Before escaping Cuba, he was jailed for being outspoken and gay. Now, an opera tells his story.


A report by Jordan Levy for the Miami Herald.

The Florida Grand Opera revives the story of famed Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas in ‘Before Night Falls,’ an opera by exile composer Jorge Martin based on Arenas’ memoir and the film of the same name. The story of Arenas, who was jailed in Cuba for his outspoken writing and his homosexuality and escaped on the Mariel boatlift only to die of AIDS, has new resonance amid political controversy over refugees.

In the vast black rehearsal hall at Florida Grand Opera, the man playing a perpetual Cuban rebel and freedom seeker is dying again, laid out on a single bed in a bleak Manhattan apartment. “You will never be free,” a malevolent interrogator warns him in another scene.

But the story of Reinaldo Arenas, the brilliant and irrepressible dissident Cuban writer, is very much alive. An outcast jailed for his outspoken writing and flamboyant sexuality, Arenas escaped on the Mariel boatlift in 1980. A decade later, deathly sick with AIDS, he committed suicide. In 1993, the publication of his memoir, “Before Night Falls,” and then a 2000 film directed by Julian Schnabel gave Arenas’ life a new level of fame.

Now FGO is staging an operatic version of “Before Night Falls,” composed by Jorge Martin, a Cuban-born son of exiles who says Arenas’ story has profound implications beyond the Cuban-American community. The production opens this weekend.

“The central struggle of Reinaldo’s life was the struggle for freedom, as a writer, as a sexual being, as someone who wanted to see the world, so many freedoms that were not permitted him in Cuba” Martin says during a recent FGO rehearsal. “When he left Cuba, he had all those freedoms. … But he cannot escape AIDS. His life was a series of prisons and escapes from prisons. That, to me, is a universal condition.”

The opera is layered with Miami connections. Although he lived in New York, Arenas spent time and had many friends in Miami, where Mariel is a pivotal, and controversial, event in exile and city history. His death highlights a tragic but little-known chapter in the history of the gay community in Miami, as AIDS decimated newly liberated gay Cuban men.

But the current political climate has also given Arenas’ story broader resonance. The world is in the midst of its greatest refugee crisis since World War II. In the U.S., President Trump and other leaders have fueled a backlash against immigrants and refugees, given force by the administration’s travel ban and stepped-up deportations. Would the United States, and Miami, today accept 125,000 destitute refugees whom Cuba labeled “anti-social scum”?

FGO artistic director Susan Danis, a longtime friend of Martin’s and a fan of Arenas’ memoir and the film, hadn’t predicted the current situation when she added “Before Night Falls” to her Made for Miami series, which presents contemporary operas relevant to South Florida such as last season’s Holocaust tale “The Passenger.” But she marvels at how relevant Martin’s opera has become.

“I’m amazed at how many people I’ve met who knew Arenas or worked with him,” Danis says. “This is a piece that is part of people’s lives. It’s never forget, whether it’s the Holocaust or being persecuted by totalitarian regimes.

“There are still people dealing with what he dealt with, not only in Cuba but in many countries around the world. The whole world is in a refugee crisis.”

Raised by a poor single mother in the Cuban countryside, the teenage Arenas joined the Cuban Revolution, then went to Havana, where his talent was initially rewarded by the nascent government cultural apparatus. But his critical and irreverent writing, which was published and recognized outside of Cuba, and an increasingly repressive crackdown on gay men labeled dangerous enemies of the state, turned Arenas into a social pariah. He was imprisoned twice, once in the infamous El Morro Castle. He escaped on the exodus of boats leaving on the Mariel boatlift, staying briefly in Miami before settling in New York, just as AIDS began to hit the gay community. Arenas became ill in 1987. When he took his own life in December 1990, his suicide note closed with these words:

“I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.”

Despite his talent and heroic dissident status, Arenas was an outsider in his new country. “He was very anti-Castro, and that didn’t work well for the American left, but then he was flamboyantly gay, and that didn’t go over well with the more right-wing Cuban community,” says Martin. “He couldn’t escape the fact that he had become very much a political figure. At one point, he said he was more valuable to the world as a dissident in jail in Cuba than now that he was free.”

