One dark night on a long drive through the Texas Hill Country in 2017, composer Nathan Felix listened to his friend Fernando “Fern” Luis Ribas-Berain tell the story of his father’s death.
The two San Antonians had been friends since high school in Austin two decades ago, but only that night did Fern reveal the dramatic tale of Maj. Fernando Luis Ribas-Dominicci, involving a secret nighttime Air Force mission resulting in two officers killed in action and the eventual renaming of a San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport after his father.
“It was very dark when we were driving, and I was kind of shook up,” Felix said. “I was very emotional but he probably couldn’t see it,” he said.
That story is now the basis of a three-act operetta by Felix, Ribas-Dominicci, set to premiere at 2 p.m. Friday for the Texas Public Radio (TPR) Daystream performance series.
The name of the 1986 military operation, El Dorado Canyon, is far less well-known than its object: the bombing of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s military headquarters and other targets in Libya, as retribution by U.S. President Ronald Reagan for the Arab leader’s sponsorship of terrorism. Close family members of Gadhafi were injured in the bombing, and the country’s dictatorial leader was said to have been deeply shaken following the attack.
Planned at night to evade detection, a group of F-111 bomber jets made the long, circuitous flight from Britain with the help of air refueling planes, other European nations having declined to support the mission. Controversy surrounds the number of jets deployed and last-minute mission changes – one reason more pilots were put at risk from what one post-mission report described as Libyan anti-aircraft weaponry “firing blindly” from the ground.
The plane, under call sign Karma 52, piloted by Ribas-Dominicci is believed to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile. Both he and his weapons system officer, Capt. Paul Lorence, were lost, and it took intervention from Pope John Paul II to finally return one set of remains to the United States. Libya believed the remains to be those of Lorence, but dental records later proved the body to be that of Ribas-Dominicci, dead at age 33.
“As a wife, you know, this is your loved one, so you have this tiny little hope in your heart forever that he’s going to come back,” said Blanca Berain Ribas, who married Ribas-Dominicci in 1977 and now lives in San Antonio.
“So when they found his body, then that was like living through it all over again. And the reason for that is because your hope dies, and then you know that he’s not ever coming back,” she said.
In the interim, Berain Ribas said she dreamed about him. “In my dreams, he would always come back,” she said. “It’s just that hope that you have in your heart.”
Felix makes use of this dream scenario in his libretto, which brings the characters of Fernando, played by baritone Lee Farrar Bailey, and Blanca, played by mezzo-soprano Kathleen Shelton, together in ways they could not be during and after the mission.
After Fernando recounts the tale of his tragic 12-minute sortie, the two share the stage to sing, “Can we let go / You’re all that I know.” A telling stage direction then reveals a distance that will never be closed again:
(Fernando and Blanca reach across the room for each other. As they realize they can’t reach one another, they bow their heads and drop their arms)
Berain Ribas said the libretto departs from the details of the real-life story but captures the essence of their love. As a longtime fan of opera, she said of Felix’s operetta, “things didn’t occur exactly as he brought him out in the music and the libretto, but the emotion underlying it was vivid to me, in remembering.”
Felix said he plans to develop the 25-minute operetta into a full-length opera, with hopes of a premiere in late 2022. In the full-length version, the story can be explored more fully, with greater accuracy and a more complex rendering of the couple’s life with their young son before the combat tragedy.
For now, Ribas-Dominicci will debut as a one-time livestreamed performance, then continue existence on the TPR Facebook page and Felix’s YouTube channel.
TPR events manager Adam Fleming said the livestream component of the Daystream series, conceived as a live performance series to activate the newly renovated Alameda Theater, will continue beyond the pandemic. The difference in the future will be that a live audience will be allowed into the theater to witness the performances.
Monthly Daystream programming started in February with a performance by Pamela Martinez and will continue with local bands Nuevo, Filthy, and Telenovela.
“We want to highlight the vast, vibrant performing arts scene in Texas,” Fleming said. “There’s just so much, and it really spans every genre.”