Las Américas Festival To Feature Daniel Catán's 'Florencia'
It was my good fortune to cultivate a friendship with the composer Daniel Catán. I knew Daniel primarily through his music, having first encountered it in 1982 while I was working as an orchestra musician in Mexico City. It was a freelance gig, known in Mexico as a hueso, and involved performance of a skillfully made pastorela, a Christmas pageant. I was impressed by what he had written, though when I reminded him of it years later he dismissed it as an early work, not yet matured. Daniel was like that, a man with high expectations while at the same time all too aware of the vagaries of the music business.
I interviewed Daniel Catan on three or four occasions. By the fourth time, in February of 2011, we felt we knew each other, though it was only on that fourth instance that we finally sat face to face as we talked. The earlier interviews were all by phone. Two weeks after that fourth interview, Daniel Catan was dead, victim of a heart attack, barely 62 years old.
He had his greatest impact in the world of opera, writing with great skill for the voice, especially in his native language of Spanish. He was born in Mexico. His opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” has the distinction of being the first Spanish language opera commissioned by a major American company, Houston Grand Opera. The work was a three way artistic collaboration between Catán, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and librettist Marcela Fuentes.
Here's what Daniel Catán had to say about how the pieces of a complicated puzzle fell into place.
D.C. When Rappaccini's Daughter, the opera I composed to the libretto by Octavio Paz, played in Mexico City, almost everyone came to see it. One of the people that came was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Alvaro Mutis, who's a very good friend of his. Both Colombian writers absolutely adore opera, and they love the Italian opera as opposed to the German kind of opera. They were excited by the idea of opera in Spanish, for there's been very little, so they kind of offered their help for the next one I might write, not thinking that I actually would write another. So when Houston commissioned a second opera from me, then I immediately went back to them and said, well here I am, you offered your help and now you can't get out of it. So that's how we started collaborating. Now, writing a libretto is a very tedious and time consuming activity. I knew that Garcia Marquez would not have the time because it would take about six months of very close collaboration. So he agreed to help through the help of one of his trusted proteges, Marcela Fuentes. She had a lot of experience in writing libretti, not for opera but for TV and film scripts. I met her, and we worked very happily together. Every few weeks we would go back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and he would read what we had and offer suggestions. Eventually the whole libretto was completed in that way. It was a very happy form of collaborating with him.
Although Catán was a student of Milton Babbitt, his own musical personality was rooted deeply in the Romanticism of Puccini and Strauss.
D.C. In the sense that I'm concerned with some of the same issues that Romantic composers were dealing with, for example love and redemption and what is this life all about, yes I am still asking myself those questions, and my operas are about that. So in that sense I am very much a neo-Romantic. And in the sense that I still use harmony as one of the main tools for organizing my music, yes I do, so I'm a Romantic in that sense. But sometimes people, they use labels, and critics use them too, just out of laziness to characterize what they are hearing, and just to say it basically connects with a certain tradition. They may say it approvingly or disapprovingly. I definitely want to connect with the operatic tradition and I've come full circle to believing that the power of the voice and the power of opera lies in writing beautiful melodies. That's where it's at . . . I'm struggling all the time to find melodies that will be mine rather than anybody else's. Right? That's my intention and if that comes across, yes I like that.
“Florencia en el Amazonas” received performances in Houston, San Diego, and Seattle, to rave reviews. The recording of the complete work, drawn from the live performances in Houston, is said to be the best seller in the catalog of the independent Albany record label. Despite all this, Catán was frustrated that it took ten years before “Florencia” was finally performed in Europe.
D.C. I'm surprised at how much the public identifies with it and understands it on first hearing. For that I am surprised and I am delighted. On the other hand, that has to be qualified. Even though this opera has been one of the most successful ones in the last, say, 50 years, it is incredibly painful to see how little it has been performed. The CD, for example, is said to be one of the best selling in recent memory, that's what they say, Albany records. At the same time only the three theaters that commissioned it have put it on. Nobody else has dared to do it. And the European premiere is happening, but ten years after opening night. If an opera like this had had the success this one has had, say at the beginning of the 20th century, within six months it would have played in 200 theaters. Now, one of the most successful ones has been seen in only three theaters, and that's because they commissioned it. While I am very happy for my own personal success in this opera, nevertheless the general picture for modern music and modern opera is dreadfully depressing.
Thank goodness that the Madison, Wisconsin Symphony commissioned an orchestral suite from "Florencia," for this allows the gorgeous score to be heard outside of the confines of an opera house. The "Symphonic Suite" draws from six scenes in the opera, allowing the listener to experience Catán's beautiful orchestrations (they remind me of Puccini) and his penchant for soaring melodies. There's a bit of the dramatic and the serene within the Suite. Daniel Catán's "Orchestral Suite from Florencia en el Amazonas" is programmed on this weekend's concert by the San Antonio Symphony side-by-side with Samuel Barber's lush "Violin Concerto" as well as "Medea's Dance of Vengeance," also by Barber. The program opens with Aaron Copland's "El Salón México." The concert features the work of violin soloist Eric Gratz, and is conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing. The downbeat is at 8 PM, Friday evening the 29th and Saturday the 30th. I hope to see you at the Tobin.