Dolores M. Koch. The book details his life in Cuba in extreme poverty, his persecution by the Castro regime for being homosexual (including imprisonment and “re-education”) and his escape to the United States in 1980 as part of the Mariel boat lift in which more than 125,000 Cubans deemed “undesirable” by their government were allowed to flee to Miami. Would this nation accept so many refugees today?

Although he received some recognition in his lifetime for his writing, it did not result in enough income to live decently. According to his autobiography, he had more than five thousand sexual encounters and acquired the HIV virus when there were few available treatments. Those sick with AIDS were marginalized, discriminated against, impoverished and usually died terrible deaths.

In 1990, the year Arenas died, the New York City Opera did a production of La Traviata directed by Nic Muni set in that year. Although “AIDS” was never uttered or written in the projected titles, audiences clearly understood what caused Violetta’s horrific death.

In a letter to friends and newspapers before his suicide in December 1990, Arenas wrote, “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working…There is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness, and the diseases contracted in exile would probably never have happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country. I want to encourage the Cuban people out of the country as well as on the island to continue fighting for freedom. I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.”

Arenas’s life and autobiography make powerful material for an opera and one has been created by Jorge Martín, a Cuban-American composer who wrote the music and libretto. Before Night Falls received its world premiere at the Fort Worth Opera in 2010 and this production will be presented by Florida Grand Opera in Miami from Mar. 18-25.

When Before Night Falls was published, Martín read the book and was surprised when several friends said he should turn it into an opera. Though born in Cuba, Martín—now 57—moved with his family to New Jersey at the age of six. He has lived in New York, studied at Columbia University with composer Jack Beeson, “who believed you can’t teach composition but you can teach technical things such as setting words to music.” For more than three decades, Martín has lived in Vermont because he likes the “Yankee live-and-let-live style of living because I grew up knowing I was an outsider as someone who is Cuban and gay.”

Martín initially resisted doing an opera about Arenas because, “I never felt very keen on identity politics and its implication for art and artists. In this case, a bit of typecasting would be assumed because Reinaldo was a gay Cuban artist and I am a gay Cuban-American composer.” Nonetheless, he acquired rights to Before Night Falls in 1995 and wrote the libretto before knowing of the film version, which was made by Julian Schnabel and released in 2000 with Javier Bardem, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Arenas. 

Martín thought of using episodes and emotional elements from the book rather than making a chronological narrative. “Reinaldo had a sprawling life and I have used characters and vignettes from it. Boito in his Shakespeare libretti for Verdi knew what he needed for an opera and he did it. You use what you need. My opera is different in certain details from what was in Before Night Falls but captures very much the spirit of the man in the book. Reinaldo is the ultimate in honesty and unvarnished expression.”

Most of the opera is in English, with only a little Spanish for local flavor. Martín made this choice because “the rhythms of the two languages are so different and would result in music of different types.” In describing the music, Martín said “I have never incorporated Cuban music into my work. I try to have music be the story and it is the music I hear as I compose rather than something that might suggest a style or genre.” I hope one day to hear it in New York.

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Comments [2]

Fred Plotkin from New York

To Paul Capon in Canada: Good points. Andrea Chénier is one of my favorite operas and, not to disparage poets, but the sustained act of creation for them might be shorter than for a novelist or writer of stories. In the first act he has his "Improvviso" in which he creates a poem almost on the spot. But, yes, absolutely, Andrea Chénier is a writer. Don Quixote is more, and less, than a writer. One of my very favorite characters in all of literature. Cyrano De Bergerac, about whom there is an opera by Alfano, is also a writer in his way--but of beautiful letters. About doing "Before Night Falls" in Spanish...I think it actually would get wider performance possibilities in English and, apparently, so does Jorge Martín. The key point he was making is that he felt it works better in one language rather than bilingually because the rhythms of the language would affect how he composed the rhythms of the music and that the music he produced would not necessarily be his music but something impressionistic of another style. Interesting point and not one I hear composers make often. Thanks.

Mar. 17 2017 12:04 AM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Hi Fred: What about Andre Chenier - wasn't he a poet too during the French Revolution? I don't think it ended well for him either .... How about Don Quixote - again, not a happy ending?

In terms of Mr. Martin opera, I wonder if there would be a different feel or rhythm if it was mostly in Spanish? Moreover, would this help it travel internationally?

Thanks Paul Capon

Mar. 16 2017 12:53 AM

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