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BEHIND THE SCENES: Composer Roberto Valera Shares the Story of Cuba's First Opera in Nearly 50 Years

First Posted: Feb 22, 2015 12:00 AM EST
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Cubanacan

Photo : Alberto Korda

Composer Roberto Valera insists that Cuba has a strong opera culture, and yet, his new opera, "Cubanacan: A Revolution of Forms," is the first opera created in the country in nearly 50 years.

The work is slated to debut on May 22 and kicks off the 2015 Havana Biennial, a forum known for allowing under-represented artists from Latin America and Caribbean nations to express their ideas and emotions.

"Cubanacan," which tells the story of Cuba's National Art Schools, a set of five institutions dreamed up by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during a golf match in the early 1960s, was actually conceived roughly 12 years ago in the United States by filmmaker Charles Koppelman.

The director-turned-librettist and producer actually discovered the story of art schools through a newspaper article he read in the San Francisco Chronicle. He became so impassioned by what he read that he did all the research he could to fully comprehend the context. He went to Cuba, studied blueprints and "fell in love with the story."

He originally intended to transform it into a film, but struggled to visualize.

"On further reflection, the idea for an opera popped," Koppelman said during an interview with Latin Post. "It had all the elements for opera. The art schools represent music, modern dance, theater and fine arts. I realized that they all made opera."

But, there was a problem: Koppelman had no idea what was required to make an opera. Moreover, he had no idea how to write a libretto.

He noted that despite knowing the story was well as he possibly could, he quickly realized that he had to "throw a lot of that out the window to write an opera. You want to know all of that, but I am not writing a documentary opera. It has to be emotional and get to the heart of the characters and express that emotion to the audience through the music and words so that they feel it."

But the problem was exacerbated by the fact that Koppelman did not speak Spanish, the language he wanted the opera to be in.

Fortunately, he had a lot of help. Once he finished writing the work in English, he had a Cuban person translate it to Spanish. Eventually, composer Valera took it a step further and modified the words to suit musical language.

Once the libretto was translated to Spanish, Koppelman sought out ways to get the opera produced in Cuba. He eventually engaged the help of Creative Director Zenaida Romeu, who recommended a list of composers for Koppelman to pick from.

Soon enough, Valera came into the picture. Koppelman listened to some of his music and eventually met with him to join forces on the project.

"He had everything I wanted from a composer for this project," Koppelman said. Valera, however, had never composed an opera despite a lengthy career. The Cuban composer, who won first prize at the Competition of the Cuban Ministry of Culture in 1985, had studied acting and singing during his student years and had always "dreamed of doing an opera."

This was his big opportunity and he launched into the process looking to diversify his musical language that he notes "doesn't reject any style. I am a composer with a number of years of experience and have used many different techniques. For me, in certain moments, I can use different styles. There are moments that can be seen as more classical and others that are more popular. Particularly Cuban popular music."

Valera, who listed Verdi, Puccini and Wagner amongst his operatic inspirations, emphasized that writing the opera was a huge challenge for any composer and quite possibly the culmination of any career.

"The wholeness of the genre is very difficult, which is why sometimes you will find great musicians who struggle with the genre," he stated.

Koppelman revealed that the music has already been written and the parts have also been cast. Some of the music was even previewed recently in New York and Los Angeles, where the composer and producer received standing ovations.

"It was exhilarating to see people take to the work the way they have," enthused Koppelman.

But there is still a lot of work to be done.

The first order of business is obtaining a director for the production. Koppelman noted that the company had already lined someone up, but that scheduling conflicts ultimately undid the collaboration. Once he finds a replacement, the production team will go about creating the set and rehearsals will begin. 

Although the process will take some time, Valera and Koppelman are both awaiting the May 22 debut with tremendous excitement.

"I would be content with even just some moments being memorable," Valera said. "That people remember certain sections the way they remember moments from an opera by Verdi or Puccini.

"If it is successful, it could stimulate other composers to experiment in this particular genre. This is not a genre that a composer should take on by his or herself. It requires guidance and teamwork."

He also noted his ambition to see the opera play around the world in Latin America, Asia, Europe and United States.

Koppelman is particularly excited about seeing the opera's reception in the U.S.

"The collaboration on this opera, between an American like myself and Cubans, really is a nice representation of the diplomatic situation going on in the world right now," noted Koppelman. "It is a great time to be coming out with this opera."

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