Behind the scenes with composer Jorge Martin

Middlebury composer Jorge Martín, 57, has traveled around the country presenting productions of his various works, including “Before Night Falls.” It is an opera based on the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban writer who rebelled against the Castro regime. Martín himself was born in Cuba, and he moved to the U.S. when he was a young boy. He recently returned from Miami, where “Before Night Falls” was presented at the Florida Grand Opera, and talked with the Addison Independent’s Emma Cotton about his work.
What was it about Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir that inspired you to write this piece?
Several things captivated me about Arenas: his indomitable spirit, his storytelling, his story; his bold escape from Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift was miraculous! The themes of his memoir I also found compelling: the struggle for freedom — political, artistic, sexual; beauty as a subversive force; and the condition of being an exile and immigrant, especially resonant these days.
With respect to production, can you tell us a bit about your role as a composer? What was it like behind the scenes at the Florida Grand Opera? How much time do you spend with the cast and crew, and what is your relationship like with them?
Opera companies don’t normally have a living composer to work with, so we are not a normal part of their process. But since I was available, I was able to answer singers’ questions and give them ideas for their interpretations. It was especially enjoyable to work with the conductor (Christopher Allen), who is really the heart and brain of every performance of an opera. Working with a large orchestra and opera chorus are the real treat for me because those are truly rare occurrences, and their sound is like nothing on earth! I loved working with all the personnel at Florida Grand Opera, both administrative and artistic; they were so enthusiastic, excellent at what they do, and jazzed to be working with a real live composer!
After all of the hard work, what does it feel like to watch the performance?
Well, a composer learns that his music, once written, is really no longer his own; it becomes the performers’. When you’re working with real pros, as I was at FGO, you’re in such good hands, and it’s easier to relax and to trust everyone will do their job and bring all of themselves to their task. One time, waiting for a rehearsal to start, I marveled how in opera everyone involved has to rely on literally hundreds of other artists — musicians, singers, choristers, stagehands, wigmakers, costumers, designers, director — doing their part flawlessly; that’s one reason live performance is such a thrill!
Your works have been shown all over the country, in New York City, Maryland, Texas, New Orleans, Boston, etc. What is it like working with different casts around the country, and seeing it presented in different places, to different audiences?
The world premiere was in Fort Worth, Texas, and I was very pleased that the opera played so well to an audience in a community which is not particularly Cuban at all. In Miami it was special because the story is living history; quite a few people in the audience actually met and knew the protagonist of the opera! That very rarely happens — and I hope one day, when none of that is part of the picture, and today in any other city, that “Before Night Falls” will still hold an audience and make them laugh and cry, because that is what my aim was: to write a work that speaks to all of us.
It was also a rare opportunity for me to get see my opera come to life with a new cast (only one role was reprised from the opening) because every performer brings something of their own to a role, and their interactions — just as in any live theatrical production. And, of course, it becomes something new with different voices, a different orchestra and conductor’s interpretation.
How and when did you become passionate about opera?
I started the piano as a little boy, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to pay any attention to opera, and from then I was hooked. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was what did it; the perfect melding of music and action and character and situation opened my eyes to all that music really is capable of. I wanted to be a part of that.
Would you say there is a general theme that connects all of your work? If so, can you tell us about that?
I’ve been told there is a vocal quality to all my music. It also tends to be lush and Romantic, but not always. I like to be challenging even as I am entertaining. For me the guiding principle, my highest aspiration, is something Mozart wrote in a letter to his father: that music should fascinate both those that know little about its workings, reveling in the sheer pleasure of it, and the connoisseurs as well, who marvel at the technique and virtuosity. Watching ice skaters, looking at a painting, or a quilt, I marvel at the beauty but know next to nothing about the technique, but I know an awful lot of work went into it!
What brought you to Middlebury, Vt.? Do you spend most of your time here composing music?
I work from home, in Middlebury, and I also travel some to attend performances, operas, concerts around the country, to keep up with friends and colleagues. I had a fantasy from childhood growing up in New Jersey of living one day in Vermont, and that dream came true when in 1994 I moved to Addison with my partner, later husband. When he passed away in 2013 I decided to move into the big — village. I was always drawn to the rural, the mountains, the quiet, the way of life here in this state. I love it. I need the quiet to be able to work.
Where and how can Addison County residents experience your work?
My music has been performed around Vermont a fair amount over the years, including by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. These things are unpredictable, but a lot of my music is recorded, including “Before Night Falls,” and is available commercially.

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