Gay composer Jorge Martín readies an opera about the late Reinaldo Arenas
Martín spoke by telephone with Gay City News while packing to leave the Bogliasco Foundation near Genoa, where he had a month-long grant to work on “Before Night Falls.”
DAVID SHENGOLD: Could you talk some about your path to composition?
JORGE MARTÍN: I knew I wanted to write music from a very early age, in Cuba, where I started piano lessons at age four––it was already unusual for Cuban parents to allow their son to take piano lessons, as that was considered to be something for girls. My sister brought Tchaikovsky into the house––who knew then he was a “gay” composer!––and the rest is history: I wanted to write music like that! But I kept my desire to be a composer a secret, because my mother’s fantasy was really for me to become a concert pianist, something for which I had truly no desire, but I humored her…. Eventually I was “in the closet” both about being a composer and about being gay, and at Columbia University I was further in the closet for being a tonal composer when the hegemony dictated one must be a serialist or dodecaphonist––it was very “uptown” and uptight. I came out of all those closets––first being a composer, then being gay about the same time I came out as a tonalist.
DS: What is the “gay content” of your other operatic works, and in other works involving sung or spoken texts?
JM: I’ve set Whitman and a young San Francisco poet, Dan Bellm, who treats gay themes in his work. I wrote an opera, “Beast and Superbeast,” based on Saki stories. They do not have gay content, but a very gay sensibility––Saki [the pseudonym for the Scottish Edwardian writer Hector Hugh Munro] was certainly homosexual, and had a very, shall we say, particular sense of humor. Lots of subtext, dark humor, critiques of social norms.
DS: Do you agree with Ned Rorem that there is no such thing as “gay music” per se? Is there a gay repertory, or approach, or some other category that you find useful?
JM: I do absolutely agree with Rorem. But there is a quality of subversiveness that is not exclusively gay but is definitely a part of gay art, insofar as it might be said to exist. The currently modish idea of “transgressivity” is too coarse by comparison. Subversion happens when the person experiencing the art comes to accept a point of view that s/he does not consciously avow, so that subconsciously it is an act of seduction on the part of the artist. After the experience of the work of art or performance, the audience may still not consciously admit they hold the view, but the unaccepted or unacknowledged idea has taken hold––I myself think through the agency of beauty or aesthetic perfection.
DS: When did Reinaldo Arenas impress himself onto your consciousness?
JM: Shortly after “Before Night Falls” was published posthumously, it gained widespread acclaim, and friends of mine said I had to read it. Finally one put a copy in my hands, and it was indeed a fabulous read! I was kvelling about it to a friend who then chirpily said, why not turn it into an opera? I countered that it was impossible because of the nature of the story telling and the million characters. But the themes of the memoir and the central character of Reinaldo Arenas were so strong they got me to thinking and eventually I tried my hand. The first few tries at an adaptaion were monstrous, but eventually I developed a scenario that I thought worked for opera. The greatest compliment I got was when an opera-savvy friend read the book on my advice and told me he thought it impossible to turn into a successful opera––but then when he read my treatment he said, “This will make a terrific opera!”
DS: Were you affected by Julian Schnabel’s film version “Before Night Falls,” with Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp?
JM: I actually obtained the musical adaptation rights to “Before Night Falls” before the estate had decided on whom to award the film rights. I had already formed the general scenario for the opera by the time the movie came out so it was interesting for me to see where we chose the same episodes and where we diverged. But film and opera are very different forms and work in very different ways, although both are performing arts that take place in a defined time frame. Novels, screenplays and libretti, though they use words, are all worlds apart.
DS: How is Arenas regarded in the Cuban emigration today? And is he still known among younger Cubans, gay and straight, in Cuba?
JM: This is a big kettle and I’m not secure enough in the knowledge of this thick stew, but I know that Arenas is widely read––I see people on the New York subway reading his novels!––around the world.
DS: Please say a bit about your process of collaboration with Dolores M. Koch.
JM: I had been working with a friend on the libretto, but that petered out and then other projects intervened. Then I thought I’d ask Dolores––who was the translator of the book from Spanish, and who helped me at the very beginning with information on how to get the rights––to help me, as she knew Reinaldo’s work inside out and his whole world, and I did not want to make some horrific mistake or misrepresentation of that world. So although I turned out the scenario and most of the words, Dolores provided many useful passages to adapt from Arenas, and other useful ideas regarding names.
DS: Where, when you fantasize, do you envision a full production of “Before Night Falls” being staged?
JM: 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, but the work most certainly transcends the bounds of time and place. San Francisco, Seattle, Santa Fe, Montreal, Houston––hell, European houses!––could all find it appealing.
David Shengold (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about opera and the arts for Time Out New York, Opera News and Opera.