Daniel Catán: A Reflection on the Life and Work of the Late Musical Master


Daniel Catán, whose outstanding career as a composer for the operatic stage was crowned with the triumphant performances of his L.A. Opera commission “Il Postino” last year, unexpectedly passed away at the age of 62 last Sunday night according to his agent Peggy Monastra. At the time of his death, Catán was serving a residency at the University of Texas in Austin and had just returned from supervising a production of “Il Postino” for a forthcoming performance by Houston Opera.

Catán – born in Mexico on April 4, 1949 – had become one of his generation’s most revered composers through a series of operatic works that began with his first opera “La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter).” Produced by San Diego Opera, it led to a commission from Houston Opera which resulted in his breakthrough work – the first Spanish language opera ever commissioned from a U.S. opera house – “Florencia en las Amazonas (Florencia in the Amazon).” It was in this opera that Catán finally hit his stride as a composer, turning away from a post-modernist language to a lush neo-romanticism that gained wide popular favor, though was dismissed by many critics suspicious of long-breathed melodies and warm harmonies as “sappy” and “sentimental.”

Nevertheless, Catán remained true to his own voice. “The originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition,” he once said. “But rather the profound assimilation of it.” This credo served him as a guiding light through the composition of two more operas – a comic opera “Salsipuedes” (a Spanish pun name meaning “get out if you can”) and “Il Postino.” At the time of his death, Catán was busy at work on a fifth opera, “Meet John Doe,” an operatic rendering of a Frank Capra film. Scheduled to be premiered in October 2012, this would have been Catán’s first opera in English.

A resident of South Pasadena, Daniel Catán had deep ties to the local community where he served as professor of musical composition at College of the Canyons (CoC) in Santa Clarita since 1999 and was expected to return in the fall after his UT Austin residency. He was also a strong supporter of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra where his wife Andrea serves as harpist. Friends and colleagues remembered a man whose character was as warm and open hearted as his music.

Floyd Moos, dean of the Fine and Performing Arts Division at College at the CoC, remembered his friend and fellow faculty member.

“He brimmed with old world charm,” Moos reminisced. “He would bring flowers for my wife every time he would visit our house. Just an engaging, wonderful person.”

Moos was, as were many of Catán’s friends and admirers, deeply shocked by his sudden death especially in light of the composer’s good health. “Over the past few years, Daniel was paying much closer attention to his health. He exercised and modified his diet. Altogether he lost about 15 pounds and was, ironically enough, in the best shape of his life. He never complained about health problems or illnesses.”

Moos also remembered a man that, for all his worldly success, remained deeply humble. Recalling the after concert reception for the world premiere of “Il Postino” last year, Moos said, “On a night where Daniel was the center of the spotlight, where dignitaries from around the world came to see him, he spent his time with [the fellow faculty members] who came by to support him and wish him well.”

Sonia Marie de Leon de Vega, music director for the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO), had scheduled to close the SCO’s 2010-2011 season with a concert pairing the music of Daniel Catán with Silvestre Revueltas, arguably the two greatest composers Mexico has yet produced. On her way back from a trip to Washington, D.C., Sonia Marie de Leon de Vega was informed of Catán’s death right before she boarded her return flight to Los Angeles on Monday morning.

“I was crushed,” she said. “We were very excited to perform his music next month. He was returning to Los Angeles on April 30 and we were going to set up a meeting to discuss his concert. I’m deeply saddened that I won’t be able to have that opportunity.”

But she affirmed that next month’s concert will go on. “It will be a great honor to continue with this concert and pay tribute to Catán who was not only a great composer, but a great man. He was a strong supporter of the SCO’s mission to bring great music to the people.”

I regret to say that I didn’t know Daniel Catán very well personally. I had a few brief phone calls and email exchanges last year in anticipation of the premiere of “Il Postino.” He was very kind and very gracious with his time then. But more memorable for me will be the time I met him in Pasadena at the Memorial Park Station. It was early in the morning on New Year’s Eve when I happened to spot a tall and elegantly dressed gentleman stooping at the ticket vending machines on the southbound platform. I recognized him instantly.

“Don Daniel,” I greeted him in Spanish. “Forgive me for intruding. We’ve spoken before, but never met in person.” I introduced myself, mentioned my work for this paper and our phone and email interviews from a few months ago. Catán was deeply humbled.

“Thank you for all your kind words,” he said to me. “But I never thought I was such a famous personage that would be recognized on the street. I’m surprised that anyone should know who I am. You really made my day,” he answered smiling.

Over the next 20 minutes, I not only shared a train with one of the great composers of our time, but was privileged to enjoy his company and conversation. In those few minutes, Catán discussed so many things, including how much he was looking forward to the SCO’s May concert of his music (“An extraordinary orchestra led by an extraordinary musician,” he said).

As the train approached the South Pasadena Station, I asked Catán if he could autograph my sketchbook for me. “Yes, of course,” he said.

As I type this article out, I see that sketchbook opened before me; Catán’s words glowing in red gel ink: “To Esteban (I go by my middle name with Spanish speakers) – from his friend, Daniel Catán.”

As he stepped off the train he said to me, “Thank you for all your kind words again. It makes me deeply happy that my music should touch people’s hearts – especially young people’s. I look forward to seeing and talking to you again in May. Please send my most sincere wishes of good health and prosperity to your friends and family and have a Happy New Year. Until May!”

The doors closed shut and the train pulled away. I can’t say what it was like to have met Verdi or Puccini, but that day I met a man who was every bit their modern equal.

Moos of the CoC talked at length about Catán’s “extraordinary accessibility.” As he reminisced, a particular observation he made strikes me as very true about his late friend: “Daniel was one of those people you felt close to whether you knew him for 10 minutes or 10 years.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

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