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An Opera Apart

by Jay Nordlinger

Fort Worth, Texas — Fort Worth, they say, is “Where the West Begins.” And residents of this city like to joke that nearby Dallas is “Where the East Peters Out.” The opera company in Fort Worth has a slogan of its own — a pun: “Where the Fest Begins.” Every year, usually in late May and early June, Fort Worth Opera puts on a festival, and this year it consists of three operas: Don Giovanni, The Elixir of Love, and Before Night Falls. The last of these is a new opera by a Cuban-American composer, Jorge Martín. It’s based on the well-known autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban novelist who was able to flee to America before he died. And it’s this opera that I have come to see.

By the way, Fort Worth Opera has another slogan that catches the ear: “It’s Opera, Y’all!”

You may not think of Texas for opera, but you should. Dallas Opera put itself on the map — a world map — when Maria Callas sang some historic performances there in the late 1950s. (Most of her performances were historic, somehow.) And Houston Grand Opera — “HGO,” as it’s known — is one of the most important companies in America. It is known in particular for launching American operas — although Fort Worth is doing the job this time.

You may remember that a movie of Before Night Falls was made in 2000. It was directed by Julian Schnabel and starred Javier Bardem. When I wrote about this movie, I received a letter from a reader. He said that he had seen the movie in a heavily gay neighborhood and overheard the conversation of two men as they were exiting the theater. One was saying to the other, “Wow, what an eye-opener. I had no idea.” No idea of what?

Of the persecution of gays by the Cuban revolution (i.e., Castro’s gang). They threw gays into cells and camps, along with other “undesirables.” One of the gays was Arenas. And the father of this prison system, the Cuban gulag, was none other than Che Guevara himself: hero of a billion T-shirts. The Left is very uncomfortable with this aspect of the revolution (when they know about it). Bring it up, and they’re apt to change the subject, angrily.

Arenas was born in 1943. When a teenager, he joined the revolutionaries, fighting in the hills. But he soon discovered the revolutionaries for what they were. A free and humane spirit, he could only oppose them: only be a “counterrevolutionary.” He started to write novels in the 1960s. One of them was smuggled out to be published in France. He was tossed into the gulag, both for his literary disobedience and for his homosexuality — which was also a form of disobedience. He went through the usual: unstinting torture. And eventually they broke him. He renounced his dissidence and his homosexuality. But he managed to escape the island during the chaos of the Mariel boatlift in 1980. As an exile in America, he lived only ten more years. Dying of AIDS, he committed suicide. His last act was to finish his autobiography, Before Night Falls.

The composer Jorge Martín was born in 1959 and came to America with his family in 1965. They lived in New Jersey. He won the right to compose an opera on Before Night Falls in 1995 — that is, he reached an agreement with the Arenas estate. According to interviews, he almost drew short of composing the opera. He too is Cuban-born, creative, and gay. And he despises “identity politics” (I am quoting him now). In the end, however, he said, “Screw it, I’ll do it” — he loved the story too much, and was too taken with its operatic possibilities, to pass it by. He wrote the opera without a commission, which is not all that common; he just wanted to do it, possibly had to do it. He and Dolores Koch collaborated on the libretto. She was the translator of Before Night Falls, and knew Arenas well.

Can we talk about the opera world? We’re all adults here, right? We can speak frankly. The opera world is very gay and very left-wing. There are a fair number of conservatives in it. Many are closeted, and they sometimes come out to me (swearing me to eternal secrecy, on pain of death). But the opera world is by and large strongly left-wing, as well as gay. And Before Night Falls will pose a dilemma: On one hand, you have your 50-year love affair with the Castro dictatorship; on the other hand . . . what about gays? It’s one thing to persecute filthy capitalists who want to sell toothpaste in the shadows, or who read National Review–style literature by candlelight. But gays?

The Bass Performance Hall here in Fort Worth is a bright and beautiful thing. High on the façade, angels protrude, blowing long, long trumpets. This hall is the site of the Van Cliburn Competition, held every four years, like presidential elections and the Olympics. (Cliburn, the legendary pianist who will be 76 this summer, is a Texan.) A mixed and interesting crowd walks into the hall for Before Night Falls. There are some big mamas, in sleeveless and backless dresses, sportin’ big ol’ tattoos.

Inside the hall, there is a stunning dome, known justly as the Great Dome. And we will have surtitles, miles above the stage — too high for comfortable use, from some seats. The surtitles will be in English, the language of the opera, and Spanish. Are the Spanish titles really necessary or are they an affectation — like signers at conventions that may have no deaf audience members at all?