That so many of those who came on Mariel — one fourth, according to an in-depth 1990 Miami Herald story — were gay (sometimes flamboyantly so) was disturbing to much of Miami’s socially conservative exile community. Government agencies and private charities dealing with the controversial influx of refugees also refused to acknowledge their presence; at the time, homosexuality was grounds for exclusion for immigrants to the U.S. Those attitudes helped send Arenas to New York, which was more welcoming to a resolutely Bohemian, sometimes outrageous, gay artist.

“He thrived on being a thorn in the side of authority … the one rude person at a very formal banquet,” says Nat Chediak, programming director at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and founder of the Miami International Film Festival. Chediak knew Arenas. “For him the liberty of being able to express himself freely in New York was nothing short of euphoric, and it was something he never could have done in Miami.” When he ran into Arenas on the streets of New York in the late ’80s, Chediak was struck by how terrible he looked and how happy he seemed.

“He was beyond himself, bubbling, effervescent, and at the same time you saw these splotches on his face, sunken cheeks, and you knew something was deadly wrong.”

Arenas’ irrepressible spirit was the main allure for Martin, who was 5 when his family left Cuba in 1964, settling in New Jersey. Martin’s father had already immigrated once, from Spain to Cuba, and the family did not indulge in either nostalgia or bitterness over what they’d left behind.

“You were not to ever think you’d go back,” says Martin. “It would just prolong the pain. We decided that this is our life now.”

He studied music at Yale and Colombia University and was more concerned about being pigeonholed as a mambo-writing Latino than in exploring his roots. But when he read “Before Night Falls” in 1993, he was captivated. “I fell in love with this person I never met,” Martin says. “His spirit is so big, and that kind of spirit wants to sing. He was the kind of character that people could fall in love with.”

He acquired the rights to the memoir in 1995 and spent 15 years working on the opera, which was finally premiered in 2010 by the Fort Worth Opera, its only performance so far. It got an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from audiences, and mixed reviews. The National Review said it was “brave, both in its libretto and in its score… a worthy work of art. It treats a moving story movingly.” while the Dallas Morning News called its message admirable “without being entirely convinced by the musico-dramatic experience.”

For Damian Pardo, a leading, longtime Miami LGBTQ activist who was 17 when the Mariel refugees arrived, Arenas was inspiring for other reasons. The gay men who came from Cuba, exulting in their new freedom, became a flamboyant part of Miami’s LGBTQ and Cuban life, exposing often-homophobic attitudes. As AIDS began its tragic march, many Cuban families refused to acknowledge their sons had the disease, says Pardo.

“Families didn’t want anyone to know they had a gay person in their family and that they had AIDS,” Pardo says. “To die that way was so horrible, and then you have this shaming.”

Arenas’ unabashed sexuality, coupled with his fame, were a prominent rejection of such prejudice.

“As a gay exile and a Cuban exile he represented the struggle for freedom in so many ways,” says Pardo. “That’s when the different parts of Miami start connecting. African-Americans, Haitians, we all have a struggle for freedom.”

Elizabeth Caballero, a soprano who sings the dual roles of Arenas’ mother and the Moon, a muse-like figure, identifies with Arenas as an artist and a fellow refugee. Caballero came on the Mariel boatlift with her family at age 6. She grew up in Hialeah and became an opera singer in Miami, studying at what is now the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, and has sung frequently with FGO.

“The opera shows what they do to people and the lack of human rights in Cuba,” says Caballero, who now lives in Palm Beach. “The moment that touches me the most is his death at the end … it’s so hard to hold back my tears. … I try and picture myself as an artist in Cuba, trying to create my art, which is all [Arenas] was trying to do. He was like a bird being caged, he could not be free and express himself.”

Whether Arenas’ story is still a powerful one in Miami now is unclear. FGO has staged a number of outreach events. When the Schnabel film, which garnered rave reviews and major awards, played here in 2000, it was an enormous success; Chediak calls it an exile “Moonlight” for making a mainstream splash with a previously hidden story of the Cuban experience. But an anniversary screening he presented two years ago drew only a tiny audience.

Danis hopes the opera will reignite excitement over a story that speaks forcefully, not only to the struggles that Arenas faced, which still affect so many, but to the power of art.

“The fact that his writings were so powerful that people risked their lives to get them out of Cuba points to the power of the pen, and, in this case, to the power of music and that art is really important,” says Danis. “Arenas never gave up. That is what changes lives.”

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