By Isabel Merat
Composer and conductor Tania León has compiled numerous accomplishments throughout her musical career, including a Pulitzer Prize for her orchestral work Stride this past June, commissioned by The New York Philharmonic. As an incoming sophomore attending Oberlin College and Conservatory, an institution from which Ms. León received an Honorary Doctorate, it was an honor and privilege to interview such an astonishing figure in the arts. Ms. León dives into her life growing up in Havana, Cuba, voyage to America, and her musical career thus far.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Isabel Merat (IM): In an interview twenty-two years ago, you spoke of the Cuban phrase, “Y Tu Abuela, Donde Esta?” Your definition of the phrase, I quote, was “....by looking at the grandparents, you possibly can trace the many things that this person is about.” Coming from Havana, Cuba, how do you define your family and where you come from?
Tania León (TL): Well, you know, that was twenty-two years ago and nowadays I could say the same thing; that was a piece of poetry recited by Luis Carbonell. I have no idea who the poet was, but I used to listen to that, and everybody used to laugh. Because a person might look one way and then you start meeting the ancestors and then you get a different perspective of what the racial component of this person ends up being. It refers much more to the look of the person than to the character of the person. And since on this planet, we have the tendency to classify people because of their looks. It’s very difficult in my estimation nowadays, after one more generation of experiences on this planet, why do we classify people one way or the other. We classify people as short, as tall, light-skinned, dark-skinned, slanted eyes, round eyes. There is so much classification, and unfortunately due to that classification, also in my estimation, there has been a lot of abuse of one group towards another. The group that perhaps may attain certain power, likes to exercise that power over other people by making them feel inferior; and you can make another person feel inferior because they are below 5 feet tall or because their skin is darker. In that classification, there’s a lot of labels that come up. So when a person is labeled, they lose their identity, because they are grouped completely with a group of people. In those groups of people, there may be connotations that those are bad people, who take drugs and those are people who are vandalizing. Therefore, you may see someone, and immediately all of that registers in your mind and that is how you see the person. Therefore, you don’t really see the person. What you see is the reaction of everything that you learned about people that look that way. Nowadays, there’s a lot of questions about diversity, which has to do with this theme that we are discussing at this point. To me, diversity is real because everyone is different. It doesn’t matter if people have light skin, from one person to another, there’s a tremendous amount of difference. We are all diverse. It’s not the way we are applying the word diversity now, because we are including into a bigger conversation people that we used to marginalize. So in other words, it might be my own philosophy of how to understand the world a little bit better and understand also that in the world, one of the things that we practice is the, in my estimation, philosophy of revenge. You do something to me, I’m going to attack you because of what you did to me, and it’s something that never never never ends. It has been happening since, I don’t know how old is this planet or how old is humanity, but we talk about love and achieving love, and love is the supreme. So what does this have to do with ethnicity? It’s very easy for me to, through my philosophy, understand that ethnicity is, precisely everything we said as far as how we codify a person, and how a person wants to self codify. The human race comes in many shapes, many tones, but the human race is a subject that has eyes, ears, mouth, hair, that’s the human race. What are the components, if the skin is darker, it’s darker. If the skin is lighter, it’s lighter. The skin is protecting the body of a human being. So it is doing the same purpose for everybody. I don’t understand why there is so much criticism from one human being to another when we are actually the same specimen. The only thing that we actually build character and rationality on is based on our experiences, based on cultural habits, based on the habits of our families, and based on inheritances of habits or thinking from generations and generations. For example, I don’t know my ancestors. The only ancestors that my brother and I know are the immediate ones we met because these are all people who migrated to Cuba. They didn’t tell us the stories, and by the time when we became adults, we didn’t ask them questions and they died, so we don’t know! We don’t know where the families came from, where the grandparents came from, we don’t know anything. And it’s interesting because it is a family of people that look very different, with different skin tones and different cultures. How did they set foot in Cuba, which was an island that a lot of people came from different waves and different walks of life? The only part of my family that we know is because there are traces of slavery, the people that came from Africa in the slave trade. The other ones, we have no idea. Of course, the Spaniards, the part that is from Spain, we assume that these people came from Spain centuries ago. As far as I am concerned, the father of my grandmother that comes from that community and that culture, we don’t know anything about him. The same thing happens for the three different wings of my family, which qualify or classify as three different races on this planet, but we don’t know anything about their background. So that is a very interesting thing for me to understand how we classify people and why do I have so much respect for the culture and the looks of people because that is how I grew up, seeing three wings of people creating something and making sure that my brother and I would have the best education possible, and then they disappeared, like everybody. We are here passing by for a very minimum amount of time in the scale of time. It’s incomprehensible to me that we get so animated into our points of view and trying to destroy each other because we think different, we look different, and because we speak different beliefs and cultures, and it’s the same planet. Nobody can leave the planet, yet.
