Composer Daniel Catán was born in Mexico City, studied philosophy and music in England, and received graduate degrees from Princeton. He has composed in a number of genres but is particularly known for the intricate beauty of his operas. With the San Diego Opera’s American premiere of his opera La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter) in 1994, Catán became the first Mexican composer to have an opera produced in the United States. His next opera, Florencia en el Amazonas, was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by major American opera companies. Originally co-commissioned by Seattle Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Los Angeles Opera, Florencia en el Amazonas premiered at Houston in 1996 and later was presented by its co-producers, including the Seattle premiere in 1998. In 2001 Florencia en el Amazonas was remounted in Houston and released on CD in 2002.
Catán spoke with Ed Hawkins via telephone from his Los Angeles home on September 21, 2004, as he was completing the final work on his comic opera, Salsipuedes, a tale of Love, War and Anchovies. Houston Grand Opera presented the world premiere of Salsipuedes in October.
You have cited Mozart as one of your influences, particularly in some recent interviews about your new comic opera Salsipuedes. Tell me a little bit more about your influences.
Well, I think the work of Richard Strauss is the other definitive influence in my opera writing. And Strauss was himself very influenced by Mozart. Those two composers have provided me with tons of inspiration: how they approach the characters and the way they sequence the scenes. They are infinitely wise so I learn a lot from them.
Then there are other composers that have inspired me in very specific areas. For example, Stravinsky is very present in the sonorities and orchestration of my work, in Florencia you can hear the influence of Ravel too, and the vocal lines are Puccini-esque, with very long breath. So there are lots of composers to whom I owe a great deal. But the two main ones are Mozart and Strauss.
I grew up seeing opera in Santa Fe and lived in Mexico City during my junior year of college, but this will be the first time I’ve seen an opera with a Spanish libretto.
Well, it’s as good as Italian, that’s for sure. And I’m glad to be contributing to the Spanish repertory because there are so few. There are a couple of works by Manuel de Falla, and then there are a few by other 20th-century composers, such as Alberto Ginastera, but none of them have managed to hit the international repertoire.
Florencia en el Amazonas has been produced several times in the Americas. Has it ever been presented in Europe?
We are working on that. There are several companies now that are making very serious inquiries into producing it, which is very exciting. I also think that artistic exchanges between countries promote mutual understanding, which will always have a positive effect.
Mexico has a turbulent history as well as a rich culture. Do you believe that strife and difficulty in a society creates an environment for more potent art?
Well, sometimes out of a very negative situation there is a strong artistic response. And it is always good when you can rescue a wonderful artistic statement from a dreadful situation. But I think the opposite is true as well. For example, in the 1960s, Mexico was very prosperous and lots of wonderful things came out of that time too. So I would be careful about equating a disastrous society with great Art.
Fair enough. Tell me about the time you served as the music administrator at the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.
By the time I finished my training—I completed a Ph.D. in composition at Princeton University— I was mostly interested in Opera. So I looked for work in a theater where I could see how the whole thing was put together. The process was not totally unfamiliar to me because I had worked at Glyndebourne Opera. Still, I wanted to go back and work inside an opera house. I wanted to live the process from beginning to end, so as to write my own work with a deeper understanding of it. So those years were very important to me. I came in contact with many professional singers and designers and directors. And that’s where I started writing my first operas.
What were your actual job duties there?
A lot of administration. But it was the artistic part of administration, and it put me in touch with many singers. It was useful because I learned both sides of the equation. I was working there from 1977 until 1983 or so. And then I went to Japan.
You went to Japan to research your first major opera La hija de Rappaccini, right?
Was the primary source for that piece the original Hawthorne story or the later dramatization by Octavio Paz?
I first read Paz’s play because I was looking for a libretto in Spanish. I loved it so I went back and read the original Hawthorne story. I then worked with a writer, Juan Tovar, who amalgamated them both into a nicely balanced libretto.
Where did Rappaccini have its premiere?
In Mexico City, at the Palace of Fine Arts. It wasn’t a great performance, unfortunately. It was very flawed and there were many problems with production, so I was not very happy with the end result. But I managed to get on tape a small excerpt of it that I liked well enough to show around. I sent it to several companies in the U.S. San Diego Opera expressed an interest in the piece, and they eventually did the U.S. premiere in 1994. It was hugely successful. Those performances opened the doors to my career here in the U.S.
Which continued with Florencia and soon Salsipuedes and then next an adaptation of Il Postino. Is that still the plan?
Yes, and I am near the end of my work on Salsipuedes. I want to see it up and running because only then will I feel released to do my next piece. At the moment I’m really very excited about the Salsipuedes premiere but at the same time I want to move on because, you know, each opera takes so long to write, such a huge chunk of one’s life.
And writing is a lonely job.
A very lonely job. But the rehearsals make up for that, especially the ones I’m in just now. They complete my learning period. And sometimes I need that sense of closure before I can embark on the next one. I like to start a new project with a clean slate.
Have you seen Florencia every time it’s been presented?
Yes, but it’s really not that many times. It only received a full production—with scenery and costumes—in Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. In Houston twice. Then there were concert performances in Manaus and Mexico City. And there have been concerts here and there with selections from it as part of a larger program; just excerpts. There was a concert like that in Leticia, Colombia. The last time I saw it was in Houston in 2001.
So in terms of scenery and costumes, you’ve only ever seen the one production, albeit with different performers.
Yes. And as the cast changes I also learn new things about it; seeing how other people understand it and how they recreate it is also a learning experience. So I am dying to see it again.
Will you be coming to Seattle to see this incarnation of Florencia?
I would very much like to, yes. Of all the places that I’ve been to, the audience in Seattle was the most spectacular. I was really moved to the core by the way people responded to my work. It was overwhelming. I’ve never had such response. For example, I was once buying tea at the market and the assistant asked me where I was from. “From Mexico,” I replied.
“Oh!” she said, “there’s a wonderful Mexican opera playing right now!”
Can you imagine? There I was in a little shop buying tea and talking about what’s happening at the opera house! It was incredible. Whether she went to it or not is not the point. The point is that she was aware of the artistic events happening in her city and was proud of it. It made me want to move to Seattle. I know many artists who feel that way when they go there. Seattle Opera creates a wonderful atmosphere that permeates the whole town.
It seems like everyone in Seattle feels proud of the opera and of Speight in particular. It’s so moving. I have never experienced that anywhere else.
Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theater community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His interviews with Seattle Opera artists are a regular feature of this website.