Before the opera begins, two men walk out — opera officials — to make remarks. In my experience, nothing kills or deflates a musical evening like talking from the stage. The men say how excited they are, how excited we should be, what a great evening it will be. Really, music should be allowed to speak for itself. The best way to begin a musical occasion — especially a premiere — is with the downbeat: with the first note.

As the opera begins, we see Arenas in a New York apartment, dying. Then he flashes back to his youth in Cuba, and the story unspools from there. We see a lot of frolicking on the beach — Where the Boys Are, with only boys. All Frankies and no Annettes. Before long, we’re in the hills, with the revolutionaries. They are mouthing their slogans: “Poverty, no more! Ignorance, no more!” And they dispatch their “revolutionary justice,” which appalls the protagonist. He learns that he can trust no one, or trust few: Friends, in the grip of the state, betray.

When he makes it to America, he is free but creatively stifled. And he says, “The Left hates my politics, the Right hates my sexuality.” In that apartment, he ends it.

And the music, which is what counts supremely? It begins both pleasant and anxious: The story, the music seems to say, will come to no good end. The score sounds like a lot of American opera, with Bernstein hovering over. Often it is an amiable wash, with flashes of piquancy. For a while, you may think that the opera will expire from blandness: but the music, with the story, gathers force.

Like much of American opera, the music is eclectic, shifting from style to style. Early on, in that New York apartment, Arenas hears a kind of heavenly chorus. It is French-sounding, Debussyan — think “Sirènes,” from Nocturnes. When the action moves to Cuba, the maracas start up, and we feel the Latin beat. Also, there will be what you might consider Cuban classical music: Lecuona? The revolutionaries are accorded fierce and stupid martial music — just what they deserve. As Arenas is typing, we hear some minimalism, Reichian minimalism (very effective). When the talk is of escaping the island, I think I hear a wisp of “America” from West Side Story. And at various points, the music is Straussian — Korngoldian, too. The final pages are kissed with such lyricism. They may put you in mind of Rosenkavalier.

Although Martín’s score is eclectic, it is not annoyingly pastiche-like. It is nicely shape-shifting. And it all coheres. The orchestration often has a beautiful sheen: transparent but not thin or barren. And I will tell you something extraordinary: Before Night Falls is full of arias, duets, trios, and choruses. There are real, unabashed melodies and tunes. That is old-fashioned; indeed, it is well-nigh counterrevolutionary.

I will give Before Night Falls two high accolades that may sound like faint praise: It holds interest; and I would like to see and hear it again. You cannot say that about just any work that makes a debut.

In Fort Worth, Martín had the benefit of some excellent performers, including the baritone who portrayed Arenas, Wes Mason: young, charismatic, and bold. He also had a winning production from David Gately: modest in its materials (scenery and such) but not so modest in its impact. This production could teach the Metropolitan Opera, and other big houses, a lesson: You don’t need a big budget to mount a good production, just wit and taste.

Finally, a word or two about politics, broadly defined. (Very broadly defined.) It’s astonishing to see a work of art that opposes the Cuban revolution — that knows it for what it is. I sat in wonderment, during particular scenes and moments. Did they really show a paredón, a wall against which the revolution shot “traitors”? Did they really put an image of Che Guevara in a menacing light, rather than the usual adoring one? Did a character really say, “The regime hates any thought that’s free”? Were we really seeing events in the Cuban gulag — just as we see in escapees’ memoirs, trashed, sniffed at, or mocked in The New York Review of Books?

The Cuban revolution is one of the most mythologized — i.e., lied about — events in modern history. Not here, baby. Before Night Falls may be the finest anti-revolutionary opera since The Dialogues of the Carmelites (which is about the monsters of 1789 in France). Is it the only one?

Frankly, it’s hard to believe that they — they: the opera world, the keepers of the culture — will let Martín get away with this. With this gusano opera. (Gusano means “worm,” and is what the Cuban Communists and their apologists abroad have always called any Cuban who opposes the regime.) I have already heard some grumbling: some grumbling about the opera’s harsh depiction of Castro’s gang. If the opera makes it to New York, what will they say? Will the gay-rights angle win out, or will the honest portrayal of the revolution be too much to bear? New York, like the opera world at large, is used to such operas as Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, which is about Federico García Lorca and the Spanish Civil War. As directed by Peter Sellars, it puts Franco’s executioners in the uniform of the American military. That’s your ticket to success!

Martín has said that Before Night Falls is about beauty and hope, and so it is. An article about his opera described it as an “ode to freedom” — and so it is. It is brave, both in its libretto and in its score (all that melodicism, unsanctioned by the music establishment). The opera is a worthy work of art. It treats a moving story movingly. And, for telling a truth too seldom told, it makes you grateful.

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