Seven years have passed since Fort Worth Opera staged the world premiere of Jorge Martin’s opera, “Before Night Falls,” and on March 18, Florida Grand Opera will finally mount the second production.
“A second outing for a new opera is possibly more remarkable than a world premiere,” said Martin. “That’s one reason I’m very, very grateful.”
Martin, who was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1959 and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1965, based his opera on the memoir of the same name by gay Cuban dissident and author Reinaldo Arenas.
“I read the book shortly after it came out in 1993 and I got the rights to set it to music in 1995, before the estate gave the rights for a film adaptation, so I got there first,” the composer recalled.
Martin was attracted to the central character, Arenas, who was “full of life” and managed to escape Castro’s Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
“That was an amazing story, but there were so many events in his life that I thought would be great for the musical stage. It had the potential for good musical theater,” he said.
In 2000, director Julian Schnabel released the critically-acclaimed feature film that starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.
“Unfortunately, opera takes longer than a movie—15 years—which by the way is long, but not unheard of in the opera world,” explained Martin.
The composer struggled to find the right librettist to craft the words of his opera.
“After several attempts, I decided this could drag on forever, so I decided to try my own hand at it. I drew up my own scenario, like a movie storyboard, and then I asked the translator to help me,” Martin said, noting most of the opera is sung in English.
He took great care to ensure the work was historically accurate (“It had to be legitimate.”), but also incorporated the requisite drama to engage audiences. “Workshopping” then took another three months as musical elements were added and then Martin began “shopping” the work to leading opera companies.
Martin approached Florida Grand Opera (FGO) a decade ago, but the previous administration showed little interest in the new work. That disappointment fortunately led Martin to Fort Worth.
“Amazingly, who would have thought Texas? I’m glad the premiere was in Texas, because if it played in Texas, it will play anywhere,” he said. “That audience doesn’t have that strong of a connection to the story, meaning it has to fly as a work of art. It’s not propaganda, it’s art, a story about a gay Cuban. I’m a gay Cuban.”
But he’s glad the work is now seeing new life in Miami, a city with both large Cuban and gay communities and he credits the foresight of FGO general director Susan Danis, who has not only embraced the traditional opera repertory, but pursued opportunities to stretch her audience’s understanding of the genre, mounting powerful productions of Marvin David Levy’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” and Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s “The Passenger.”
“My fear is that people who tend to pigeon hole will say it’s for Cubans, or for gays, or that sort of thing, It’s not. It’s like saying ‘Carmen’ is for whores or French people,” he said. “The thing about theater and art is getting outside of yourself and into other people’s situations. Opera has these outrageous characters—Japanese princesses, Russian czars—why can’t you have a Cuban rebel?”
Ironically, after his flight to freedom, Arenas became disappointed and bitter. While a persecuted dissident in his native Cuba, the poet was a cause célèbre, a political chip in the Cold War, but he became just another outspoken exile in the U.S. After being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1987, he later committed suicide by an intentional overdose of drugs and alcohol.
“Interest waned in him. His talent is always recognized, translated into a ton of languages, movie and now an opera. I don’t think he would have ever thought he would have an opera made about his life. His estate was amused, but I showed them,” Martin concluded.
Florida Grand Opera presents Jorge Martin’s “Before Night Falls” on March 18, 19, 21, 24 and 25 at the Arsht Center in Miami. Tickets start at $12 at FGO.org.