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Composing Opera: A Backstage Visit to the Composer’s Workshop
Daniel Catán, Composer
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Original Content4/14/2010

Editor's Note: This speech was delivered on August 14, 1997, as part of the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center's Lectures Program.
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It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon. The title of my presentation mentions a backstage visit to the composer’s workshop, and that is precisely where I intend to take you.

So I will start very simply; but we don’t have to start at the beginning. We will get there slowly, anyhow. I would prefer to start with Florencia en el Amazonas, my most recent opera.

Of all my three operas, this was certainly the most enjoyable one to write. From the start, which is finding a libretto to work on, it was a happy experience. But, first of all, how did I decide on the subject? How did I go about composing it? And how on earth did I get to the Amazon?

In 1994, I had just had a very successful performance in San Diego, CA, of Rappaccini’s Daughter, my second opera, and there were some aspects of it that I was eager to continue exploring. I can name one of them in particular: the garden music. In order to capture the essential magic of that garden, I had to allow my imagination to run freely; I needed to write music that was seductive, glittering, mesmerizing. So I developed a way of writing for the orchestra, the woodwinds in particular, that seemed to me to capture the feel of that magical garden. Wishing to continue exploring this kind of writing, I started to look for a subject that would allow me to pursue these magical sounds. And here I have to make a small digression, for I have to talk to you about my dear friend, Alvaro Mutis.

Although he was born in Colombia, we Mexicans have had the benefit of his presence for over 20 years. My life in particular has been greatly enriched by him and his writings. Mutis 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 at his home. The studio, where our meetings took place, is the most inspiring room: four walls covered, from floor to ceiling, with all the literature one could ever dream of reading. All of it is there, at the reach of one’s hand. The atmosphere of this room emanates intelligence and inner peace; the air blends the smells of wood, leather and the ink of the printed page. Prints of magnificent riverboats occupy the spaces normally reserved for family photographs. A small window lets in just enough natural light to make one aware of whether it is night or day.

As I think back to those meetings, I realize that my journey down the Amazon started in that room. It was there that I learned about the dangers of river navigation, the formation of sand banks and how to detect them before it is too late, the swelling of the river, the loose trunks that can get jammed in the wheel and split the boat in half. It was there too that I learned about the psychological states the Amazon induces in its travelers; the way it conjures up their most secret desires and deepest fears.

The jungle is frightening because it forces you onto yourself, to confront your worse fears. The jungle becomes a projection of your state of mind, your state of heart. On the other hand, nothing is more overwhelming than daybreak in the jungle: the calls of birds and insects slowly weaving the most fantastic tapestry of sound, the resplendent freshness of the greenery, the astonishing shapes and colors of some flowers, the size of the sun. These elements acted so powerfully in my imagination that within minutes I became a confirmed pantheist.

It didn’t take long before it all fell into place. And when it did, I was so excited that I could hardly sit still. The magic garden of my previous opera opened out in my mind and transformed itself into the Amazon jungle. I felt as if I had walked through the garden, opened up the gates and stepped into the most fantastic of all worlds. Musically it made sense in a similar sort of way: the music I had imagined for Rappaccini’s garden now started to grow and develop into the most varied orchestral colors. I began to imagine lovely musical interludes: a starry night with the silhouette of the boat against the sky and the whispering music of the jungle at night. I heard a marvelous fresh green dawn accompanied by the glittering music of harps and marimba; and then the sun, rising from the river, a colossal orange created by the most radiant and playful of gods.

I had found the setting for my new opera and could hear the kind of music I wanted to write. Every thought, every image of the Amazon suggested timbres, rhythms, melodies. Around that time, I discovered an African drum called a djembe that produces the most remarkable sound. It can capture the crisp rhythms of the tropical rain as well as the deepest rumbles of a fearful storm. I decided to include one in the orchestra, maybe two. I also came across the steel drum, that ingenious instrument used in Caribbean music. I had to have one too.

