By Ted AYALA
Ever since the death of Puccini, opera has proved a difficult beast for composers to tame and master. An opera not only needs the talents of an orchestra, choir, and various singers; but it also needs expert stage hands, lighting technicians, stage directors, etc. to bring it to life and help make it a success. Even with all these factors in perfect alignment, the composer still needs to deliver a work that will ensure a popular and critical success – and success proves to be fickle. In the 20th century, Sergei Prokofieff set out to revolutionize opera and inject into it a modern sensibility that modern audiences would enjoy. Yet his operas, for all their outstanding quality, have stubbornly remained on the periphery of the operatic repertoire. Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s early 1960s masterpiece, “Die Soldaten,” should have earned its composer just critical acclaim and popular favor. Instead, the vituperously critical reaction to the work broke the composer’s spirit and led to his suicide less than a decade later in 1970.
Still, a few others have been able to eke out successes in the operatic medium. Dmitri Shostakovich’s operas have become increasingly popular with audiences in the last decade. The composer’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” – a triumph for the then 28-year-old composer – was a wild success in the 1930s, earning equal amounts of praise and notoriety (the New York Times infamously dubbed the Act I rape scene as “pornophony”); the last of which proved to be near-fatal for the composer, incurring the wrath of Joseph Stalin himself, who effectively ended the composer’s operatic career. Benjamin Britten’s operatic canon (his “Turn of the Screw” will be performed by L.A. Opera in the spring of 2011) is well known and critically respected. In our day, new operas are still a thriving industry, but only a handful of composers have managed to succeed in this field – one of which is Daniel Catán, arguably Mexico’s greatest composer since the death of Silvestre Revueltas and one of the very greatest composers living today.
Daniel Catán’s opulent musical language – a fusion of (Richard) Straussian long-breathed – melodies, Latin temperament, and the Romance warmth of the Spanish language – is innately operatic. His opera “La hija de Rappaccini” was the first Spanish language opera ever commissioned by a major American opera company. It proved to be a triumph and was followed by a Houston Grand Opera commission, “Florencia en las Amazonas” (available on CD from Albany Records). This last work – subsumed in the spiritual world of the Colombian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez – cemented his reputation as one of today’s major composers of opera. Daniel Catán’s latest opera, “Il Postino,” based on the eponymous Antonio Skármeta novel and Michael Radford film, and premiered on Sept. 23 at the L.A. Opera. A commission from L.A. Opera, “Il Postino” stars the great Spanish tenor, Placido Domingo in the role of the Noble Prize winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. “Il Postino,” which will be opening L.A. Opera’s 2010-11 season, promises to be L.A. Opera’s season highlight, and one of the peaks of this year’s Southern California concert season.
Daniel Catán was gracious enough to take some time to talk with me about his latest opera and to answer a few questions I had about “Il Postino” and his work so that I might share it with the Crescenta Valley Weekly readers.
Ted Ayala: How did you decide to compose an opera based on “Il Postino”?
Daniel Catán: From the moment I watched this film in 1994, I realized that this was a story that I found to be profoundly attractive. For me this is a tale of a young man who through art not only manages to have a very beautiful woman fall in love with him, but who also is able to become a great human being in the total sense of that phrase.
TA: “Il Postino” is recognized across the world in its cinematic and literary incarnations. Was it daunting for you to compose a work based on such a well known story?
DC: It was difficult to convert the cinematic script into an opera libretto. How time works in film is very different from how it works on stage. But this time, I, myself, was the librettist, so I was able to make any changes to the libretto that allowed me to compose the necessary music.
TA: Did you feel some trepidation when composing the role for such an iconic figure as Pablo Neruda?
DC: My goal was to compose music that matched the depth of his poetry. But Neruda’s character in and of itself is very attractive – it has warmth, sensuality, and profundity. In addition, his poetry is very musical.
TA: Will there be differences between your opera, “Il Postino,” and its cinematic and literary antecedents?
DC: Yes, there are differences. In the film, the focus is on Mario, the postman. Neruda functioned as a vehicle for Mario’s spiritual growth. In my opera, Neruda plays a much more important role: he has his own trajectory, his own path, and his own story. The role of his wife, Matilde, has also been developed further.
TA: Are there any plans to record “Il Postino”?
DC: We’re working very hard to raise the necessary funds to make a recording. This is a great opportunity.
TA: Your operas have been successes across the world. Do you have any advice for young composers that may want to write operas?
DC: My advice is that they have patience and that they dedicate a great deal of time to studying the great works of past masters. There is much to learn, but time is short. If they write a good opera, sooner or later they find the opportunities they have been searching for.
TA: Who are your favorite composers?
DC: Mozart, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Verdi.
TA: Can we expect to hear a concert suite from “Il Postino”?
DC: I would imagine so. I have yet to sit down and think about that, but I do enjoy making orchestral suites from my operas. This opera has many orchestral passages that would work splendidly in the concert hall.
TA: What was it like to work with Placido Domingo?
DC: It was a great honor; a very great privilege. I do believe it has been one of the loveliest things that have happened in my life. Placido Domingo is – aside from being a very great singer and artist – a very generous and exceedingly intelligent on the stage. Not for nothing is he the greatest tenor of the century. What a marvelous thing to see him in action, rehearsing on stage.
TA: Any words you’d like to say about L.A Opera, Grant Gershon (conductor for “Il Postino”), Cristina Gallardo-Domas (Matilde Neruda), Charles Castronovo (Mario the postman), etc.?
DC: L.A Opera has managed to put together an extremely talented group of artists: singers, conductor, stage director, etc. All of them have worked very hard; all have contributed their enormous talents to this work. I feel deeply honored to have worked with artists of such caliber.
My deepest thanks to Daniel Catán for allowing me the time to interview him and to his agent, Peggy Monastra, for helping to set up this interview. I wish Daniel Catán much success with his new opera and continued success in his career. You’ll find my review of this new opera in a future issue of the Crescenta Valley Weekly.