Ode to LGBT rights advocate makes it to Ziff Ballet Opera House

Gay Cuban author's fight for freedom inspires 'Before Night Falls' opera

(Chris Kakol - Florida Grand Opera)

MIAMI – When Fidel Castro took power, Reinaldo Arenas was an 18-year-old dreamer who naively believed in the leftist's promise of social justice. He would have never anticipated the Castro regime would later brand him a "social misfit" and sentence him to a labor camp for being gay. 

Arenas enjoyed fame after he published his award-winning novel "Singing From the Well." The admired author was working at the Jose Marti National Library. His nightmare began in 1970 when he was sentenced to a labor camp for being openly gay.

When the regime learned his writing had been smuggled out of Cuba, he was trapped at El Morro prison. He escaped the island during the Mariel exodus, and about a decade later, he committed suicide while living with AIDS in Manhattan. He was 47. His last letter asked the Cuban people to continue fighting for freedom. 

"I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor," Arenas wrote in "Before Night Falls," his explosive memoir. "If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living." 

On Tuesday, Elliot Madore and other members of The Florida Grand Opera cast made sure that Arenas' ideas echoed freely at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts' Ziff Ballet Opera House in downtown Miami.  

Elliot Madore portrays Reinaldo Arenas
Elliot Madore portrays Reinaldo Arenas

While Madore, 29, sang in both English and Spanish, there were projected titles in both languages. Composer Jorge Martin, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1964, got the rights to set it to music about five years before the film, starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, was seen in theaters. 

To expect the sexuality of Arenas' memoir would be unrealistic. The contemporary production was a risk for The Florida Grand Opera. Among their preliminary events was a partnership with the Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute for a conversation at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. 

Miami hasn't always welcomed Martin. After he completed the libretto and music for the opera, The Fort Worth Opera -- and not the Florida Grand Opera -- premiered it in 2010. The Miami Herald's critic described the opera as "mostly melodic speech," and The South Florida Classical Review critic wrote it was "slow, unfocused and full of unnecessary scenes."

Martin's commitment to accuracy and the timing of the ode to an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and freedom of expression on the Communist island is worthy of an adventure for those who care about the issues, but haven't been to the opera. 

There will be two more performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Tickets range from $23 to $229. For more information and for tickets, visit ArshtCenter.org or FGO.org, or call 1-800-741-1010.

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