Houston Florencia

Into Uncharted Waters

Daniel Catan, Mexico's leading opera composer, offers a new work that provides a glimpse into the next century of the art form

Sunday, October 5, 1997
LA Times Calendar

By: Jan Breslauer

A famous diva stands on the prow of a riverboat, singing of longing. A married couple dances a Strindbergian duet of recrimination. A pair of young lovers have their first taste of passion's twin, fear. Passengers together, they are Eros' version of the Ages of Man.

Guided by a sage captain and a polymorphous river god, these seekers travel on a journey that draws them deep into the Dionysian heart of the Amazon jungle--and so too into their own souls.

This is the voyage of Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas." Inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the much-anticipated work by Mexico's preeminent contemporary composer is the first Mexican opera to be commissioned by an American company. It premiered last year at the Houston Grand Opera and opens tonight at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

A long overdue innovation, "Florencia en el Amazonas," with libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, suggests a plan of action for the art form as it readies itself for the next century. It points toward the future of the form in this country--marking the infusion of contemporary Latin culture into American opera--even as it embraces the stylistic strengths of the traditional repertory.

The presentation of "Florencia en el Amazonas" is also a landmark for the L.A. Opera. Coming as it does at a time of rising Latino political clout in the Southland, the presentation of this new work--by a company which has staged relatively few new operas ever--is central to L.A. Opera's efforts to reach out to the Latino community. Indeed, the opening night gala is sponsored by the five-year-old support group Hispanics for L.A. Opera. And Catan himself, who stands for many as a symbol of a new level of Latino presence at the Dorothy Chandler, has been kept busy with a full roster of speeches and appearances.

Yet forward looking as it may be, "Florencia en el Amazonas" also maintains key ties with the past. In particular, Catan's score pays homage to the lyrical, dramatic and thematic qualities that have long made grand opera popular. "Musically, Daniel's style is very romantic, lush and emotionally expressive," says director Francesca Zambello. "Nowadays we are returning to an era when people want music to be something that relates to their emotional world. Daniel writes music that people have an immediate response to. It's quite direct and powerful."

The grand romantic style is only apt, in the composer's view, given that "Florencia en el Amazonas" tackles no less a subject than love in its various existential guises.

"What opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion," says the elegant and chivalrous Catan, over a weekend brunch at his downtown hotel, the morning after he's flown into Los Angeles from his Mexico City home.

"There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people's destiny into one--that, and death. That's where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: It touches on those things and takes you through them. It's something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that."

Yet Catan doesn't advocate a return to unexamined romanticism. In a nod to a concern that is both timeless and pointedly timely, his lovers also heed the call of self-knowledge.

"The story of Florencia is in many ways the story of [a] return journey: Somebody in the middle of her life decides to touch those feelings that made her what she is now," explains Catan, referring to the singer's quest for her long-lost love, as well as her own identity. "She's going back to her original country. She's also going back to see that lover who had been the foundation of her career and her life.

"We all leave something behind in order to become what we want to become," he continues in his British-inflected English. "Then at a certain point we always look back to see whether we've become what we wanted to become."

Catan has been in Los Angeles only a few days and he's already got the entire rehearsal hall cast and crew eating out of his hand. A warm and gracious man, he exudes pure delight at his fellow artists' efforts as he sits watching the production's first run-through one recent evening.

Occasionally, when the joy of the moment becomes too much, he gives a furtive gesture of support to one of the singers: a thumbs-up to baritone Rodney Gilfry as he performs the role of the river god Riolobo, blown kisses to soprano Sheri Greenawald who portrays the diva Florencia Grimaldi.

When associate director Andrew Morton calls for a break, the love fest continues. It quickly becomes evident that the company is as enamored and respectful of Catan as he is of them. Gilfry approaches to discuss a fine point of phrasing. A bit later, mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman talks through one of her character's moments with the composer.

Then, too, there are the longer discussions that Catan has had--and will no doubt continue to have, as the production makes its way to Seattle Opera later this season--with the various singers and other members of the creative team. He has a great deal to say about the questions at the heart of "Florencia en el Amazonas," because they are the concerns that have shaped his own experience.

Like the titular diva who decides to leave Europe after 20 years for a return trip to her native land of Brazil, Catan, now 48, is also a Latin American who spent many of his formative years abroad.

A Sephardic Jew whose grandparents came from Russia and Istanbul, Catan grew up in Mexico City. Intent on a career as a pianist, he left his homeland at the age of 14 to live and study in England.

As a teenager, however, his goals turned from playing piano to composing. Catan went on to study philosophy at the University of Sussex and music at the University of Southampton before coming to the United States to undertake graduate study in composition at Princeton. He studied with Milton Babbitt, James K. Randall and Benjamin Boretz, and received his doctorate in music composition and theory in 1977.

Then, after 14 years away, he decided to go back to Mexico. "The word 'back' almost doesn't apply because Mexico by that time had become a strange foreign country to me," Catan recalls. "I could speak only the Spanish of a 14-year-old, so it was very difficult."

Married and with a young son and daughter by this time (his children are now 25 and 27, respectively), he continued to write and publish articles on music and the arts, and to compose. His first opera premiered in Mexico City in August 1980, although it's a work he no longer keeps in active repertory.

"The problem as I now see it was that the characters were planted too superficially in their world and as a result they did not blossom," Catan wrote in a recent paper. "They were, in fact, the exact reflection of the composer that imagined them." Catan has also written chamber works--Cantata for soprano, chorus and chamber orchestra, with a text from Saint John of the Cross; a ballet, "Ausencia de flores," commissioned to celebrate the centennial of Jose Clemente Orozco; symphonic works, including "El arbol de la vida" and "En un doblez del tiempo," and "Tierra final," for soprano and orchestra, with text by Jorge Ruiz Duen~as.

