'Before Night Falls,' opera based on the life of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, opens in Miami

Soprano Elizabeth Caballero recalls feeling elated when she boarded the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Then 6 years old, she believed her father’s lie that they were visiting her aunt in Miami, not permanently leaving Cuba, her home.

One of roughly 125,000 refugees seeking new lives in the United States, Caballero boarded a 24-foot boat crammed with 18 other Cubans. These passengers, to Caballero, seemed more anxious than excited. Caballero later discovered that her aunt paid off a boat captain to transport the family.

Caballero portrays two roles, as the mother and the muse of dissident Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, in Florida Grand Opera’s regional premiere of “Before Night Falls,” opening Saturday, March 18, at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. For Caballero, the story strikes close to home: Arenas, a brilliant poet and novelist labeled an outcast in Cuba for his anti-Castro writings and flagrant homosexuality, also escaped to Miami on the Mariel boatlift.

“It was bittersweet for me to leave Cuba, and Reinaldo probably felt the same,” Caballero, now of West Palm Beach, says. “Renaldo says it was the country that imprisoned him, that the whole island was a prison. But it’s still a prison that you can’t help but love.”

Arenas was imprisoned several times in Cuba, tortured by Castro’s government, coerced into signing confessions about his sexuality and compelled to reform his lifestyle. His dramatic life ended in 1990 when, living in poverty and dying of AIDS in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, he committed suicide at age 47. Arenas’ story has been captured in two other works titled “Before Night Falls”: a posthumous 1993 memoir and a Julian Schnabel-directed 2000 film starring Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem. Florida Grand Opera’s version was composed and arranged by Jorge Martin.

Martin also carries a strong personal connection to Arenas. Also a gay, Cuban-born son of exiles, Martin arrived in America at age 5, but it was Arenas’ indomitable spirit and “miraculous life of hardship” that lured the writer to adapt “Before Night Falls” into an opera. Martin bought the rights to the opera in 1995 and spent 15 years fine-tuning the production before its 2010 world premiere by the Fort Worth Opera. He says Arenas began as a supporter of Cuba’s revolution, but the Communist government quickly interfered with his “personal and artistic freedoms.”

“Reinaldo started as so many people did, as part of the Cuban revolution, but later, after seeing savage killings by the Communist government, he became angry,” says Martin, speaking inside a rehearsal space at Florida Grand Opera’s headquarters in Doral. “As far as being a homosexual, it was a very machismo regime, which prided virile, strong, masculine stereotypes. Reinaldo didn’t fit that mold.”

During the 1970s, Arenas spent several years in Cuban prisons, notably the infamous El Morro Castle, and attempted escape twice: once by floating across the Florida Straits in an inner tube, and the other by swimming across Guantanamo Bay to reach the United States’ naval base. Both attempts failed. His last-ditch effort at escape: the Mariel boatlift.

“When he applied to get on the Mariel boatlift, officials asked him if he was a top or bottom,” Martin says. “If you answered bottom, you showed weakness, and were allowed onboard. Reinaldo said he was a bottom. It was all a game.”

Caballero describes Arenas’ story as “powerful,” and says that its operatic staging in Miami will resonate among the city’s Cuban residents.

“One of the things my character, Reinaldo’s mother, says to him in an aria is that we always carry hope in our hearts,” Caballero says. “There’s not much hope left in Cuba, anymore. The real Cubans I speak to, my family members, when they risk their lives, it’s because there’s a little glimmer of hope. That’s the point of Jorge’s opera.”

Elliot Madore, a Toronto-born baritone who portrays Arenas, says the difference between his life and his character’s is vast. “By comparison, I’ve lived a charmed life,” he says. But the 29-year-old identifies with Arenas’ spirituality, on full display during an intense scene near the end of Act 1, when Madore’s character is being interrogated by the Cuban government in El Morro Castle. His interrogator demands that Arenas sign a letter renouncing his homosexuality in exchange for his freedom.

“His courageous defiance toward the government is so admirable,” says Madore, of San Francisco. “He signs the letter and, technically, he’s a free man, but he’s also not, because he can’t love who he wants to love, and be who he wants to be. I haven’t gone through what a Cuban exile went through, but my hope is they connect with us onstage, and have it be a time of reflection for them.”

Florida Grand Opera’s “Before Night Falls” will be staged 7 p.m. March 18, 2 p.m. March 19, 8 p.m. March 21 and 8 p.m. March 24-25 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. The opera will close March 25. Admission is $21-$250. Call 800-741-1010 or go to FGO.org.

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