Visit to Havana, November 2015

November 18, 2015

I was approached by Parma Recordings about participating in a musical project involving eight composers going to Cuba and working with Cuban musicians in having their works performed and recorded. I initially was disinclined but my guardian angel and spouse Daniel Shiplacoff convinced me to go for it.

I was to work with Wilmia Verrier Quiñones and her women’s chorus, Ensemble Vocal Luna [pictured above]. They chose my ALARCÓN MADRIGALS, BOOK 3 for the project. Francisco X Alarcón and I are collaborators, and I have set many of his poems. The women sang it beautifully. Recording sessions went very well. Wilmia loved then “perfect correspondence between the poetry and the music”. So much so, that she offered to put on an all-Bourland concert in a year. I said yes.

We spent the week with friends from Parma and the composers. A terrific week of touring within Old Havana and music. A long list of wonderful restaurants. (Neither of us got sick. Drink bottled water; only ice that comes from bottled water. Two of the twenty did get sick.) We never got to Anthony Bourdain’s recommendation, but will next time.

We rode in modern yellow taxis, late 1950s reconstructed car taxis, and bici-taxis with Cubanos with thunder-thighs that drive you and your luggage around La Habana Vieja and its cobbled streets.

We never felt afraid or in danger. We saw a lot of poverty, but the people are supported by the government; they never starve or are without the basics, and all health is free. Thanks to Fidel’s sister, LGBT issues are liberal and protected. If a Cuban wants a sex change, the government will pay for it. [sic]

The young Cubans I saw are fit, clean, beautiful with great taste in clothes and they all seem to pluck their eyebrows: boys and girls. It was very hot, so clothes were spare. (Look at the photo above to see the fabulous variation in their faces, bodies, skin hues. We heard one woman exclaim: “In Cuba we are not black or white––we are Cuban colors!” ‘Perfectly clean white’ seems to be the color of choice among handsome men. It is also the color of the Santeria religion, whose ceremony we bumped into one morning. We saw many near the Capitol in full regalia, all white, coming or going somewhere.

International tourists are everywhere. Tourism is Cuba’s main economy. But the government run mega-hotels are tired and need major renovation. We stayed in only-recently-opened AirBnB rooms. The first place was modern and well put together. The second was a small flat on the 3rd floor, built for people who are a foot shorter than I am. Daniel threw out his back trying to shave in the mirror. I had to duck going down the stairs.

And smoking is allowed everywhere. It’s CigarLand. You can legally bring back cigars and rum from Cuba into the US now (up to $400). There are a zillions scheisters in the streets trying to sell you “Cohibas” — Fidel’s favorite cigar. They are all fake. Only buy cigars in the government sanctioned places–or if you visit the tobacco fields or the factory.

Havana has had to weather hurricanes for its long history. And like many other cities, there are many downtown building that cave in, they become abandoned, trees and plants start growing inside. And they are still that way. The capitol building is newly remodeled, and all the streets around it are getting new plumbling, and gentrification is not far behind.

We had lunch looking down on the newly reopened American Embassy. It all became very real. We had lots of photos taken in front and one of the senior went up to the gate asking to have her picture taken there and one of the two guards came to her and insisted she go back across the street.

We went to a concert of the 28th Annual Havana Contemporary Music Festival. Throughout, we had to look at the alter, and the only thing on the wall was an enormous painting of Joseph with the baby Jesus on his shoulder. I kept staring at it and realized it was Fidel. St Fidel with hat or cigar, and his shoulder was bare. But it WAS Fidel.

There are many stories to tell, but this one was the one that stood out: I was chatting one morning with our flat managers, two sisters and a daughter, in Spanish (YES they speak REALLY quickly), in comes a slender Bob Marley cousin type neighbor who teaches Spanish and Dance in a local arts school. We strike up an animated conversation. He is completely generous about having us come to his studio to see his dance troupe, and offered to teach us fun Cuban dances. I told him about my upcoming ballet in Mazatlán and gee, wouldn’t it be great if you could fly out to hear it. He turned and translated it all the three women and they all burst out in hysterical laughter. Lesson learned: it is very difficult to get out of Cuba unless you have legitimate work that the Cuban government approves of. The notion of going to Mexico is also out of the question because it is near the US and they could seek asylum in the US and get it and never come back.