Another symphonic work took him to poet Octavio Paz for inspiration. In 1984, he wrote "Obsidian Butterfly," a piece for soprano, chorus and orchestra based on Paz's work of the same name. This composition was to lead to Catan's second opera, "Rappaccini's Daughter," which has a libretto by Juan Tovar, based on a Paz text.

In the late 1980s, Catan left Mexico again to spend a year and a half in Japan, working on "Rappaccini's Daughter." There he studied Noh drama, as well as other cultural forms.

"Rappaccini's Daughter" premiered in 1991 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Later that year, Catan released a CD of excerpts from the work, which he sent to U.S. companies to generate interest in presenting the piece.

San Diego Opera was the quickest to respond and Catan agreed to a U.S. premiere there in 1994. Critic Martin Bernheimer, writing in The Times, said the piece "speaks a sophisticated musical language with elegance. The dominant metaphor is Rappaccini's exotic garden. The composer makes it shimmer and glow and throb and rustle, with orchestral impulses rooted in Debussy and Ravel. . . . The music is beautifully crafted and tastefully restrained." The occasion marked the first U.S. presentation of an opera by a Mexican composer.

When Catan first sent out the CD, though, Houston Grand Opera had also expressed interest. "Houston was moving more slowly, so by the time I went to them, I had already signed with San Diego. I thought that they would offer me a second performance after San Diego, but instead of doing that, Houston wanted a new opera."

And so began the effort that was to lead to "Florencia en el Amazonas," the first Mexican opera to be commissioned by an American company. Catan's initial idea was to base the new work on a short story by Isak Dinesen, but that idea was nixed by Houston. They had something more Latin-flavored in mind.

Catan then turned to Garcia Marquez. The celebrated author gave the effort his blessing, on the condition that his pupil Fuentes-Berain write the libretto.

The literary style of Garcia Marquez, known as magical realism, seemed naturally suited to opera. "The fantastic elements [in magical realism] really are symbols for some emotional or internal solution to a problem, dressed up in this exotic way," explains Catan. "But the solutions to situations are internal solutions--not like a deus ex machina--that get presented in a poetic way."

There was not one particular story that seemed ripe for adaptation though. "We searched and searched and couldn't find a story that would adapt sufficiently well or combine," says Catan. "In the end, I thought that the solution would be to borrow some of the characters and weave a story around them."

Catan became so enamored of the project that he was determined to go ahead with it whether Houston was with him or not. "I so believed in it that I was ready to say no to the commission," recalls Catan. "That's a big thing: My knees trembled at the thought. As a composer, I'd never had an opera commission in my life. But I thought, 'This is the project of my life, I will go with it.' "

Fortunately, Houston liked it. They then brought co-producing companies on board, L.A. Opera, Seattle Opera, Opera de Colombia, Opera de Bellas Artes and Festival Internacional Cervantino.

Soprano Greenawald, who has created principal roles in the premieres of six new operas, describes the role of Florencia as "a big sing."

"It's not like a lot of modern music," she says, "which is more about technicality. It's more like learning a standard-repertoire opera. It has the lyricism of the older writers.

"[The character of] Florencia is given to you emotionally through the music," she continues. "Sometimes it has to do with a key: She flips back and forth between major and minor keys, between the dark and the light, the hope and the despair."

At the Houston Grand Opera last year, "Florencia en al Amazonas" became the largest-grossing premiere in the history of the company, which is known for producing new operas. Sales for six performances totaled more than $712,000, and it played to 90% capacity houses--a figure almost unheard of for a new work.

While some writers hailed the work as "mesmerizing" and a "landmark," others offered more mixed opinions. The Times' Mark Swed praised the project's ambitions and noted how much the audience liked it, writing "Houston has aimed high. . . . Catan reached for the stars."

Yet Swed also expressed disappointment that "Catan's music sounds far closer to the realm of Puccini and Richard Strauss than to the Amazon"--that it did not, in other words, contain more music inspired by forms indigenous to the region in which the drama is set.

The making of "Florencia en el Amazonas" did include a trip down the Amazon, undertaken by the creative team at the behest of the the Colombian government and the Colombian opera. Yet Catan didn't intend to use the trip as a scavenger hunt for more indigenous musical elements to incorporate into the work, which was largely complete by that time anyway.

"I was not interested in caricaturing any indigenous element in the Amazon," he says. "I did not want the opera to become a picture postcard of the Amazon. I placed these characters on the boat for the whole of the opera so that I could go inside them."

Indeed, the opera's true themes have less to do with culturally specific traditions than with human emotional experiences. That's one way in which "Florencia" is a very personal statement from the composer.

"The work is a very important work in my own transformation," he explains. "When I wrote 'Rappaccini,' my first marriage had just ended after 14 years. When that broke up, my only view of marriage was very idealized. 'Rappaccini' was a work that I sought refuge in. "When I was writing 'Florencia,' I was looking back on all of that," Catan continues. "That taught me a great deal about how love can function without the idealization."

The other personal aspect of the work is, of course, the way in which the journey of "Florencia en el Amazonas" mirrors the voyage of Daniel en el Americas. "I'm going more deeply into my own culture than I did in 'Rappaccini,' " says the composer. "I'm going back to a Latin American story. I'm taking characters out of my own literature and my own mind.

"I want to look south and in rather than toward Europe," he continues. " 'Rappaccini' was trying to prove myself in the international world. 'Florencia' was more trying to do what I really wanted to do. It really is like journeying back and looking at myself."

Copyright (c) 1997 Times Mirror Company