Cover Story: Opera Ahoy!

Climbing aboard Cincinnati Opera's production of Florencia en el Amazonas

Jul 9, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Kurt Strecker

Modern Lover

Among his many duties as artistic director of Cincinnati Opera, Evans Mirageas sends CDs of contemporary operas he considers "a stretch" to the board members advising him on programming.

Like other major opera companies, Cincinnati tries to do something new and adventurous each season. To get support, Mirageas has to familiarize his advisors with such music. And contemporary opera can indeed be a stretch — the minimalist-rooted, intellectually challenging work of John Adams (Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic) or Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach, Waiting for the Barbarians) is a long way from, say, Carmen or Tosca.

But when Mirageas sent around copies of Daniel Catán's South America-set Florencia en el Amazonas, which had its world premiere in 1996 at Houston Grand Opera and gets its Cincinnati premiere Thursday and Saturday, he found that the respondents had no difficulty appreciating the work's lush, melodic romanticism.

"They asked, 'Is this some kind of Puccini opera I hadn't heard before?" Mirageas recalls, sitting in his Music Hall office overlooking Washington Park. "I'm fond of saying that if Puccini had fled Italy to South America, this is the kind of opera he'd come up with."

When Houston joined with opera companies in Seattle and Los Angeles to commission Florencia from Mexican-born composer Catán, it was the first time U.S. companies requested a new Spanish-language opera. It was groundbreaking, and Florencia has been growing in popularity ever since.

It will be the third of the four operas featured in Cincinnati's 2008 summer season, followed by a new production of Verdi's La Traviata on July 23, 25 and 27.

They'll be the 110th-112th performances of that classic by Cincinnati Opera.

'A cut above'
Florencia is set early in the last century aboard steamboat El Dorado journeying down the Amazon River toward the fabled golden-domed opera house in Manaus, Brazil. This architectural and cultural wonder was built in 1896 to show that modern enlightenment had arrived to a city deep in the rainforest and was featured in Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo.

In the opera, aboard the boat is the European diva Florencia Grimaldi headed for a performance and returning to her native South America after two decades away. (See interview here with Alexandra Coku, who sings the role of Grimaldi.) She pines for a lost lover, Cristobal Ribeiro da Silva, who departed years ago in search of the world's rarest butterfly.

There are other travelers aboard the El Dorado, too: the captain and his nephew Arcadio; Rosalba, a young journalist who wants to write about Florencia; and the middle-age couple Paula and Alvaro, trying to rekindle a cooling marriage by seeing Florencia's performance. En route they encounter a storm and, later at Manaus, a cholera epidemic.

Strange, transformative things happen. Catán's opera is very much an exploration of the "magic realism" themes of the Nobel Prize-winning, Columbian-born novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez — the opera's full title includes the phrase "An Homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez." Magic realism is a way to externalize the internal, especially the subconscious, while still grounding a story in the real events of a real world.

One might even see traces of Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera in the narrative. Catán originally had hoped Marquez would write the libretto; the novelist declined the invitation but helped Catán work with a protégé, Marcela Fuentes-Berain.

"There's a temperature to this opera, and it's hot and humid," Mirageas says. "You can feel the stillness of the Amazon River and you can sense the oppressiveness as the barometric pressure changes in advance of the cataclysmic storm that ends the first act. Catán has a magnificent ability as a composer to use the modern symphony orchestra in a way his great 19th- and early-20th-century predecessors did, particularly Puccini. He does like to write beautiful melodies and has a melodic gift.

"He's aware he's living in modern times, but he's also a great lover of beauty, and this is a beautiful subject that drew from him a very operatic style of writing. He wants to give Florencia — an opera singer — melodic lines, even when it's for her telling of her story, that are probably reminiscent of some of the great roles she has probably sung. She probably would have been a diva singing things like Tosca and Madame Butterfly. In his imagination, he's created a woman who was a precursor to the likes of Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas."

Mirageas finds that these elements add to the opera's popularity (it has had return engagements at Houston and Seattle). But there's more.

"It has an immediate appeal, and it bears repeated listening," he says. "Sometimes things that fall pleasingly on the ear under repeated examination don't wear well. They seem trite or second-hand. The thing I'm finding on repeated listening to this opera in rehearsal is that it's revealing new things about itself every time I listen to it. And so it's a cut above a lot of other contemporary operas."

It also, Mirageas believes, benefits from being in Spanish. While that's the "loving tongue," it's not one usually associated with opera.