IM: Speaking of your family and identity and looking back at this same interview, you mentioned that there were times where you struggled to find your identity, specifically that you “couldn’t define yourself”. Since then, 22 years later, is this still a feeling you occasionally have and that you feel the need to overcome?
TL: No, I don’t have to overcome it, I am now very comfortable with that attitude. It is very hard for me to define myself when I am changing every day. We change every second, change is the only natural thing that apparently is happening on this planet everywhere. I am not going to be against change, I am trying to adapt as much as I can. I am not the same person. For example,
when I returned to Cuba after not seeing my family in 12 years, they noticed that I was different. People in the neighborhood if they didn’t know me from the past, they didn’t know where I was from. They didn’t identify me as Cuban. People would ask my brother, “Where is she from?” and my brother would say “Oh no, she was born here.” But I was coming back with this different set of gestures. My nephews and niece were born after I left, so they never met me. It was very funny that the little one said to my family, “Why does she speak so funny?” He thought I was speaking funny and I was speaking Spanish! So that means he noticed that my Spanish was not their Spanish, or that I was pronouncing things a little bit differently, he heard it! Therefore, I have changed, and I didn’t notice it when I got there. I think that identities are fluid. That is why they say that people that are older know more, not because they are older, but because they have experienced and lived more.
IM: Ms. Leon, you migrated to the United States as a refugee in 1967 on a Freedom Flight, winning by lottery to come to America. Based on this journey you embarked on, how does luck play a role in your career and life?
TL: I told my family since I was 9 years old that I was going to live in Paris, France. When I left Cuba, that was my idea. The only thing is that I took advantage thanks to a family that migrated to Miami Florida that we are very connected. They were Catholics, and they sent me a form saying they would sponsor me, people had to sponsor other people. I waited for 3 years without knowing if the application was going to be honored. The only honor was that the application had a number, it was like a lottery, and the number actually had to come up. And my number came up. It was a very incredible moment because I really wanted to explore going outside of my country. I’ve always been very globally oriented or globally spellbound. I wanted to go to France and continue my studies as a pianist. Besides that, I knew that at the Conservatory they were very strong in solfege, and that is one of my strengths. My training was french training, which is done completely with solfege from the very beginning, so I knew that I was going to be okay there. The only way that I could actually leave Cuba was through that medium because my family had no money. That was the only avenue I had. Once I got to the states I realized I didn’t have a passport for me to travel and the states told me that I had to stay at least 5 years so I could become a citizen and then apply for a passport. My luck had to do with the fact that I decided, within 3 days, to continue to New York. I called some friends that I had in New York and they said “come over, we have a sofa for you.” So in Miami, I went to a church and explained that I was a musician, and I needed to come to New York because here was where music was very important, and they gave me a one-way plane ticket. So here we are, and I landed in New York and here I am talking to you, and I never left New York! So that is why you never know what is going to happen in your life.
IM: What were your dreams and aspirations during your life in Cuba and leaving Cuba to come to America? Did you see opportunities in these dreams when arriving in America?
TL: Not necessarily, because my arrival in America was going to be transient. My intention was to figure out how I would fly to France. I am also an accountant so I can do mathematics. When I found out that I had to stay in the states for five years, I said “Oh my God, what do I do
now?” And that is when I said, “Let me go to New York.” Even though I didn’t speak English, It didn’t matter, I just had to resolve the situation. By the time I left Cuba, I was a very good pianist. That’s why I said that I have to come to New York because I didn’t want to lose that. Coming to New York, I thought that I was going to continue with my career. I end up at NYU with a scholarship and my first degree was in Piano. I didn’t change to composition until my experience with the Dance Theater of Harlem. The Dance Theater of Harlem was also a lucky moment, and that’s how I met Arthur Mitchell. I went to replace a friend for some ballet lessons, and Arthur Mitchell heard me play and later approached me. Two weeks after I was in this room playing the piano for him without knowing who I was playing the piano for. Later, he told us about a project he had in mind, and of course, I was going to be here for five years anyway. So I started with The Dance Theater of Harlem and by the third year, he asked me to write a ballet and he would do the choreography; I said, “Oh my God I have to study composition!” So the whole thing snowballed, and here I am talking to you as a composer!
