Composer Roberto Valera during the January work session in Havana for Cubanacan: A Revolution of Forms.
Photo by Charles Koppelman

In 2002, California filmmaker Charles Koppelman came upon Revolution of Forms, a book by architect John Loomis about the design and construction of Cuba’s still-unfinished national art schools, the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA) in Havana. Now, after a decade of development and experimentation, Cubanacan: A Revolution of Forms (working title) is headed for a Havana recording studio.

Although Koppelman had not produced an opera before, he knew almost immediately that this was how he wanted to tell the story. “The steps are not so different from producing a film, which is something I’m used to doing,” he says. “There are aspects that are particular to opera, but the fundamentals of making something out of nothing is creatively similar.”

As well as being the driving force behind the project, Koppelman wrote the opera’s libretto. But the creative team behind Cubanacan is primarily Cuban, including composer Roberto Valera and musical director Zenaida Romeu.

“Roberto lives in Havana and has taught at the Music School ISA for many years,” says Koppelman. “He’s very well known in Cuba—though perhaps not so well-known outside the country. But he soon will be.” Although Valera has composed in a variety of musical genres, from orchestral and chamber music to scores for film and television, this is his first opera. Romeu, who studied at ISA with Valera, comes from “a long line of well-known Cuban musicians and composers,” says Koppelman, and is the founder of the all-female chamber-music ensemble Camerata Romeu. The group plays regularly at Havana’s Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís at the Plaza de San Francisco, Koppelman says, adding that Romeu has her own television show. “In Cuba, she’s a superstar.”

Musically, says Koppelman, the work is a synthesis of Afro-Cuban forms of song and dance and modern classical music. “The blend of those two will be really original, yet authentic to Cuba,” he says. One feature that distinguishes Cubanacan from more traditional operas is the importance of dance. “The music is Afro-Cuban, so it really wants to move,” says Koppelman. “There’ll be a large dance component. The choreography will be quite interesting and exciting.”

Making sure the work is “authentic to Cuba” is especially important to Koppelman. An earlier version of the opera was developed with a largely American team but was halted due to irreconcilable creative differences, and the first libretto was scrapped. “The new direction firmly plants this project in Cuba with a Cuban composer and musical director,” Koppelman explains. “As a result the opera will be more authentic to Cuban history, traditions, musical forms and contemporary realities.” One of the collaborators on the first version, Cuban musician Dafnis Prieto, “remains connected to the project,” says Koppelman, “and he and I have discussed how his role might evolve going forward.”

A great challenge for the production, as Koppelman sees it, is how to represent the schools and their architecture on stage. “We could have projections of photos and blueprints, which is quite common in opera these days,” he says. “Or we could go for details, and not try to reproduce the forms in their entirety—just use details and abstractions.” But that, he says, “is for other talented people to figure out.” Renowned director Robert Wilson, best known for collaborating with Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach and other operas, was involved in the initial version of the project and remains a possible director, Koppelman says.

For now, the Cubanacan team is focusing on its next destination: the recording studio. In preparation, Koppelman recently completed a 10-day work session in Havana with Valera and Romeu, supported by The Farber Foundation, sponsor of Cuban Art News. In early May, the team is planning to record a 20- to 30-minute sample of the opera in Havana, using Cuban performers.

“That will be the equivalent of a workshop,” says Koppelman, referring to an intensive work session in which the sample section is rehearsed and performed by a full complement of musicians and vocalists. “We expect to learn a lot from that—while walking away with a high-quality recording by top-notch Cuban performers.” Once the sample is recorded, he says, “then I hit the road and take it around to opera companies, potential co-producers, and presenters around the world.” Several are already aware of the project but, he says, “they need something they can listen to, to hear what it will sound like.” If all goes well, commissions will be in place by the end of the year, with creative work completed by mid-2013. “Then it’s a matter of scheduling with the venues. It could be 2014 or 2015 before it debuts—opera companies often schedule years in advance.”

Asked about Unfinished Spaces, the new documentary film about the making of the ISA campus, Koppelman laughs. “I’m glad they made it,” he says of the film’s co-directors and producers Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray. “Because I was thinking about a film and I just couldn’t visualize it. I was at the Los Angeles premiere with the three architects last June. I think the filmmakers did a terrific job.” As work progresses on Cubanacan: A Revolution of Forms, Koppelman looks forward to bringing the story behind ISA to audiences in a different way: as a dance- and architecture-filled Afro-Cuban opera.