Back to the Magic City

Miami, August 2, 2011. After an overnight flight from San Francisco I finally arrive to my hotel, eager to meet Nilo Cruz in the city that he has called home since he first arrived to the US as a little boy. Nilo allowed me into the intimacy of his working space, where so many characters have been born and so many beautiful stories have been brought to life. A pile of blank pages was sitting next to an even taller pile of written pages. Novels, poems, plays, film scripts, opera librettos; it seemed as if every literary genre had a place in that room and that each and every one of them would have a chance to tell its story.

Nilo’s working desk was surprisingly austere. It stood in the living room with a laptop computer on top of it and a few pens and pencils sitting next to a notebook.  It was there that we worked during four consecutive days and where we gave new life to the latest version of the libretto.

He sent me the complete libretto a week before my trip and as soon as I got it I started reading it and making notes. The first thing that struck me was the discipline and faithfulness with which Nilo had carried out the overall plan that Stephen and us laid out earlier in May. Act by act, scene by scene, Nilo had diligently followed the structure we had agreed upon in New York. One thing I noticed, however, was that in the process, Nilo’s wings had been inadvertently clipped and his prose did not soar as it did in his earlier treatment. He actually confessed to me that he had found it extremely difficult to adhere to the structure, but we both agreed that by doing so we had gained a very solid base upon which we could now build something truly significant. My task, therefore, was to make sure we brought back the magic -so to speak- by pointing out certain passages that could be extended, or by adding depth and complexity to a few characters that had not yet been fully developed.

Like Nilo, I thought the structure had to be kept almost intact, but within it, certain changes or additions could be made in order to enrich our color palette. One issue I brought to the table was that of inner struggle. I had the impression certain characters were not facing enough of a struggle when split between choices, and this, in my view, made them less real. The priest never questioned his faith; a terrorist never questioned her love for one of the hostages; and finally, a hostage hardly questioned his love for Roxane, the central character.  In real circumstances these people would be faced with such stark choices that they would at least have serious doubts and fears about the consequences that would follow. Of course Nilo had developed this inner struggle beautifully in other characters, and it is precisely because of that (and because I had been impressed by it) that I asked him to take it a step further and imbue these other characters with the same degree of doubt and uncertainty.

Another aspect we strengthened was the development of the two parallel love stories. We isolated them, studied them and reinforced the moments that lead to their falling in love. It had to feel inevitable and it had to be convincing to the audience. Nilo had carefully tread the storyline so both love stories did follow a very natural progression, but we nevertheless inserted a few words and actions here and there (even when those characters were not leading the action) that would gradually build up the attraction between them. Finally, two of the biggest changes we made occur at the beginning and the end. I am not at liberty to disclose the details, but I’ll say this: we have chosen to rely mostly on music at the beginning and heavily on action toward the end. The ending is one of the greatest challenges we are facing at the moment; as it is now, it is filled with actions but entirely devoid of words, therefore Stephen’s input will be ever so crucial and the music will have to frame it all.

Working with Nilo was really wonderful. We understand each other really well and he is truly receptive to my ideas and suggestions at all times. I had come to him full of notes and it was only on the last day, at 10pm, that I finished sharing with him my very last suggestion. He even let me change a few words myself, and this in turn forced me to give shape to the ideas that were going through my mind. But he also had a request; he asked me to write down two of the possible melodies for a couple of arias. The reason for this is that I had already been toying in my head with two melodies that seemed to want a place in the opera and Nilo wanted to listen to them. I did as he asked; in fact I wrote them down while in Miami, after our second meeting. Later, when I was back in California, he called me and asked me to reassign one of the melodies to another aria, which I did readily because he provided me with very clear reasons. This is what I call a true collaboration. Sometimes I would tell him “these words do not fit the music I have in mind for this particular moment” and at times he would tell me “this music does not fit the mood which I had conceived for this specific moment”. The more we both put our egos aside and work toward a common goal, the greater the chances for this opera to succeed.

This trip was also important for other reasons. The last time I had been to Miami was over 20 years ago, when I was a kid. My parents wanted my sister and I to have a broader vision of life by experiencing a foreign reality, so they decided to move to Miami, where the four of us lived for one year and during which I attended the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School. I have many fond memories of that city, but above all, moving abroad tested my endurance and forced me to grow up in very short time. The language barrier was difficult to overcome at first and my shyness did not help when interacting with the other kids. But I eventually managed to overcome these difficulties and excelled academically. The most important thing, however, was that I “wrote” my first composition in Miami. I put it in quotes because I didn’t actually write it (I didn’t know how to read or write music at the time) but I did compose it at the piano. I went on to compose three short pieces for piano that year; my very first attempts in composition. What could be more important in the professional life of a composer than taking the leap from playing an instrument to writing his own pieces? I don’t know why this happened while in Miami or why did the music come to me in my dreams, but I do know that it changed my life and it set me on a course from which I have never deviated. I was 12 years old when I moved back to Lima, completely determined to become a composer. And now, 21 years later, I went back to the city where what had started as a dream had become a palpable reality.

Once Nilo is done revising the libretto, we will show the result of our collaboration to Stephen, Renee and Anthony Freud and we will hold a final round of talks to give the libretto is definitive shape. Right now I am working on my cello concerto, “Lord of the Air” and I am simultaneously drafting a couple of arias and instrumental sections from the opera. Perhaps some of this music will be used later or perhaps none of it will, but I like doing this kind of preparatory work in order to lay the ground for the next 16 months or so, were I will produce the full piano vocal score.

More updates to come later this Fall!

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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