Danielcatan at piano rhhsbk

Some say Mexican composer Daniel Catán had the good looks of Franz Liszt.

The Texas Music Festival begins Saturday, June 10, with two vibrant works by late Mexican composer Daniel Catán: Mariposa de Obsidiana (Obsidian Butterfly) for soprano, chorus and orchestra, and “Escúchame” (“Listen to Me”) from Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas (Florencia in the Amazon). The latter was co-commissioned and premiered in 1996 by Houston Grand Opera, notable as the first opera in Spanish to be commissioned by a major U.S. opera house. Soprano Cynthia Clayton will sing both pieces.

Conducted by TMF music director Franz Anton Krager, the “Celebratory Opening” concert at University of Houston’s Moores Opera House also includes an orchestral arrangement of Australian-born American composer Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posey and Dmitri Shostakovich’s alternately triumphant and subversive Symphony No. 5 in D Minor. It's the first concert of the month-long festival founded in 1990 by Immanuel and Helen Olshan that aims to provide pre-professional classical musicians from around the world the opportunity to study and perform with some of classical music’s top-tier conductors, soloists, and faculty artists. 

Saturday's opening is another instance of Houston's support for the internationally renowned Catán; in addition to Florencia en el Amazonas, the HGO commissioned and premiered his Caribbean-inspired opera Salsipuedes: a Tale of Love, War and Anchovies (also in Spanish) in 2004. Catán died of a heart attack in April 2011 in between rehearsals at the UH Moores Opera Center for his last completed opera Il Postino (The Postman). He was 62. 

“He opened the door for opera that relates to the Spanish-speaking world,” says Catán’s third wife Andrea Puente Catán, a highly respected classical harpist who maintains an archive of Catán’s compositions at the University of Texas at Austin. “His mission was to place Spanish language in the opera world, like what Benjamin Britten did for English.”

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Franz Liszt, apparent Catán look-alike.

Andrea was just 17 when she first met Catán in Mexico City, who by then was in his 40s. “He was super charming and magnetic,” she says. “He had long hair and wore a black cap. He looked like Franz Liszt!”

Physical charisma aside, it was Catán’s commitment to composing tonal music, a radical thing for a so-called “serious” composer to do in a time when serialism and teeth-grinding dissonance ruled contemporary music. “That really impressed me,” she says, “that this man would fight for tonal music. But his music is complex as well. It pierces your heart immediately.”

Set to a surreal text by Octavio Paz, who was a mentor to and close friend of Catán, Mariposa de Obsidiana certainly pierces the heart, albeit gradually, over the course of an uninterrupted 20-plus minutes for soprano and orchestra. The orchestration surrounding the soprano, whose voice must travel into the lower, darker range of a mezzo, is kaleidoscopic, evoking a mysterious, natural landscape in what reads like a soliloquy of an ancient Mexican goddess: “My body, plowed by your body, will turn into a field where one is sown and a hundred reaped. Wait for me on the other side of the year: you will meet me like a lightning flash stretched to the edge of autumn.” The song concludes with a swelling, majestic five-minute coda for chorus.

“He loved the written word,” says Andrea of Catán. “Daniel worked with universal themes, but from the perspective of Latin American writers.”

As a composer who drew upon his own life story for his operas, Catán’s love for the written word (as well as for Andrea) is perhaps most apparent in his final opera, Il Postino, which premiered in 2010 at the Los Angeles Opera with Plácido Domingo singing the role of poet Pablo Neruda.

 “It has love, it has tragedy, it has death,” says Andrea, who suggested Catán adapt Antonio Skármeta’s book Ardiente Paciencia (retitled The Postman for the English-speaking market) into an opera. “It has the poetry that he loved . . . You can see the state of his life in the different operas that he wrote. I was lucky enough to share and develop a wonderful partnership not only of love but of creativity with Daniel.” 

June 10 at 7:30. Tickets from $15. Moores Opera House, 120 School of Music Building. 713-743-3388. More info at uh.edu.

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