The Fort Worth Opera prepares to debut one of the gayest world premieres the opera world has ever seen. And that’s saying something
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS
Bass Performance Hall, 525 Commerce St., Fort Worth.
May 29 at 8 p.m., June 6 at 2 p.m. FWOpera.org
As a gay Cuban-American, Jorge Martin could be expected to show an interest in the life of Reinaldo Arenas, the novelist-memoirist-poet whose openly gay lifestyle and writing made him an enemy of the Castro regime before he committed suicide in New York in 1990. But until Martin read his autobiography Before Night Falls in 1993, he had never even heard of Arenas.
"I first became aware of him when the book came out," says Martin, who lives most of the time in Vermont. Arenas wrote of a Cuba Martin was too young and far-removed to remember, but something in the language and humor he recognized as Cuban captured him, as did tales of gay life.
"The book was especially popular in the gay community. It was not only a great book, but was about an amazing gay man," Martin says. And in his head, Martin heard Arenas’ voice … sing.
Still, it wasn’t Martin — a composer and pianist with a background in opera but no major productions — who originally thought of turning Before Night Falls into an opera, but his friends who said he talked about the book so much, maybe he should try adapting it.
Martin certainly saw the potential for an opera in the bones of the story. "Its themes of freedom and escape and how do you live life as an outsider in a society that is oppressive [are operatic]," Martin says. "Rey was out and very bold — he as a brave man."
Martin acquired the rights to adapt Before Night Falls in 1995, but it has taken more than a dozen years to realize his dream of producing a full-scale production, as the Fort Worth Opera ushers in the world premiere this weekend as part of its festival.
"It took so long because it was not commissioned — I had to do it between other things," Martin explains. He shopped it around to various opera companies but nobody was picking it up. Then Darren Woods, the gay general director of the FWO, heard about it and decided to take a chance.
That’s par for the course for Woods, who has taken many risks from subject matter to the types of shows he’s offering to Cowtown: In the past three years, he has mounted productions of Dead Man Walking by gay composer Jake Heggie (Moby-Dick), a world premiere from gay composer Thomas Pasatieri (Frau Margot) and the American premiere of the opera adaptation of Angels in America.
One of those risks is casting an unknown to portray Arenas.
"The intimidation was two years ago when I was first handed it at the workshop," chuckles Wes Mason, the 25-year-old tenor making his major opera debut in the title role. "I’d never attempted anything that large before. But now I’ve lived with it all this time. And [director] David Gately and Jorge Martin have been the biggest mentors. When I try to think of other roles this is like, what I come up with is in the musical theater repertoire, where I’m onstage 90 percent of the time and have two very elaborate dances," says Mason.
Martin has no truck with that comparison: "I don’t mind calling it a musical," he says of his opera.
Mason had never even heard of Arenas, his memoir or the Oscar-nominated film with Javier Bardem until he learned of the opera. And if the idea of playing a frankly sexual gay man gave the straight Mason pause, he doesn’t show it.
"[Arenas] bounds into the sexuality without apologizing for it. His escapades, cruising are just so matter-of-fact and shocking … for anybody!"
That homoeroticism is most tangibly expressed in the opera during an especially sensual and suggestive dance (choreographed by John de los Santos) between Arenas and his lover that Mason concedes may be off-putting to more traditional opera audiences — ironically, since they are used to much more physical contact between men in other contexts: "[Those people] need to watch a basketball game [or Ultimate Fighting Championship]," he laughs.
Jesus Garcia, an openly gay opera singer who plays multiple roles in Before Night Falls, says there are still barriers for gay actors and character portrayals in opera. Garcia was the only out gay performer to appear in a leading role in Baz Luhrmann’s celebrated 2003 Broadway production of La Boheme (a performance that won him a Tony Award).
"The gay community has always been at the forefront of culture," and generations before his have well-deserved reputations as opera queens. With younger gays, he thinks not so much. But changing mores may alter that.
"I think attitudes about homosexuality in general are changing," he says. "So many people are out now. Still, when you look at them, many are comedians. It’s like you have to be funny [to be out]." When audiences are presented with more serious presentations of gay issues, as Before Night Falls is, the challenge is greater.
But attitudes are only half the battle — the product must also be good. And what Garcia thinks will really make the difference in this production is the music.
"Often when you think modern opera, you think atonal," he says. "But this piece, on first hearing it, you can immediately love it."
Martin is modest in accepting the praise.
"The closer you come to opening night, the more marginal the composer becomes," he says. It takes a lot of people working very hard to make an opera come together, and he’s as excited as anyone to see it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 28, 2010.
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