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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Leonardo Balada -- Death of Columbus

The Catalan-American composer Leonardo Balada (born 1933) has been a resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA for many years and a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1988, he composed Christopher Columbus as a commission from the Spanish government to celebrate the 500th anniversary (in 1992) of Columbus's voyage to America. The work was universally hailed as a resounding success and led to Balada's creation of a sequel, Death of Columbus in 1992-93.

Death of Columbus will have its long-awaited world première with faculty, students, and ensembles of Carnegie Mellon University under the direction of noted American conductor Robert Page. The première will take place on 14 January 2005 at Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. (The work will also be recorded for the Naxos record label in the week following the première.)

OneCarson Cooman: Why Columbus? What appealed to you enough about Columbus to write two grand operas about him?

Leonardo Balada: Well, the first opera I could not refuse. They called it 'the commission of the century' -- to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America. With the government visibility and the hugeness of the project you'd have to do it -- otherwise you'd be crazy. Then, a few years later, I was specifically asked to write a sequel. The first opera had such wide visibility that I considered it a great honor to be asked to create a sequel as well. The first opera, Christopher Columbus, takes place on the Santa Maria, with flashbacks to the start of his journey and commissioning in Spain. It ends with the cries for the sighting of land. The dramatic direction pushes towards this moment. This is important in opera. One must create the dramatic flow. In the story of Columbus nobody is murdered and there is not passionate love. Those are the normal elements of the great opera. So, it was necessary to create a different focus for the drama. Each time the narrative returns from a flashback, there is more tension -- leading to the moment when the sailors give Columbus the ultimatum that if land is not sighted within three days, they must turn back.

In Death of Columbus the present is Columbus's deathbed and he is tormented. There are flashbacks to the time after his voyage. Columbus was very worried about his historical legacy. He was worried about what his discovery did to bring about the Spanish conquest of the Indies. In his deathbed scenes he is tormented by this 'mysterious character' (my own invention) who is the voice of his conscience. Thus, the opera asks many questions about what the discovery meant for the world.

TwoCC: What is it like to compose your own libretto as you have done for Death of Columbus? (Unlike Christopher Columbus, which had a libretto by the noted playwright Antonio Gala.)

LB: Deep down inside I perhaps always wanted to be a writer. When I was younger and living in New York City, I would write a great deal -- mostly articles in Spanish for the Spanish newspapers. But I did not become a writer. I became a composer instead, and I am quite happy about that. Writing my own libretti lets me be in total control of the relationship of text and music. Thus, when I do get to write my own texts and libretti, it allows me to fulfill the dreams of my 'inner writer'.

ThreeCC: Why do you compose grand opera, now here in the 21st century?

LB: Because I'm hooked! Once you start, you can never go back. We composers are tyrants -- we love to have total control. Only in opera can we fully control everything and create a complete work -- with staging, music, and text all come together. There is nothing like an opera, when it all works together.

Copyright © 1 January 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA





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