4 Musicians Chart 100 Years in the Life of a Runaway Slave
Esteban Montejo was over 100 before the world knew his story.
Born a slave in Cuba in 1860, he escaped and lived for years in the jungle until slavery was abolished on the island in 1886. He fought in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain and lived through Castro’s communist revolution.
His interviews with an ethnographer were adapted into a riveting account of his life, published in 1966. The German composer Hans Werner Henze read the book, visited Cuba, met Montejo — who lived until 1973 — and, with the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, swiftly created “El Cimarrón,” which will be performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday and Saturday.
A 75-minute “recital for four musicians” — baritone, guitarist, flutist and percussionist (who presides over dozens of instruments) — it tells Montejo’s story through music that’s vivid, seductive and otherworldly, sometimes forceful, sometimes delicate, the vocal line floating between musical pitches and speech.
The soprano Julia Bullock is presenting the piece as part of her season-long Met residency, which has ranged through slave song arrangements, an evening revisiting Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes settings and the contemporary Nativity oratorio “El Niño.” As she mulled the season, she asked friends about projects they might want to present. Two of them, the director Zack Winokur and the bass-baritone Davóne Tines, had long been wanting to work on “El Cimarrón”; dealing with slavery and the black experience, and originating in oral testimony, the piece fit right in.
Ms. Bullock, though, will be offstage. “In these early days of figuring out how to curate,” she said in an interview, “it’s easier to visualize things with my direct involvement. But I was so glad to let the bookend of this be in somebody else’s hands.”
After developing the production last summer with the American Modern Opera Company, Ms. Bullock, Mr. Winokur and Mr. Tines sat down in the midst of the final rehearsals to discuss it. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What happens in “El Cimarrón”?
ZACK WINOKUR It’s all told through his words. Hearing the story out of his mouth is the most thrilling thing. The music serves to amplify it — like the best of opera, it uses every theatrical resource available to just tell the story.
DAVÓNE TINES We see what the foundation of this person was, the heft and thickness of his life experience. We experience his genesis and a bit of his growth. All of that is very closely narrated. But we’ve also been talking about the prism of memory, and later in life his mental faculties disperse or go to a different place.
WINOKUR He talks about slavery with a very dynamic and forceful musical language. Then he escapes into the woods and there are these extended beautiful sections when he’s just figuring out how to navigate, roping piglets, making fires, listening to the trees, eating honey and finding herbs and different flowers and just sort of sleeping and listening to the birds.
JULIA BULLOCK The real sense of freedom he felt for the first time.
TINES And you feel that musically, as well. You go from the stringent, forceful music of slavery to this really open, impressionistic music of the forest.
WINOKUR He talks about how much he just loved the peace and quiet, even though there were moments of extreme anxiety. And you see his interaction when he hears about the end of slavery, which he does not believe could be real. He encounters a woman with two children who tells him yes, we’re really free. And he decides to go back and then when he re-enters and becomes a waged worker, you see his impression of progress; there’s a section called “Machines,” just looking at the production of sugar cane, and it’s completely mind-blowing to him.
BULLOCK Mind-blowing because so many things had been based on rudimentary human labor. But with the ending of slavery, people were still essentially enslaved. The capacity of their lives was still cemented.
WINOKUR There’s almost no space when he’s talking about slavery. It’s incredibly rhythmical; there’s no space between sections.
TINES Or between words in sentences.
WINOKUR And when he goes into the woods, there are extensive, like, seven minutes of listening to the birds and walking.
TINES And then we get back to “Machines,” and it’s even more mechanized.
As if nothing has been solved. That must have appealed to Henze, a passionate leftist, on a political level. That slavery and what followed were just different iterations of unequal power.
TINES The machines are just stronger and louder.
WINOKUR Part One is in a straight order, as described in the book. In Part Two, the libretto took a little more of a turn, and we sort of get Montejo’s thoughts on things. Like about women, and how much he missed them, and there’s a little moment of attempted bestiality with a horse in the woods. About the priests and then about the Americans when they come, and how disgusting they are. And then we end where he ended, when he was doing the interviews at 103, and the importance of friendliness and being with people.
BULLOCK Also taking up arms for oneself.
WINOKUR A really thrilling part of the show is the Battle of Mal Tiempo, which is where we watch him cut off the heads of colonizing Spaniards.
BULLOCK At the end of the biography and the end of the piece Henze wrote, the sense is that moving into the future, “I’ve got my machete.”
WINOKUR “I’ll be there for all the battles that are coming.”
It’s an unusual instrumentation.
WINOKUR The music is held together in all these thin and beautiful ways. It’s very fragile. There’s the militant idea, captured in the gigantic battery of percussion. There are Cuban styles mixed with Spanish styles and American styles for different moments. We get this “Oh! Susanna” on the melodica during the whole “Yankees” bit, which is one of the strangest colors in the show.
The Spaniards and that colonizing force are represented in the guitar, the Spanish guitar. When Montejo is not actually speaking, his voice and the whistling in the forest, as well as when he meets other people and talks about women; that voice is carried in the flute. And the weather is the battery of percussion.
BULLOCK Davóne, you had said, “Some of these things are so fractured, I’m not sure how to lay my voice into it.” How are you feeling?
TINES I’m feeling good. We’ve gotten deeper and longer into it, and a lot of fractured or disparate parts of the voice in the piece are part of a range of expression that goes from the simplest and most direct speech to the most fragile singing. Sometimes full voice, but this isn’t a big sing; it’s more the color between speech and pitched production.
Just this morning I was thinking about toward the end of the piece when things sort of taper down. It’s interesting to play within a smaller range and not have to be [singing a wild parody of modernist music] “I have to be so cra-zy.”
WINOKUR It should be a range that feels like speech — heightened speech, but speech. A lot of recordings feel very formal, and that doesn’t seem like that was Henze’s intention. I wanted to get it back to its origin as a “recital for four musicians,” and a real chamber piece. Not only did I want the musicians to be implicated in the action and become characters in the piece, using their musical material, but I also wanted it to have the attention on each other that’s necessary in chamber music.
BULLOCK That’s one reason I wanted to program this. Oftentimes when Henze is performed, people are wanting to show it is alternative. But I think Henze was trying to create a very human expression.