Claude Debussy allegedly said: Music is a jealous mistress. I have found that I cannot be a photographer while I’m in the middle of composing music. So I am thrilled that Daniel has rekindled his love of photography and has chronicled our voyage in photos and is editing them now. Old Havana is a photographer’s dream.

We were completely cut off from the world. No internet or cell phone connection. We laughed and realized that something horrible would happen in the world and we wouldn’t know about it until we got back. The 11/13 Paris terrorist attack happened and we didn’t find out about it till the 15th, in an airport in Panama City.

The lack of internet has an interesting effect on the city: people are out on the streets and in parks talking, visiting. Very few have their heads buried in their phones like the rest of the world. I look forward to a day when the world can put away their devices and get to know each other anew and in person.


I’m doing homework for Mitchell Morris’ and my new opera, FRIDA AND THE SMOKING MIRROR. The seven characters are Frida Kahlo, Tezcatlipoca [pictured above] Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, Josephine Baker, Leo Eloesser (Frida’s doctor) and Leon Trotsky. I have made a rough decision on who is what range, but I wanted to see what I could find in terms of hearing their actual speaking voices. So far, I have had no luck with Frida. But today I stumbled across this Pathé gem of Leon Trotsky giving a speech in English in Mexico. Not a particularly pleasant voice. I’m trying to imagine what voice type he might be: a tenor? a pinched throat baritone? Not a man of long tones, as FDR might do. Short and snappy.

To contrast, here is a (pale) recording of Diego Rivera’s voice. It seems a bit lower than Trotsky’s. More shouting. His sentences bounce between a low note, high note, and ends in the middle. The video has an impressive array of photos from his life.

This next video shows a “getting to know you moment” for Diego, Frida, Trotsky and his wife. The interaction is fascinating.

This video has a terrific collection (bleeding chunks) of Frida in moments of her life that I’ve only read about. The final scene was a shocker!

Isamu Noguchi had an affair with Frida. Here is a video of Noguchi overseeing an installation of his work. His voice sings. He has a huge range of pitch in his voice. The duration of his syllables is completely different.

Here we get to hear Josephine Baker. I am so used to hearing only her singing voice, it took a minute to realize it was her. She has a gentle singing voice, a little breathy, many tones and intensities. I love how she soars up into a range for an entire sentence, hover, dance and then come down.

The last (real) character is Dr Leo Eloesser, her doctor of long standing. There is a cassette recording in the library at UC Berkeley. I guess I’ll have to go there and listen to it.


La Paloma y el Ruiseñor (Spanish subtitles)

La Paloma y el Ruiseñor (English subtitles)

Premiere performance of LA PALOMA Y EL RUISENOR (2014) Music by Roger Bourland, Libretto by Mitchell Morris, Spanish adaptation by Placido Domingo Jr, and additional orchestrations and adjustment to the Spanish setting by Scott Dunn.

Composer: Roger Bourland
Libretto: Mitchell Morris
Spanish adaptation: Placido Domingo Jr.
Conductor: Scott Dunn

November 14, 15 2014: 8:00

Producer: Raúl Rico González
Production assistant: Abril Márquez
Orchestra: Camarata Mazatlán; Percival Álvarez, Music Director
Chorus: Coro Guillermo Sarabia, Music Directors Enrique Patrón de Rueda and Martha Félix
Dance ensembles:
Delfos Danza Contemporánea, Víctor Manuel Ruiz, Director
Ballet Folklórico, Javier Arcadia, Director
Stage direction: Ramón Gómez Polo and Raúl Rico González
Stage design: Jorge González Nery
Costumes: Elisa Espinosa

Jessica Loaiza Pérez/Ángela Peralta
Armando Piña López/ Julián
Penélope María Luna Núñez/Rosa
Emily Sánchez Osuna/ Young Ángela
Jessika Arevalo/La Zepilli
Adriana Romero Jesus Ramirez/La Saborini
Fernando Martinez/Captain Ybarra
Miguel Gonzalez/Maclovio Castellanos
Héctor Rosendo Valle Loera/Solomon Marsh, Juan Jacobo Valadés
Christopher Roldan, Ramón Ocampo
Eden Vega/Cecilio Ocón, Carlos Meneses
Esteban Baltazar/ Young Julián, Eraclio Bernal
Athenea Reyes/Hermana Josefina
Mariela Angulo/Beatriz Melani
Miguel Valenzuela/Prof Agustín Balderas
Irving Bonilla/Cristóbal, Jesús Caravantes
Flor Estrada/Madame L’Aiguille, Araceli
Karla Alvarez/Madame DiGrazia
Laura Martinez/La Venadita
Alba Cecilia Rivera/Young Rosa


