I did not check my email from June 1 to June 10. When our recital tour ended in Barcelona and I began the first of two days off there I learned the tragic news via the surreal medium of Facebook that my dear friend, Angel Oramas, took his life the week before. A memorial service was held that very day at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, where he was a long-time member of the Opera Company. In his honor and memory, we lifted our first glass of Cava and savored the bittersweet herbs of Mediterranean tapas at an unassumingly chic cafe in the L'Eixample neighborhood.
Angel and I become fast friends upon my arrival at Westminster Choir College in the fall of 1993. For the ensuing three years, we built a friendship that would nurture, challenge, provoke and enrich us both. For those few years, he was one of my best friends. We knew each other's stories, shared many meals and spent many a night talking about music, poetry and art. We also engaged in quite a bit of gossip and shared a dry, cutting sense of humor edged by sarcasm and tinged with melancholy.
We gradually lost touch after we both left Princeton, and reunited virtually, as fate would have it, on Facebook. The last thread of conversation we had online was a year or so ago, when another mutual friend took his life. The messages and tributes on Angel's FB page tell you more than an obituary could, and are abundant testimony to what a dear artist, friend and man he was, and will remain.
One of the poets we loved and shared was Federico Garcia Lorca. A victim of Franco's conservative & fascist regime, Lorca was murdered in 1936 (about the same age of my friend, in fact). Lorca, in addition to being a "degenerate" gay man, was an outspoken Republican--ie: liberal--and to make matters worse, he couldn't leave well enough alone in his poetry and plays, either. Lorca's remark about theater, in the last year of his brief life could well apply to Angel:
"Poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair."
Lorca's Sonetas del amor oscura (Sonnets of Dark Love) are among the most beautiful--and least read in the wider sense--of his poems. Here is one of our favorites:
Llagas de amor
Esta luz, esta fuego que devora,
este paisaje gris que me rodea,
este dolor por una sola idea,
esta angusta de cielo, mundo y hora,
este llanto de sangre que decora
lira sin pulso ya, lúbrica tea,
este peso del mar que me golpea,
este alacrán que por mi pecho mora,
son guirnalda de amore, cama de herido,
donde sin sueño, sueño tu presencia
entre las ruinas di mi pecho hundido.
Y aunque busco la cumbre de prudencia
me da tu corazón valle tendido
con cicuta y pasión de amarga ciencia.
(Wounds of Love)
This light, this fire that devours,
this gray landscape that surrounds me,
this pain that comes from one idea,
this anguish of the sky, the earth, the hour,
and this lament of blood that decorates
a pulseless lyre, a lascivious torch,
this burden of the sea that beats upon me,
this scorpion that dwells within my breast
are all a wreath of love, bed of one wounded,
where, sleepless, I dream of your presence
amid the ruins of my fallen breast.
And though I seek the summit of discretion,
your heart gives me a valley spread below
with hemlock and passion of bitter wisdom.
(from Selected Verse, ed. by Christopher Maurer
translated by John K. Walsh and Francisco Aragon,
publ. byFarrar, Straus, Giroux)
Angel was one of the first friends who believed in me: not just as a singer or conductor or "creative type" but as an artist. And I will never forget that or him. I will always remember my speechless surprise when he asked me to write a song cycle for his senior recital the upcoming year. The three Sonnets to Orpheus settings of Rilke I wrote expressly for Angel, are still my favorite among the two dozen works I've considered worth saving. The last of the three is as fitting a tribute as I can imagine. Here is the English version, from the classic Norton edition of the Sonnets, first published in 1942.
Silent friend of the many distances,
feel how your breath is still increasing space.
Among the beams of the dark belfries let
yourself ring out. What feeds on you
will grow strong upon this nourishment.
Be conversant with transformation.
From what experience have you suffered most?
Is drinking bitter to you, turn to wine.
Be, in this immeasurable night,
magic power at your senses' crossroad,
be the meaning of the strange encounter.
And if the earthly has forgotten you,
say to the still earth: I flow.
To the rapid water speak: I am.
(from Sonnets to Orpheus;
Rainer Maria Rilke
transl. by M.D. Herton Norton)
Rest in peace.
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.