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Daniel Catán, Composer
(Biography e-mailed to me by his agent)
Although Mexican-American composer, Daniel Catán, has composed in a number of genres, he is particularly known for the intricate beauty of his operas. Sung in an elegant Spanish, his operas are rich with long-spun, mellifluous melodies supported by delicately luscious harmonies and dramatic orchestration. Catán is a master storyteller, capturing the poetic ideas of the text in the music. His works embody a kind of traditional originality,' one that embraces all operatic traditions from Monteverdi to Alban Berg but at the same time refreshingly contemporary and highly individual.
Daniel Catán has recently finished his third opera, Salsipuedes, for Houston Grand Opera.
With the San Diego Opera's American premiere in 1994 of his second opera Rappaccini's
Daughter, based on Octavio Paz's retelling of the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, Catán became the first Mexican composer to have an opera produced in the United States. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, who was in attendance at the world premiere of Rappaccini's Daughter
in 1991, offered to work with the composer on his next opera. That was the beginning of a collaboration with Marcela Fuentes-Berain, who Márquez suggested as a librettist for Florencia en el Amazonas
, an opera inspired by Márquez's writing. Florencia
been since produced in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Bogotá, and was revived by the Houston Grand Opera (the original commissioner) in early 2001. In Catán's words, "I set out to write beautiful music for a story of the journey to transcendent love; it concerns all of us who have lived love with all its intricacies, subtleties, wretchedness, and glorious happiness." Critical reaction has confirmed the success of Catán's intentions, with such comments as: "Bewitching;" "A landmark;" "Its
voluptuousness seems as honest as it is beautifully crafted;" "Hypnotic;" "In a word, beautiful"--all coming from the press.
Catán has also written works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and film (Bruce Wagner's "I'm Losing You"). En Un Doblez Del Tiempo
(A Fold in Time) had its premiere in 1982 by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (led by Sergio Cárdenas); it was later recorded by the Mexico City Philharmonic with Eduardo DiazmuZoz (FCM Vol. 3 CD SDX 21232). Catán's chamber piece Encantamiento
, a haunting work for 2 recorders (also for varying combinations of either treble or bass instruments) has been performed worldwide by soloist Horacio Franco.
Born in Mexico City in 1949, Catán studied philosophy and music at University of Sussex and Southampton and received graduate degrees from Princeton University.
Returning to Mexico City, he took the post of music administrator at the Palace of Fine Arts, where he became more deeply related to singing and opera and the whole magical world of the stage. The 1998 recipient of Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera's Plácido Domingo Award now resides in Los Angeles.
In the hands of Daniel Catán opera becomes the first of the arts. The French painter Eugene Delacroix defined great art "ingenious artifice that expresses or pleases. Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas
is the embodiment of that definition.
Considered a work of great beauty and power, Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas
is the composer's second opera. Loosely inspired by Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera
, the opera follows the story of Florencia Grimaldi, an aging opera singer who embarks upon a steamboat journey down the Amazon River. As the journey progresses, the boatis beset by pink rain, foul waters, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. As Florencia and her fellow travelers are carried deeper into the jungle, they experience various revelations, until
finally the diva's spirit is transformed into a vast, emerald butterfly.
In many ways, Florencia
is a culmination of Catán's previous work -- an early piece for soprano and orchestra, Mariposa de obsidiana
("Obsidian Butterfly") was based on a poem by Octavio Paz, and his first opera, La hija de Rappaccini
, was inspired by another tale of a magically transformed beauty, Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" as retold by Paz. First produced in the United States by the San Diego Opera, La hija de Rappaccini was critically acclaimed, and brought Catán to the attention of the Houston Grand Opera in 1994. (It also
brought him to the attention of Gabriel García Márquez, who had seen the work's premiere in Mexico City, and expressed interest in working with the composer.) Looking to commission a Spanish-language work to reflect the city's increasingly Latin character, HGO director David Gockley, in cooperation with opera houses in LA, Seattle, and Bogotá, asked Catán to produce a new work, an opera that celebrated the "artistic, musical, literary, and visual aspects of Latin America" as well as being "the most beautiful opera in the last fifty years."
Given this marvelous opportunity (and not to mention somewhat daunting challenge),
Catán turned to the works of Gabriel García Márquez for inspiration. Failing to find one isolated story that suited his needs, he decided to borrow a few themes from Gabo's work in general, with an emphasis on Love in the Time of Cholera
. Gabriel García Márquez agreed to the project, given the condition that the libretto be penned by his protégé and filmscript collaborator,Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Using a river-voyage down the Amazon as their setting, Catán and Fuentes-Berain plunged deep into the lush world of "magical realism" and crafted a story about love, redemption and transfiguration. The opera premiered in Houston on October 25, 1996 to wide acclaim, and then made its way to the LA Opera, the Seattle Opera, and the Bogatá Opera.
