Andrew Warburton reviews Cubanacan, the first new Cuban opera in almost 50 years.
When Cubanacan: A Revolution of Forms received its world premiere at the Havana Biennale in May 2015, it received global attention and write-ups in The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, the opera’s production team has been trying to bring the opera to the United States, something that will hopefully prove a lot easier now that relations between the two nations have thawed.
The most recent development occurred in March this year when a recording of the opera was screened to invited guests at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco. DVDs of that recording have now been sent out to various promotional and production companies around the United States with the hope that the opera will one day be staged. I was lucky enough to receive one of those DVDs and will review the opera here.
In keeping with the spirit of the times, Cubanacan is actually a Cuban/American collaboration. The libretto was written by an American, Charles Koppelman, and is based on John Loomis’ book Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools.The book tells the story of the construction in 1958 of Cuba’s National Schools of Art, a breathtaking maze of red-brick domed buildings—apparently inspired by the female body—where many of the country’s greatest artists and musicians have been trained. While some of the buildings now house the Institutio Superior de Arte, others have been left unfinished, a result of the U.S. embargo and shortages of cement and glass. Today, the schools are a mixture of terra-cotta structures and gothic disrepair.
The libretto aside, the music is distinctively Cuban, mixing a romantic style with Cuban rhythms, including rumba and conga. The music was composed by Cuban cultural icon Roberto Valera, and all the original cast members, including the incredible lead tenor Byran Lopez, and the gifted soprano Laura Ulloa, are Cuban. Adding to the fascination of the opera is the fact that it received its premiere in front of the very arches of the National Schools of Art, which lend a sense of immediacy to the performances.
After an introduction in which the Santeria deity Eleggua sets the scene, the opera opens with Fidel Castro (performed here by Roger Quintana) and Che Guevara (Jose Rafael Verdera) playing golf at a Havana country club. The scene is taken from real life: Alberto Korda, the man responsible for the iconic photograph of Che Guevara, “Guerrillero Heroico,” once photographed the two revolutionaries jokingly “playing a round.” As Michael Cooper in The New York Times pointed out, the opera uses the golf course as “a loaded symbol of pre-revolution wealth and excess,” and indeed, Castro quickly announces he’ll build public schools of art on the course. The uplifting chorus that follows, in which Fidel and Che sing together, accompanied by a choir representing the Cuban people, serves as a celebration of the dreaming power of the arts. The soon-to-be-built art schools are extolled as an example of art’s ability to create new forms of life, much like the Cuban revolution itself.
Alberto Korda, Fidel Golfing 1959. Photo courtesy of The Guardian
At the forefront of this celebration is the architect who will design the schools: Riccardo Porro, played with intense emotion by Bryan Lopez. Even before Porro emerges on the stage, he’s likened to the ultimate “architect”—Fidel—who envisioned the schools in the first place. In a beautiful solo, Selma Diaz (played by Laura Ulloa) emphasizes Castro and Porro’s likeness—the former the architect of a new society and the latter the architect of a new generation of Cuban artists: “He’s strong like you, Fidel, and daring,” she sings. “He’s the son of a Spaniard, like you.”
As the story unfolds, these “daring” figures—the architect, the revolutionary and the artist—become interchangeable, each sharing a “dream of modern, daring forms.” As “dreamers,” they give expression to the Cuban spirit: Castro, the revolutionary who shapes a new society; Porro, the architect who creates a space in which collective action can emerge; and the artist, the one who will manifest the Cuban people’s dreams. The shared nature of these roles is evident from the outset, as Che Guevara sings: “We need an architect to realize our dreams, to make miracles with new beautiful forms.” The egalitarianism of these “dreams” is never questioned: their dreams are “for Cuba” and for “our culture.”
The opera offsets any worry about the naivety of its emphasis on “dreams” by embracing the complexity of Cuba’s history. While its message remains idealistic, this idealism recognizes the limits imposed by reality. The opera goes out of its way to acknowledge the existence of shortages, of disappointment and of the failure of any dream to manifest itself fully in reality. This culminates in a tense exchange between Porro and Castro in which both men speak over each other. The architect begs for materials to finish his designs while Castro worries about how to satisfy his people’s basic needs. The latter finally steps back from his earlier idealism with the terse expression, “Money isn’t just for art.”
The fact that Porro’s idealism is frustrated in the end—he never does finish his art schools—leaves no doubt that the confrontation between dreams and reality is central to the opera’s vision. Dreams may be crucial to the Cuban revolution, but the forms they take will always remain, to some extent, incomplete. Even this knowledge does not exhaust the opera’s scope. The story goes further, suggesting that disappointment is just a moment in the revolutionary process. Although Porro sees his failure to finish the art schools as a catastrophe that requires him to leave Cuba because he “cannot create,” the Cuban people—represented by a chorus of singers—see things rather differently. For them, the failure to manifest their dreams does not spell the end of desire. In fact, lack of completion is an integral part of the process of “dreaming,” as we shall see.
To understand this idea, we should turn our attention to the opera’s portrayal of Cuba’s Santeria deities. Represented by Eleggua, the spirit of roads and travel (performed here by Marcos Lima), and Oshun, the spirit of beauty and art (performed by Yilam Sartorio), the deities are ambiguous figures who exist outside and above every situation and character. Their sometimes cryptic statements suggest that, while they approve of the Cuban revolution (particularly Oshun, who sees it as a chance to overthrow Battista and allow for the flourishing of art), their approval is not without complexity. As the keeper of the crossroads and the “master of fate,” Eleggua stands in a more powerful position even than Fidel and Che. This means it was his decision to “open the door” to Fidel so that the latter could reshape Cuban society. On the other hand, he continually reminds the opera’s characters that some things “are forbidden.” At first, this seems to cast him as an adversary to Cuba’s “dream,” and he appears to be responsible for Porro’s failure to complete the schools. “I like to make problems just to create chaos,” he sings.
By the end of the opera, however, his true colours emerge. We realize that the form his prohibitions take has always been crucial to Cuba’s collective ability to “dream.” His apparent “obstructiveness” was never intended to prevent revolutionary change but was simply a way to remind the people that fixation on the full manifestation of a dream is always, in some sense, a betrayal of that dream. Although he allows Cuba to travel a certain distance toward the realization of its dreams, he forbids it from going any further, and in this way, he emphasizes desire over completion, movement and process over dogma. He emerges, smiling, at the end of the opera as the people reassure Porro that the work on the schools has not been in vain, even if they remain unfinished.
It is left to Selma to prove that revolutionary faith exists above and beyond any fixed or final form that the projects of revolution may take. She emphasizes that the dream of revolution is a dream “with no ending”: “The City of Arts is born here even if it’s unfinished. Art was born from bricks and cement. A symphony from dreams. You have triumphed, Riccardo. Much was achieved. An unfinished dream with no ending.”
In this way, the opera takes the audience on a ritualistic journey from the first affirmation of a dream to the disappointment of that dream’s encounter with reality to the realization that failure need not spell the end of desire. When people work as a collective, the failure of a personal project need not be devastating, because others will always dream of continuing the work you’ve been unable to finish. By sinking into despair at his and Cuba’s failings, Porro reveals he doesn’t fully understand the collective nature of dreams. He goes into exile, leaving the Cuban people to dream of finishing the schools themselves.
The opera ends with a rousing chorus, a choir of singers in 50s-style clothing representing the collective on stage, addressing the individual, Porro. They remind him that even the failure of his work will not have been in vain. “Don’t mourn, brother,” they sing, to intensifying percussion and strings. “The arts grew in this space. Your work was fruitful… We dream to finish the schools. Revolution of forms. Revolution of art.”