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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Daniel Catán's 'Florencia en el Amazonas'; worth the wait at the Metropolitan Opera

Ailyn Pérez, as Florencia
Paola Kudacki
Ailyn Pérez, as Florencia

I first met Daniel Catán in December of 1982. I was new to Mexico, having arrived only a few months prior to accept a position in the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico. When I was approached by someone, I can't remember who, asking me to play a “pastorela” by one Daniel Catán, I had to juggle my schedule a bit to do it, but I later came to appreciate that I had. However, at that time I had no idea who Daniel Catán was, nor did he know a thing about me.

I found Daniel's “Mantelillos’s Medalion” well written and fun to play; of course, I made a note to get to know more about him. Fast forward to 1998 or so. I listened to the Houston Grand Opera's recording of Daniel's opera, “Florencia en el Amazonas” and immediately fell under the spell of this adventure on the Amazon River, into the interior of South America, as the famed soprano, Florencia Grimaldi, travels incognito to the opera house in Manaus to perform what was likely to be her swan song. The opening scene sent chills down my spine and I became totally engaged in the story, doubly engaged by the caliber of Daniel's music. I wanted to know more about Daniel Catán and his music.

It took a bit of detective work, but I eventually found contact information for Daniel and approached him for an interview. No arm twisting was necessary. Daniel immediately agreed and soon afterward I got better acquainted with him through an hour long phone interview. Thus began my close watch over the evolving career of Daniel Catán. As important, this began a friendship with Daniel which would last the rest of his life.

A number of years later I interviewed Henry Fogel, at that time President of the Chicago Symphony and a host of an historic recordings broadcast on WFMT-Chicago. Our conversation turned to Daniel Catán. I expressed my admiration of “Florencia en el Amazonas,” a work premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. Mr. Fogel concurred but warned that “Florencia” still needed more performances by a diversity of opera houses in order to truly prove itself.

Years passed. Daniel had continued to write operas: “Salsipuedes” in 1998-99, “Il Postino” in 2008-10 and previously “La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini's Daughter)” in 1983-89. “Il Postino” was a huge success, a breakthrough at the Los Angeles Opera which was immediately picked up by other opera houses. Would “Florencia” ride the shoulders of “Postino” and attract similar attention? The jury was still out when tragedy struck.

In 2010-2011, Daniel Catán was serving a residency at the University of Texas at Austin while also writing a new opera, “Meet John Doe.” In April, 2011, I drove up to Austin to once again interview Daniel, though this would be our first face-to-face. We immediately felt the mutual warmth of an old friendship as we sat and talked about two pending events. First, the opera theater at UT was premiering a new orchestration of “Rappaccini's Daughter,” the orchestra reduced to two pianos, harp and percussion. I argued amiably with Daniel that I didn't think it could possibly match the original version for full orchestra. Daniel smiled at my protest, knowing that he was right and I was wrong. (I was.)

Then Daniel pulled out the score he was then working on, “Meet John Doe,” which would be his first opera in English. We talked further, agreeing to meet again in a few days for his performance of “Rappaccini.” We would then see each other again in Houston, where the opera program at the University of Houston was presenting “Il Postino.” Sadly, the evening of “Rappaccini” was the last time I saw Daniel. He never made it to Houston. It was later discovered that he had died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He was 63.

Daniel's widow, Andrea Puente Catán, had the bittersweet task of representing Daniel as “Il Postino” continued to spread its wings in opera houses in Paris and Vienna. Andrea continues to represent Daniel and his music, a responsibility she has told me is life-long.

“Florencia en el Amazonas” is worthy of a second hearing, and a third, and even more. Houston Grand Opera has revived their production several times, and over a span of several recent years “Florencia” has gotten fresh wind under her wings. Would this be the lift Henry Fogel alluded to when he said “Florencia” needed more performances in more houses in order to secure her place? Perhaps, but when the Metropolitan Opera announced its first post-Covid season, “Florencia” had made the cut, ensuring “Florencia” was finally getting its due. It will run at the Met from opening night, November 16, through December 14, starring the Mexican-American soprano Ailyn Pérez as Florencia Grimaldi.

It is unclear whether the decision to program “Florencia” was made by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin or the Met's general manager Peter Gelb, but according to an article in a recent edition of the New York Times, Gelb gets credit:

It’s an opera that Gelb has long wanted to bring to the house; he was just waiting, he said, for the right star. And he knew that his hope for Pérez had paid off last season when, during the run of “Carmélites,” he asked her to sing Florencia’s final aria for the Met board on only a day’s notice. She delivered it, he added, “with so much beauty and conviction, she had the board sort of swooning along with her.” [NY Times Published Sept. 3, 2023 Updated Sept. 4, 2023]

This is amazing and refreshing news and, yes, I will be there to witness “Florencia” at the Met. It has been reported that this staging of “Florencia” will be the first Spanish language opera staged by the Metropolitan Opera in almost a century. It seems high time to again have this important language of communication and song heard at this, the most important opera house in the country.

KPAC 88.3 FM will begin a celebration in anticipation of “Florencia's” opening night at the Met with a series of Musical Moments (Momentos Musicales) throughout Hispanic Heritage Month. These twenty radio shorts will run every weekday at 2 pm as part of Classical Connections. The series begins today and runs through October 13.

This season of Momentos Musicales will focus upon the importance of Spanish (and other languages of Latin-America) in music, Latin-American dance, spiced with the entertaining and informative observations of music historian Nicolas Slonimsky on Latin-American music and its makers.

Broadcasts of Momentos Musicales are made possible by Hernán Mexican Food and Kitchenware, and HACU - Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Suggested links: Theater Locations for Dec. 9, Dec. 13 Met Live in HD broadcasts: Florencia en el Amazonas - Theater Locations | Fathom Events

Daniel Catánwebsite: Daniel Catán - Official Site (danielcatan.com)

James first introduced himself to KPAC listeners at midnight on April 8, 1993, presenting Dvorak's 7th Symphony played by the Cleveland Orchestra. Soon after, he became the regular overnight announcer on KPAC.