I thought of the marimba, its luscious wooden sounds and the way they would combine with flutes, clarinets and harp. The sonorities of these instruments seemed to me to capture the sound of the river, the way it changes its timbre as it flows, transforming everything in its path. I was desperate to start, but wait: What about the passengers? Who was going to be traveling on this boat? Up until now I had been imagining myself on it, writing music happily away as the sights went by. Now I had to get myself off the boat and make room for the travelers. But first I had to find them.

How does an opera composer find his characters? At the beginning, it feels like looking for someone you know nothing about. In the process of looking for them, however, I become aware that while some are quickly discarded, others are eagerly retained — as if I knew instinctively what I am looking for. I then try to find out why such opposing perceptions should manifest themselves so strongly, and it is in this process that I end up unveiling the characters in my opera. I suspect that the characters that remain have some aspect of me going down that journey, as I imagined it. It is as if I had cheated and stayed on board, but split into many characters and hidden inside them. This is where a librettist comes in.

When I say an opera librettist, what I really mean is a supremely gifted mind reader with endless patience, total flexibility, great literary skills and no ego. They are rare, as you can well imagine. In the scale of human types, they stand at the top, close to saints and martyrs. Their most frequent reply to the composer, however, is far from sainthood: “Why the hell don’t you write it yourself, then?” Many composers do, of course. But since it was not the case with me, I will talk a little more about this quite inexplicable form of collaboration.

If I put my mind to it, I can certainly understand their feelings. They have to produce a text that hardly stands up by itself — they must trust music they can’t hear. And they can’t hear it simply because it is not composed yet. The composer “knows” the music he will write, so he asks the librettist to write words along those lines. Sometimes the librettist reads the composer’s mind successfully and it is all joy; but then there are times when he is asked to cut this, insert that, get everybody on stage saying something so they can all sing, all different but at the same time, not too short, not too long, No! Not that vowel… until “Why the hell don’t you write it yourself, then?” puts an end to the working session.

Writing opera is a work of perseverance. We persevered and eventually found our characters; we found our story too. In the early 1900s, the great opera star Florencia Grimaldi reprises the river journey she made 20 years before with her one true love, the naturalist Cristobal Ribeiro da Silva. Searching for the rarest of b
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About the Author: Daniel Catán's lyrical, romantic style lends itself particularly well to the human voice, which features prominently in the majority of his works. Catán's proficiency can easily be heard in his opera Florencia en el Amazonas — the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by a major American company. Catán describes his objective for the opera: “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.”

In 1994, San Diego Opera premiered his symbolist opera, La Hija de Rappacini (Rappaccini’s Daughter), a work written in collaboration with librettist Juan Tovar. The success of La Hija de Rappacini led to Catán’s next opera, Florencia en el Amazonas — a collaboration between Catán, Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez, and García Márquez's protégée, Marcela Fuentes-Berain. The opera is loosely based on García Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Florencia en el Amazonas taps deeply into García Márquez’s world of magical realism. “It is,” says Catán, “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.” In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Houston Grand Opera commissioned Catán’s third opera, Salsipuedes, A Tale of Love, War and Anchovies — a dark comedy which takes place on the fictitious island of Salsipuedes and premiered in 2004. Catán’s next opera, Il Postino, based on the Oscar-winning film, will debut at LA Opera with Plácido Domingo and Rolando Villazon in the leading roles. Subsequent performances are scheduled for Vienna, Paris and Cincinnati.

Though Catán was born in Mexico he is a product of both British and American schooling, receiving degrees from University of Sussex (in philosophy), University of Southampton and Princeton University — where he studied with Milton Babbitt — before returning to Mexico to take up the post of music administrator at Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. There, apart from establishing himself as an essayist writing about music, he came to love opera.

His influences belie his native land: he has been compared to Debussy, Richard Strauss and Puccini — with a wisp of Japanese influence. Catán attests gladly to his wide spectrum of influences. “I have inherited a very rich operatic tradition,” he says. “In my work, I am proud to say, one can detect the enormous debt I owe to composers from Monteverdi to Alban Berg. But perhaps the greatest of my debts is having learnt that the originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition (which would be like blindly embracing the condition of an orphan), but rather the profound assimilation of it, so as to achieve the closest union between a text and its music.”
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