Mexican and Los Angeles-based composer Daniel Catán feels musically quite at home in Houston and in many ways, owes his international notoriety to the city's support of new operas. To date, Houston Grand Opera has premiered 42 new works with a 43rd coming up in May.
After having his Florencia en el Amazonas premiered by HGO (co-commissioned with the Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera) in 1996 with an encore performance in 2001 — a repeat performance in the span of five years is unheard of for new operatic works — HGO commissioned Salsipuedes, a Tale of Love, War and Anchovies in 2004. Picking up where HGO left off, the University of Houston Moores Opera Center restaged Florencia in 2009 establishing the Daniel Catán Project, an effort to produce one of his works every two years.
This weekend, it presents Il Postino, commissioned and premiered by the LA Opera in Sep., 2010. General director and tenor legend Plácido Domingo gave his blessings for Moores Opera Center founder and director Buck Ross to produce the work, though Domingo still retains the exclusive performance rights to Il Postino for another six months.
That's a big deal, and it speaks to the university's international reputation as a music institution and training ground. And while most opera houses plan their seasons in advance, Moores Opera Center can respond quickly and timely to put on new and exciting works, like Il Postino.
Fitting, given that it is the center's 25th anniversary.
If Il Postino sounds familiar, it is perhaps because of the popularity of Michael Radford's 1994 film by the same name, based on Antonio Skármeta 1983 novel Ardiente Paciencia, or El Cartero De Neruda. But unlike the movie, Catán emphasizes the political climate of 1960s-70s Chile and portrays communist activist and poet writing under the pen name Pablo Neruda (his real name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) and his postman, Mario Jiménez, on equal terms, focusing also on the master-pupil relationship as Mario explores the art of poetry. Expect the opera to be much sunnier, with vintage and painterly vacation scenes.
Catán was familiar with the film before the book.
"The film focuses on the transformation of Mario, where Neruda becomes a vehicle and appears more independent," Catán explains. "In the book, the opposite occurs. In the opera, I wanted both characters to portray the artist as a young man and as a mature man."
For Buck Ross, Catán's operas are strikingly beautiful. Ross believes that art helps people understand how to live and how to cope. Committing to stage all of Catán's works has deep significance for Ross, noting that "Daniel writes in a style I hope all new opera will be."
"American operatic composers have reconnected with the audience, ironically changing their style, making their works instantly accessible," Ross explained. "The pendulum has swung away from the world of incomprehensible music."
The performing arts world is peculiar. Whereas theater usually thrives on producing contemporary works, symphony orchestras and opera houses devote most of their programming space to the music of yesteryear, mostly by dead composers.
"A non-traditional opera audience tends to like contemporary opera better, like the works of Daniel Catán," Ross said. "Largely because it relates to them culturally, enjoying it first because of its dramatic content. Frequent opera goers usually want to make a connection to something they know."
Though he studied with Milton Babbitt at Princeton University, Catán's tonal language has very little to do with the mathematical serialism associated with his teacher.
"I am very influenced by operatic tradition," Catán explained. "I love Mozart's craft and the sound of Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Mahler and Stravinsky have played a role in shaping my own style."
The music is tonal and harmonically based, but it does break rules. Neruda's music is highly ornamented and imaginative, much like his personality. Mario's awkwardness is represented by a rhythmic pattern that develops and matures with his growth.
Il Postino's 30-plus separate-but-fluid scenes lend themselves to projection stage design, a craft the Moores Opera Center mastered with its previous staging of Mozart's Magic Flute in 3D.
Il Postino also requires a lot of tenors; the role of Neruda was premiered by Domingo himself. In Houston, voice professor Joseph Evans steps up to the task, having traveled to Los Angeles to catch the premiere production.
What's next for Catán? The University of Texas at Austin Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music has commissioned Meet John Doe, based on the classic 1941 Frank Capra comic drama, to be staged in the fall of 2012.
We would guess that would be Buck Ross' choice for 2013?
Catch the video of Moores Opera Center's Il Postino production:
Daniel Catán's Il Postino opens Friday and runs through Monday, at the University of Houston Moores Opera Center. General admission tickets are $15; $10 for students and seniors. For tickets, call 713-743-3313.