In the land of Cuba, on that warm, tropical island hugged by the sea, the mighty moon draws the tides of the ocean to starry Caribbean shores. But there is more to this little island than the beach, the moon and countless starry nights. On this floating stretch of land ring the cries of oppression from the women and the men, shouts for freedom which are not always heard. It is the land where Reinaldo Arenas was born, where he established his life as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Like many others, he was an early collaborator with the Revolutionary cause. However, Arenas found himself mentally and physically oppressed by Cuba’s homophobic Regime. His home which had birthed and raised him, became his floating prison, the sea its impenetrable bars. Reinaldo Arenas was forced to renounce his works, his beliefs, and his openly gay lifestyle. He fled Cuba for New York City in 1980 on the Mariel, with a mixture of both sorrow and hope in his heart. His intentions were to publish his works freely in America and make them known around the world, but life in the Gilded Apple was not what it seemed. In 1987, Arenas was diagnosed with the deadly AIDS virus, a disease which took the lives of thousands of young people during the 1980s. On December 7, 1990, Reinaldo Arenas succumbed to depression, and died of overdose, but not before finishing his poignant and deeply sincere autobiography, “Antes que anochezca,” Before Night Falls.
Now, more than ten years after the memoir was published, the Florida Grand Opera presents an opera entitled Before Night Falls from March 18-25 at The Adrienne Arsht center on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. Written by Jorge Martín and directed by David Gately, Before Night Falls is a stunning musical depiction of Reinaldo Arenas’ life and memories. The first Act opens in Arenas’ apartment in Manhattan, the spotlight surrounding him upon his death bed. Arenas, (played by Elliot Madore) expresses yearning for his lost love, not a man but the long-suffering island of Cuba, his home over the seas that he had to leave behind in pursuit of freedom. His dear friend Lazaro (Michael Kunh), kneels by his bed and begs him not to die, for he knows it is imperative that Arenas finishes his autobiography and gets it out into the world. Arenas calls to his two muses, the Moon (Elizabeth Caballero) and the Sea (Melissa Fajardo), to sing to him and ignite his flame, bringing him back to the carefree summers of his childhood in Cuba. But nostalgia has a way of making the past seem more appealing than it actually was. This show, through the emotive orchestra conducted by Christopher Allen, follows Reinaldo Arenas through his decision to join the rebel troops in the mountains, the controversy of his writings and being ostracized by the gay-hating Cuban government, his arrest and time in jail, and finally, his escape from Cuba to America. The symphony is spectacular to behold—cleverly versatile, it dramatizes the darkest scenes of Arena’s life through weeping violins and heavy percussion, and gives life to the lighter moments through sunny harmonies. The music is free and moving, sounding much like the taste of truth that Arenas has in his mouth, the glorious freedom that he spent his life pursuing. It is as the poet Ovidio (played by Dinyar Vania) sings to Arenas after being forced to renounce his life as a writer: “The truth is stronger than tyrants, stronger than darkness.”
The truth can never be silenced. Tyrants and oppressors may try to mute the truth for a while by censoring media and literature, but the heart of the people always finds a way to see the light of day. In the same way that the Moon’s powerful gravity draws the waves out of the sea to crash on Cuban shores, the writers and poets of Arenas’ time were drawn ceaselessly to the truth. Their dedication to literature and their lust for political, intellectual, and sexual freedom has echoed throughout the ages. It is a shout that will only grow louder each time the pain and hope and beauty in Arenas’ work continues to impact readers for generations to come.
From Reinaldo Arenas’ suicide note: “Cuba will be Free. I already am.”