Press conferences

May 23, 2015


Raúl Rico coordinated several press conferences for the opera. I was delighted to learn later that the premiere was widely publicized throughout Mexico. Scott Dunn and I had one interview with Raúl Rico as our faithful translator. (This has inspired me to become fluent in Spanish so that I don’t ever have to rely on translators, and besides, it’s a beautiful and great language.)


The second interview involved town scholar, Enrique Vega, a professor and the go-to man with any questions regarding Mazatlán history, including Ángela Peralta. Raúl set up this little panel discussion to go over what Mitchell and I put in the opera about Angela Peralta, and what ACTUALLY happened. Fact versus fiction. Most people in attendance said they liked OUR story better.


Meta meta

February 5, 2015

My spouse kept telling people that my opera was a “meta opera” and by that, he meant:

• this is an opera about an opera singer (Angela Peralta)
• an opera that takes place in Mazatlán and that will be premiered in Mazatlán

And there was another one. Act 1 involves a ship ride from La Paz to Mazatlán over the Sea of Cortez. Squalls, called “chubascos” can come up at any time and just as quickly go away. Just after this picture was taken (above) it started raining. It was Hurricane Vance going over. The streets outside our rehearsal turned into rivers. The room we rehearsed in at the Casa Haas, had a glass roof over it, and unfortunately leaks when it pours rain. So the singers got a bit wet, and they had to compete with the sound of the pouring rain on the glass roof.

I loved it. In that I often compose while listening to recordings of rain and thunder, it was perfect for me. We had our own personal chubasco.


[The next group of posts were written after the premiere of the opera.]
Opera director and friend Peter Kazaras insisted that I meet with the singers as early as possible. As our performance was a combination of students and faculty it is especially important to have that early meeting. Peter explained that singers internalize their music, becoming a kind of muscle memory. It’s easy to make note changes for instrumentalists: “Clarinet, that is a B flat in measure 47” and they change the note. Singers have to change a lot more making that change, it has to become part of their musculature, their muscle memory. So seven weeks before the premiere, conductor Scott Dunn and I flew to Mazatlán to meet with the soloists and the chorus.

I made changes to the vocal parts throughout the rehearsals, some permanent and some adjusted to the voice on the part. There were occasional textual adjustments where the wrong syllable was on the wrong beat which required a little rhythmic offsetting. I also decided to add choral parts to one aria and at the very end of the opera. This was tricky business but they all learned their new parts by the premiere.

Conferencia-16webI was blessed to have Raúl Rico as the producer and godfather behind the project. The opera would never have happened had he not believed in the work. His work as the director of Cultura/Mazatlan is terrific, besides the fact that my opera was a part of his season. The publicity for the opera was amazing. There were posters all over town, and even in the customs area as you arrive into the airport had large posters. We heard that there were radio spots all over Mexico about the opera. Raúl called a press conference the week Scott and I were there, and we were happy to attend a room full of reporters and photographers. I told Raúl that my Spanish was not yet ready for the press conference as I hadn’t yet learned past or future, to which Raúl responded: “Perfect!” He nonetheless served as my faithful translator. Scott’s Spanish is better than mine so he fielded some questions in Spanish.


I have been blessed in my recent collaboration with pianist, conductor Scott Dunn who will be conducting the world premiere of my opera, La Paloma y el Ruiseñor at the Teatro Angela Peralta in Mazatlán, Mexico on November 14 and 15, 2014.

Having scored several feature films, I have learned the value of “cutting”——this happens on all levels of the film industry, but in music it means that just because a composer provides good music for a scene, if, in the mind of the director, the music is not helping or doesn’t capture the mood, he asks that the music be rewritten. All film composers, from Danny Elfman and John Williams to beginning film composers, do rewrites. My college professor in music history, Lawrence Gushee, often complained that contemporary music of the 20th century suffered due to a lack of collaboration, or feedback from others (I simplify his comments here). Every damn note was sacred and they wouldn’t consider cutting anything. It’s just not in the culture of concert composers of the 20th/21st century to make cuts. I encourage composers who are reading this to reconsider and learn from Hollywood. And opera. Opera composers regularly revised and cut their operas to make them better. Puccini didn’t have the luxury of workshops where composers could try out their work in private: he had full blown performances and was criticized in the press and from the audiences, and based on that he made changes to all of his operas. The critics and audiences were, in essence, his collaborators. They told him: “this doesn’t work for me,” “this part drags,” “this aria goes on too long.”