IM: That is actually my next question! Talking about the Dance Theater in Harlem you were involved in and a part of, So that is when you started composition it was at The Dance Theater in Harlem that’s when it all started!
TL: In Cuba, I wrote songs and things like that. My brother used to have a little group of musicians and he and I used to sing duets. That is what I remember the most, having all of these young musicians at home, and my grandmother watching the whole thing. We would say, “Oh no let’s try this” and “Oh no let’s change it over here”. Some of my teachers predicted that I was going to be a composer. It never crossed my mind. A composer as a career? NO! Being in the Dance Theater of Harlem was the beginning. I was their first musician and Aurthur Mitchell believed in me to write a ballet. For me to write a ballet and for him to do the choreography? I mean, ARTHUR MITCHELL doing CHOREOGRAPHY to MY MUSIC? It was amazing.
IM: What differences have you noticed between writing music for ballet versus writing for your opera? Were there any times where it was difficult to transition to starting the opera, how did that come about?
TL: Not necessarily, my opera came from my relationship with a great musician, his name is Hans Wener Henze. He was a German composer that heard my music and he fell attracted to it. He knew I was coming from Cuba, so he heard some things in my music that had to do with my cultural heritage. He invited me to be a juror in one of his competitions in the festivals that he had in Germany, and when I was leaving after the competition, he asked me about writing an opera, and I frankly told him that I didn’t like opera! For me to think that I would write an opera? Oh no! I told him, and he didn’t take no for an answer. To tell you the truth, he was my mentor, taught me how to create the libretto, he made me write the libretto 5 times! We fought from New York to Rome on the phone! He was screaming, “You have to do this” and I would say “No!” And finally after the 5th trial, and re-doing the whole thing 5 times, he said, “Now, it’s ready. Now you can write the music.” He told me, “Do the Libretto because when you finish doing the Libretto, you know all of the music already.” and he was right. After finishing the libretto, I wrote the opera very fast. I knew the scene text and knew how the words would rhyme.
IM: Mrs. Leon, your opera Scourge of Hyacinths, was commissioned in 1994 and is based on a play written by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. The aria, Oh Yemanja (“Mother’s Prayer”) is about the man’s mother praying to Yemanja, a goddess from the Yoruban tradition. Your family also prayed to this goddess, which is why this Aria is very important to you as it is derived from your own childhood. In what other ways has your childhood had an influence on your artistry? To what other extents was this opera inspired by your Cuban roots and your own life?
TL: That is most of the connecting tissue, the opera with my childhood. Once I started reading the play, I was like “Oh my God!” I saw the word Yemanja, and the mother of this individual was praying to that saint and it brought me back home. It doesn’t matter if you’re not involved with the religion at all, it’s a tradition to pray to Yemanja. For example, Cuba has a patron which is la Caridad del Cobre, which is another saint that came through Catholicism coming into Cuba. The reason why this was declared is something that I actually have to read more. It had to do with some peasants that were in the middle of turbulent waters and they had an apparition of a saint, and this saint saved them, and they were able to get to the shore. People told the story and since then, the saint became the patron of the whole entire island. Yemanja is one of the saints that came through the Africanos, who brought their deities, too. In Cuba, and because the Africanos, at first, couldn’t talk about their deities, they hid the deities behind the Catholic saints. Yemanja is also la Virgen de Regla. The story of that virgin resembled the story of Yemanja, and the Africanos put Yemanja behind it. People would go to the church and pray to la Virgin de Regla and the other people didn’t know that they were really praying to Yemanja! In Cuba it’s the same thing, people pray to different deities and you might be born in Santeria or not, but is a tradition that is very prevalent on the island because people respect those deities. Every time there was some sort of crisis at home, my mother and my grandmother would pray to Yemanja. It could be that I was going to take a test at school, and they would pray to Yemanja so that I could do well in school. I would have a fever, so they would pray to Yemanja for the fever to be gone. So when I saw that in the play with Wole Soyinka, it was like a signal that I had to write this opera.
IM: From my research, Scourge of Hyacinths is the only opera you have composed. Have you ever thought about writing another opera?
