Addison composer takes national stage
ADDISON — Since moving to Addison 16 years ago, Cuban-born composer Jorge Martín’s musical career has moved on a steadily upward path.
Martín’s operas, chamber and classical music pieces, and song cycles have been performed to acclaim in a dozen states, from Massachusetts to California, from New York to Florida.
Many of his works have been recorded; he has earned hard-to-come-by residencies in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the Berkshires, and has been awarded prizes and fellowships from organizations including the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa, Italy.
But now Martín says he is experiencing something as musically exciting as anything since 1963, when at the age of 4 he first took piano lessons in Cuba.
On Saturday and again on June 6, the Fort Worth (Texas) Opera will stage the world premiere of Martín’s full-scale, two-and-a-half-hour opera based on the memoir of the late Cuban dissident and author Reinaldo Arenas, “Before Night Falls.”
Martín said more people will perform — a 100-plus singers, dancers, musicians and stage extras known as “supers” — and attend “Before Night Falls” — more than 2,000 — than any of his previous works.
Not only that, but opera houses more often choose to stage tried-and-true standards rather than take a chance on a contemporary, unknown work — the Fort Worth Opera will also present Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” during its spring season, for example. It all adds up to “a very big deal,” Martín said in a phone interview.
“A lot of people are very interested in world premieres of operas because they are so rare … It’s a lot of money, and it’s a risk,” he said. “So there’s a lot riding on it.”
At the same time, there is reason for optimism: According to AARP’s online magazine “Segunda Juventud,” the opera was well-received in a workshop setting in upstate New York this past summer.
Martín said that he is confident in his work, preparations for the Saturday’s premiere have gone well, and his artistic excitement is peaking.
“I’ve been stepping from cloud to cloud. In rehearsal it’s just a pleasure and a privilege to hear a great orchestra and chorus,” Martín said. “That is like nothing else. That is a total high. It doesn’t get better.”
MUSIC AND VERMONT
Essentially, that is how Martín explains his initial attraction to music, although at first he said that would prove a difficult task.
“I can’t tell you what it was. I had a 4-year-old mind,” he said. “I was transported somewhere that was magical listening to music, and I wanted to be part of it.”
Two years later, his parents left Cuba with Martín and his older siblings, ending up in New Jersey, near New York City, via Spain. Martín completed high school there, attended Yale, and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in music composition from Columbia University.
During his grade school years, he developed another attachment — to Vermont.
“When I was in fourth grade studying different states, I just sort of liked what I read about Vermont,” Martín said. “I just liked the pictures … I guess the geography book cast a spell on me.”
He visited Vermont several times with his partner, and they decided to buy a home in Vermont in 1994. The first one they saw was in Addison, near Snake Mountain. The couple, now together for two-and-a-half decades and married in a ceremony in Massachusetts, bought it.
“It was love at first sight … I loved coming up to Vermont,” Martín said. “I had a fantasy of coming up here some day. It just happened sooner that I thought.”
‘BEFORE NIGHT FALLS’
At about the same time Martín and his partner bought the house, Martín also purchased the musical drama rights for Arenas’ memoirs, which also served as the basis of a 2000 movie of the same name starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.
As a teenager, Arenas fought with Fidel Castro’s revolution, but became disillusioned after Castro assumed power. He smuggled a work out of Cuba that was published in France and embarrassed the Cuban regime. In retaliation Arenas was then imprisoned and tortured for being a homosexual. Arenas agreed to stop writing as a condition of his release, but, unhappy, escaped to the U.S. in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
In the U.S. Arenas wrote his autobiography, which he had to struggle to finish after contracting HIV/AIDS. Arenas, dying from the disease, ultimately committed suicide in 1990.
Martín said he was at first in the 1990s reluctant to consider the project because of what he called the superficial similarities between him and Arenas — both are gay Cuban émigrés. According to the “Segunda Juventud” piece, Martín was wary of “identity politics” when he considered whether to proceed.
“Reinaldo’s experience as a Cuban and as a gay man are so totally different than mine,” Martín told the Independent. “I left much younger under much different circumstances … Who he was as an individual was totally different than me. I still had to make an imaginative leap to get to his role.”
Ultimately, Martín felt Arenas’ story contained universal elements that not only deserved exploration, but also could be told through music.
“In ‘Before Night Falls’ there are scenes of liberty and freedom, and it’s about the individual against the state and individual artistic expression set against the state, and that is a timeless theme,” Martín said. “How does an individual live his life in society, especially if you’re an outsider, as Reinaldo Arenas was?”
Stylistically, those who see “Before Night Falls” can expect a much different look than those who show up for “Don Giovanni” — rolled-up shirt sleeves, white pants and blue jeans, and green military fatigues.
Martín said classic operas offered windows into their times, as his opera does into its.
“Don Giovanni was the opera that turned me on to opera … It’s towering. It’s fabulous,” Martín said. “In its day, it was contemporary. It was the style of the day. Now we have different subjects, different music, and actually there’s a lot of different kinds of things people groove to.”
Now, Martín is not the only one eagerly anticipating the debut of his contemporary work. Writing on the Wmagazine.com website, the blogger “OperaChic” named “Before Night Falls” as No. 3 on the list of must-see operas this season out of all the works being staged internationally.
While getting ready for another day of helping to organize seven principal singers, a 31-member chorus, a 51-piece orchestra and the supers, Martín took a moment to reflect how grateful he was that several of his Vermont friends are coming to Fort Worth for the premiere — and how his hard work over the years not only composing but also networking and taking care of details has helped advance his career.
“It’s all so gradual. You do all kinds of things along the way that are tiny, tiny bits, and you look back and you see there is a structure,” he said. “I think you need to have a lot of perseverance and luck, I think. By luck I don’t think you mean blind luck. You can set yourself to have luck.”
A full list of Martín’s works, awards and accomplishments, as well as his own blog and related articles and reviews, may be found at jorgemartin.com; fwopera.org has information on “Before Night Falls.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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