My collaborator in the 1990s, John Hall, who directed opera and music theater at UCLA, was a terrific collaborator in our cantatas “Hidden Legacies” and “Flashpoint/Stonewall.” He never minced words: Roger, this is boring; this doesn’t work; you’ve got to be kidding; or just a look he’d give to let me know what I had written wasn’t up to snuff. In the 1980s, I scored three feature films and in every one there were rewrites: “nice music, Roger but it doesn’t work for me. Rewrite it.” And I did, without attitude (with a few exceptions where I stood my ground).

This is all background to the opera we are working on now. Scott Dunn has been a marvelous collaborator. The Mitchell Morris libretto was adapted into Spanish by Placido Domingo Jr. Placido’s work was terrific: he worked hard to fit Spanish into the music that was originally written in English, and avoided changing rhythms wherever possible. And despite his respectful work, I decided to make a completely different version for the Spanish edition. Spanish just doesn’t line up with English. Scott was not as gracious as Placido. He’d say: NO! You need to rethink many of your melodies so that they flow more convincingly in Spanish. Placido was appreciative of Scott’s intolerance of preserving the original rhythms, and embracing the beauty and flow of the Spanish language. Words, notes, rhythms are changed, all done to make a better, more understandable and dramatic work. I had to “get over myself” and take the advice of my collaborator(s).

But Scott’s collaboration didn’t end there. We went over every note in the orchestration, making sure it would effectively accompany and not drown out the singers. I gave him credit on the title page for that assistance.

As rehearsals are going on now, we are constantly making changes, cuts and adjustments to make the opera a better work of art and piece of entertainment. The cast sees all these changes being made in real time and it makes them realize that this is a work in progress. I have made changes to most of the leading roles as well, adjusting and tailoring the music to the their voices and to be sure that they can be heard over the orchestra. Last night we cut a minute and a half from an aria that went on too long.

When I told Scott I was writing this article, he said it should be called “RB: the art of collaboration.” LOL. True, but finding the right match in collaborators is not always an easy job. Scott has been a terrific collaborator and friend during this whole process. So I raise my hat to my wonderful collaborator. The opera is a better piece of music with his help.


My two favorite patter songs

October 14, 2014

“Pick a little, talk a little” from Music Man by Meredith Willson.

“Not getting married” from COMPANY by Stephen Sondheim.

Both of these are inspirations for my patter song in LA PALOMA Y EL RUISEÑOR where Julián nervously reintroduces himself to Ángela as she returns to Mexico from Europe.


A handheld private recording made by someone, but you’ll get a glimpse into the talent of Armando Piña performing in a recent competition who will be premiering the role of Julián in LA PALOMA Y EL RUISENOR, at the Teatro Angela Peralta; Nov. 14, 15, 2014 in Mazatlán, Mexico.

The work Armando performs here is “Ja vas lyublyu” (Prince’s Aria) from The Queen of Spades by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. From
Final del XXXII Concurso Nacional de Canto Carlo Morelli, conducted by Enrique Patrón de Rueda, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.


I had the honor of working with a most brilliant soprano on the faculty in Mazatlan, Penelope Luna, who will play Rosa in LA PALOMA Y EL RUISENOR. I made a number of adjustments for her voice and talent. And after I heard this Gliere performance, I felt free to go even higher! You will get an idea of her talent by this amazing performance of the Gliere Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra under the baton of Enrique Patron de Rueda.

Conductor Scott Dunn and I are honored to have the assistance of Maestro Patron and Maestra Martha Félix in coaching the chorus and soloists in our opera. Both are brilliant and demanding voice coaches in the opera training program in Mazatlán. It shows in the quality of their students. By the end of the rehearsal, I made many changes to rhythms as well as texts thanks to Maestro Patrón’s perceptive critiques of my setting of Spanish.