TL: Yes, I have different operas in my mind, believe me. There’s an opera that finally, at some point, if I have time before I leave the planet, I would like to write. I have permission from Isabel Allende, the famous writer from Latin America, to write an opera based on one of her stories of Eva Luna, which is a cycle of stories that she wrote many years ago from which she became very famous.
IM: When did you start conducting? What lead you to conduct your own work and what are the positives and negatives in doing so?
TL: I started conducting in Italy, as part of the Spoleto festival. I was there with the Dance Theater of Harlem. I was told to conduct the performance, and I have never conducted. I knew the conducting patterns because when I studied solfege, in my training, I had to conduct, in the air the patterns of the music, while I was singing and reading the music that was on the score. I remember very well the first time that I conducted in my life, it was with the Julliard Orchestra. I was solfege-ing in my head. Through solfege, I knew exactly what I would be doing with my arms. The performance went well. The next day, the review in the Italian newspaper said “Woman Conducts Orchestra” with my picture, and I said, “ As soon as I get to New York, I better start studying conducting!” because if this was going to continue, I needed to know what I was doing.
IM: What was the inspiration behind your non-profit organization Composers Now and how did you come up with the ideas of incorporating such wonderful programs and initiatives within the organization?
TL: It is a combination of all the years I have been in the United States, and how many composers I have dealt with, from the beginning with The Dance Theater of Harlem. Arthur commissioned Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a wonderful composer that I met for the first time. I didn’t know anybody so I started to meet all of these people and a composer from Brazil, Marlos Nobre, who was writing a ballet. From then on, we started bringing a lot of composers to compose new pieces for The Dance Theater of Harlem. After that, I started working with The Brooklyn Philharmonic, which was an orchestra in Brooklyn that was led by a composer-conductor named Lukas Foss. I started putting a program together with two other composers, Talib Rasul Hakim and Julius Eastman, and we created this big effort to go all over the city of New York with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, premiering music by new composers. The number of composers that we were dealing with was unbelievable. Years ago, I created a non for profit organization called Composers Now. I want to give back to New York. It is my way of thanking the nation, specifically New York for all of the opportunities New York has showered me with since my arrival. I love composers, I love everybody’s sound, it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. To me, composers are like magicians. It’s magic, putting all of those sounds together in ways that I would never do because we all are so different. It’s like what I was saying about being a human being, we all are different. Every composer has a very unique sound. For example, at Composers Now, we have a new virtual series called Impact, and the composer addresses the audience directly. Sometimes in order to help the audience to understand the music of a specific composer, it would be fantastic to know the artist. To know who this person is, not only in terms of music but what this person is all about in terms of how they think or what they are trying to say in the music they create, coming out of their own words, not me or anybody else describing it. They show what they want to show, they say this is what I’m working on, or say this is what I just finished working on. Sometimes they talk about social issues. People might know their music, but they have never seen them or heard them speak. They don’t know how their voices sound. With this, I think that it is going to help the health of the listening power of our society.
IM: Ms. Leon, your orchestral work Stride was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, as part of their initiative “Project 19”, commissioning 19 female composers in honor of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. What are your views on advocating for woman’s rights?
TL: It is an ongoing pledge, for the entire planet. For example, it is very comfortable that I am sitting here in New York and saying, “I wrote a piece for the New York Philharmonic” and “this was awarded” and all of that. I have been in Soweto, South Africa, the skirts of Favelas in Brazil, and in many places where women are working very hard, sometimes without the recognition that they deserve. I know that on this planet, women are not treated the way that they should be. Women are very intelligent. Everybody has a purpose. The women are the ones that give birth, and that is sacred. This is one of the things that I don’t understand, that if women are the ones that make it possible for a human being to be born, how then is a woman going to be mistreated. I don’t get it. Specifically, if a woman is going to be mistreated, how are they going to be mistreated by their counterpart? The pledge for better treatment of women is something that I am really concerned about and invested in. There are a lot of rules imposed on a woman, as though the woman is not the owner of their own body or their own decisions. That’s why I feel there is no balance on the planet in terms of that as well, with all due respect. We have a lot of things as human beings that we should reflect on, things that we actually can improve. There is something that is out of balance. We have to find the correct balance so we can respect each other the way that we could.
Interviewee: Tania León
For more information on Tania León, visit https://www.tanialeon.com/
Interviewer: Isabel Merat
For more information on Isabel Merat, visit https://www.operaculture.com/isabelmerat