Out Cuban-American composer Jorge Martín’s opera “Before Night Falls” — based on the vivid, sometimes steamy posthumous memoirs of charismatic poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) — stands as one of this century’s most exciting and musically enjoyable new operas. Martín obtained the rights before Julian Schnabel made his popular 2000 film starring Javier Bardem and — working with Arenas’ astute translator, the late Dolores M. Koch — fashioned a multi-decade saga encompassing beach seductions, Arenas’ increasing conflict with Fidel Castro’s actively homophobic regime, the refugee experience, and depredations of the AIDS epidemic, as well as reflective poetic passages.
In 2005, when American Opera Projects workshopped the piece in New York, I asked Martín in these pages where he fantasized it being staged. His reply: ”Of course, the first two cities that come to mind are Miami and New York, the places that were central to Reinaldo’s exile, and large Cuban centers.”
Now his Floridian dreams comes true; perhaps NYCO will follow suit, since the opera — beyond its high basic quality — seems multiply made for the expansion of audience diversity that the art form needs.
“Before Night Falls” got its bang-up world premiere at the Fort Worth Opera in 2010, part of a body of contemporary — often political, sometimes queer-themed — work that seems to have been a major factor in the company’s having fired its visionary leader Darren Keith Woods in February: an early cultural loss of the Trump era. Martín values the support of FGO’s general director Susan Danis in creating well-attended outreach events at both LGBT and Cuban community centers at which company young artists have previewed his music and speakers have discussed Arenas in historical-political context.
“For many, this is part of their living history,” Martín noted. “Reinaldo was and is very well known here in Miami. It’s ironic that so many fled authoritarianism and Big Lie propaganda only to have it now unloosed here. The search for freedom is infinite.
“The production [comes from] Fort Worth, but tweaked by the creative team. The second time around, you get to execute your second thoughts! I myself tweaked the score a bit too; cutting a measure here, adding a beat there. Rescored, but without having to alter the parts’ layout.”
Playing Arenas will be Elliot Madore, the handsome Canadian baritone often cast as Don Giovanni who recently swaggered through Mercutio in the Met’s “Romeo et Juliette.”
Superb Met soprano Elizabeth Caballero sings the beautiful music of the Mother and the Moon Muse; poignantly, Caballero came from Cuba as a child on the same Mariel boatlift that brought Arenas and that the opera evokes. Mezzo Laura León, the Peasant's Mother, is a recent Cuban immigrant. The one holdover from Fort Worth’s original cast is incisive character tenor Javier Abreu, playing (among others) Arenas’ early lover and later betrayer.
“The original cast was terrific!,” Martín acknowledged. “But to hear how the piece works with different colors is actually an incredible luxury for a composer. Plus, the company is so focused on getting things authentically right. This is a story of universal appeal — but with special resonance in Miami.”
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS | Florida Grand Opera, Miami | Mar. 18-25 | $12-$175 at fgo.org or 800-741-1010