"I find it righting an inadvertent wrong," he says. "The peoples of this world who speak Spanish have the most beautiful musical traditions — certainly a Classical music tradition that dates from the 18th century. But they've rarely embraced grand opera.

"They do now have a younger generation of composers in South America, Mexico and Spain who are writing operas and beginning to get the recognition that their language and their musical language has always deserved."

Mirageas points out that Catán, being from Mexico but having lived much of his professional life in Europe and the United States, could have written opera in any language.

"But he chose his native language, and he chose a topic close to a uniquely brilliant Spanish-language tradition, the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez," Mirageas says. "He is writing a new chapter in the history of opera."

From Latin America to the opera stage
Catán, 58, studied philosophy and music as an undergraduate at universities in England and then received a Ph.D. at Princeton under Milton Babbitt, a modernist composer whose principal work has been in serialism and Electronic music. In Florencia and his other operas (Rappaccini's Daughter and Salsipuedes: A Tale of Love, War and Anchovies), Catán has favored a more accessible sound.

He currently is working on an adaptation of the film and novel Il Postino as a Los Angeles Opera commission for September 2009. Placido Domingo will sing the role of poet Pablo Neruda and Rolando Villazon that of the mailman Mario.

Reached by e-mail in Spain, Catán responded to questions about his motivation in composing Florencia.

"I have been inspired by the work of the great Latin American writers and wanted to take their vision of Latin America to the opera stage," he says. "I am a great admirer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work. It is so operatic, and his plots are so suitable for operatic treatment, that when I received a commission from Houston to write an opera, I immediately thought of him. On top of it, he happens to be a real lover of opera, so when I asked him for help he was happy to do so.

"He was very generous with his time and his ideas. Slowly, Marcela Fuentes and I started working on the libretto until we had something we were happy with."

That Cincinnati, the second oldest U.S. opera company, has chosen Florencia pleases him.

"When I heard that Cincinnati was mounting it, I was proud because it has such an extraordinary musical history," Catán says. "I also know that the audience is very knowledgeable about opera, so it will be a challenge. I sincerely hope they enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

"Florencia is an opera about the place that love occupies in the context of our lives. It is an opera for all those that have lived the happiness and the exuberance of love."

Staging Florencia
Music, story, magical realism, romance ... Florencia has many clear, crowd-pleasing advantages. But it has something else going for it, too: a fascinating set.

On a recent weekday, the crew at Cincinnati Opera's extensive shop area — adjacent to the stage at Music Hall — was at work under Director of Production Glenn Plott to build the El Dorado boat. Still just taking shape, it already looked imposing enough to have satisfied Noah.

"This is a big old honker," Plott jokes.

When finished, it will weigh 12,000-15,000 pounds and move on the stage with the help of a hydraulic-lift system and quiet DC-powered motors. It'll be capable of turning 360 degrees and making other movements as it sits on parts that can support such activity.

While its exterior makes it appear to be an all-wood construction, there's actually a lot of steel in it. That causes Plott to be cautious on a tour, since pieces still are being assembled and lifted.

"Watch the end," he says. "Watch your toes."

Not everyone realizes it, but sets like this don't just wait in storage in Houston for a new company to restage the opera. Original parts become worn or outdated or needed for new productions. Thus the set has to be rebuilt in Cincinnati from plans.

It also has to house more people than just the cast. In small rooms hidden from public view, a support crew will be on the boat during the two performances: an electrician, stage manager, wardrobe manager and prop employee. And there's another one inside what looks like a boiler, waiting for the right moments to move the boat and in communication with others in the hall.

"The operator lives in that boiler, with a small scrim over it to see out of," Plott says.

Actually, workers have already built a rather crude, wooden mock-up of the boat to use in a smaller rehearsal studio right now. (By the time you read this, the cast will have had the time for full stage rehearsals on the actual set. That couldn't occur until the preceding production, Lucie de Lammermoor, was finished.)

On the same day as the tour with Plott, stage director Andrew Morton, conductor Steven Mercurio and an accompanist already were working with cast members Arturo Chacon-Cruz (Arcadio) and Shana Blake Hill (Rosalba) in the gym-like rehearsal studio. The two were practicing a scene in which their characters, standing near the mock-up's rear area, seemed to be attracted to each other.

"We make the mock-up so they can get the timing right in terms of moving from room to room and so that when they get on the actual set it doesn't come as a complete surprise," Plott says. "We go to a lot of trouble to make the performance the best you can see. We like to think that it shows."

CINCINNATI OPERA presents Florencia en el Amazonas at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine. Buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.