It proved to be so popular that the Houston Opera has kept it in its repertory, where it was revived to popular acclaim in the Spring 2001 season.
possesses the artful beauty of traditional opera; a form that, at its best, values grace, craftsmanship, and lyricism over the sugar-high of instant gratification. Comparisons with late Puccini are inevitable and certainly apt, but much of Catán's score touches upon the flowing Impressionism of Debussy and the vibrant colors of Ravel as well. It also contains some engaging touches quite compelling to the modern ear -- frequent marimbas add a slightly exotic flavor, and the percussion section underscores the music with intriguing Latin rhythms. Catán
scores the opera for a relatively small orchestra, which adds a sense of precision and punch -- the strings never dominate, and each instrument is clearly articulated. The music simply shimmers,occasionally opening up into an expanse of surging sound, floating the vocals aloft on an iridescent wave of color.
Happily, Catán's vocal writing is well-matched to his orchestral fluency. Catán is a
believer in old-school lyricism, and it comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure,unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. A few critics have questioned whether Catán has really broken any new ground; but in a world where the definition of opera itself has been stretched to include such otherwise praiseworthy pieces as Einstein on the Beach
, The Cave
, and Jackie O
, it comes as a relief to know that someone can still write something that Doctor Juvenal Urbino himself would find immensely satisfying. (Dr. Juvenal Urbino is always
reminded of "the fate of unrequited love" when he smells bitter almonds–he’s a character in Love in the Time of Cholera
.) Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace and not a line feels clumsy or out of place. Still, while Florencia's lyricism might represent a welcome return to the Italian mode, there's really no single moment that particularly stands out. But again, compared to the vibrant tapestry of the whole, this comes as only a minor quibble. Florencia
is a wonderful work, one that deserves to find its voice through numerous productions.
Its subject matter, too, is worth a few words of praise: it is a delight to see a modern opera so full of innocence and wonder; and if the soprano has to die in the end, then what's wrong with transforming into a giant butterfly? Florencia en el Amazonas
stands as a hopeful reminder thatlove, faith, and beauty can be liberating powers in a world all too trapped in its own cynicism and irony.
The action takes place sat the port of Leticia, Colombia and then on the riverboat El Dorado.
Riolobo, a character who can assume various forms, announces that the El Dorado is
setting off down the Amazon for the opera house in Manaus where the legendary diva Florencia Grimaldi, who has not set foot in her native South America for twenty years, will give a concert. Florencia arrives on the dock incognito to make the river journey. Her motive for this trip is to search for her long-lost lover, Cristóbal Ribeiro da Silva. Twenty years ago, they parted on the river when he went in search of the world's rarest butterfly, the Emerald Muse, and Florencia set
out to pursue her life as an opera diva in Europe. Among the other travelers are the ship's Captain, his nephew Arcadio, the young journalist Rosalba, who is working on a biography about the famous singer, and Paula and Alvaro, a middle-aged couple journeying to hear Grimaldi in hopes of rekindling their marriage.
At dawn as the ship leaves behind the busy port, Florencia reflects on her history and her motives for making the trip. Arcadio and Rosalba grow closer as they exchange confidences. Alvaro and Paula attempt to dine on deck, but exchange only bitter words. Later a card game takes place between the two couples that underlines their differences. Florencia passes a sleepless night and then learns from the Captain that the butterfly hunter has not been seen for many years. Suddenly a storm of pink rain develops. Riolobo calls upon the gods of the river; theinjured Captain calls for help. Alvaro falls overboard as Arcadio takes the helm, and the ship
runs a ground.
In the quiet after the storm Florencia awakens, wondering whether she is alive or dead. Arcadio and Rosalba rejoice to find they have survived the storm. Paula sees Alvaro's body and laments his death. Suddenly, he awakens and the passengers resume their journey to Manaus.
Florencia and Rosalba argue over the source of the opera singer's talents. Florencia argues so persuasively that the writer realizes the woman standing before her is the diva herself. It is the first of other epiphanies.
The passengers anticipate the end of their journey as the ship's arrival in Manaus is
announced. But suddenly a message comes that cholera has spread in Manaus and no one may disembark. As Florencia collapses, realizing she may never find Cristóbal, her spirit drifts towards his in a mystical transformation.
The following note was written by Catán and was copied from the CD booklet:
My journey down the Amazon, the real and operatic one, began in the studio of my dear
friend Alvaro Mutis. He knows the jungle intimately and has written about it all his life; at the same time he is a great lover of opera. The combination could not be better. We met many times in his studio. Prints of magnificent riverboats occupy the spaces normally reserved for family photographs. It was there that I learned about the dangers of river navigation, and also about the psychological states the Amazon induces in its travelers; the way it conjures up their most secret desires and deepest fears. In the opera, Florencia undertakes a journey that will bring her back to her origins. It is, I believe, the story of the return journey that we all undertake at a certain point in our lives: the moment when we look back at what we once dreamed of becoming, and then confront what we have now become. As Florencia sings her final aria, her voice, her song and she herself, become intertwined with the image of a butterfly. She breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings. Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other. The image of the butterfly, supremely beautiful from the moment of its birth, is overtly present at the end of Florencia. But it is an image that has been present in my mind as I composed several of my works. I have asked myself why. I think it is my way of understanding the moment when something is no more, my way of transforming it, like when I finish an opera, and say good-bye to characters that have lived with me for so long and have taught me so much, that grew out of me so I could be born out of them, that are, in the end, indistinguishable from myself.