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Opera tells harrowing tale of Cuban rafters

An ocean surrounds the lone raft as towering waves batter the two families huddled aboard. The rafters are lost at sea, adrift in shark-infested waters between Florida and Cuba.

Their skin burns, scorched by days of relentless sun. Hunger pains begin to numb their insides. Their arid mouths and dehydrated bodies remind them how close death looms.

Hope for a rescue fades after dozens of ships pass by and another storm threatens over the horizon.

This drama _ lived over and over again by thousands of rafters who made the voyage _ is now being told in the opera Balseros, the Spanish name for rafters. The plot is pieced together from the accounts of about 30 survivors.

"The stories that they told were just gripping," said Olga Garay, director of cultural affairs for Miami-Dade Community College, who came up with the idea for the musical drama. It is scheduled to open May 16 in Miami Beach.

Francisco Escobar, a consultant for the production, made the crossing from Cuba after his third attempt, floating out to sea on a raft made from scavenged wood and aluminum poles. The 32-year-old editor works in the receiving department of a retail store.

"It is extremely important that others know about the tragedy of the balseros," he said. "Hopefully our story . . . will touch audiences and help them see us as normal people like them who were forced to extraordinary experiences."

In one of the opera's most emotional moments, night has fallen and the rafters have just survived a harrowing encounter with one of the many storms that whip through the Florida Straits.

They hear a helicopter nearing. They struggle to find a torch they brought along in case they needed to signal aircraft. They scream and make noises. One rafter finds the torch and desperately searches for the matches. Then they realize the matches are gone, washed away by a wave during the storm.

"We couldn't have made up the stories that they told us," Garay said. "They were just that amazing."

Some told of ships passing and leaving them at sea. One told of chipping away wood from the raft that held his family afloat so that he could build a small fire to distill sea water. Others remembered loved ones dying from dehydration.

"These people have such strong, intense memories of this really overwhelming experience that it colors their whole lives," director Michael Montel said. "That is what makes this so moving."

The trip from Cuba to Florida is just 90 miles, but it is through treacherous waters in the Florida Straits, a graveyard where hundreds of rafters have disappeared.

A trickle of hungry and repressed Cubans began making the trip on makeshift rafts in the late 1970s. In the summer of 1994, as economic conditions in Cuba declined, the trickle became a human tide. Thousands of Cubans a day were rescued by the Coast Guard. But nobody knows for sure how many didn't make it.

Those three months inspired the opera.

"I just came up with the idea of the Balseros because I wanted a piece that spoke to our community," said Garay, a Cuban-American.

Garay took the idea to Robert Hauer, president of the Florida Grand Opera. The college, the opera and the South Florida Composers Alliance pooled their resources and attracted such sponsors as AT&T, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest foundation to raise the $600,000 needed.

In the opera, each performer plays a variety of characters. Classically trained, young artists from the Florida opera complement four members of the troupe of Robert Ashley, who composed the music for Balseros. Two Cuban-American actors have speaking roles.

"This is not politics," said Mario Salas-Lanz, one of the Cuban-American actors. "This is only stories about these people and what they went through _ those that made it and those that didn't."

The Cuban-Americans _ a married couple _ are the narrators, telling the harrowing tale in Spanish. The singers and the couple's characters often perform simultaneously. The cacophony of language is intended to give the performance an air of authenticity.

Several European theaters and opera festivals, a venue in Colombia and the Brooklyn Academy have expressed interest in showing the opera, Ashley said. He expects the piece to begin touring in the fall.

Part of the appeal, Ashley said, is the universal nature of people fleeing their homeland in search of freedom and a better life for their loved ones.

"That's how the Jews got here. That's how the Italians got here," Ashley said. "I think it's American. How we all got here."