As opera composer Daniel Catán tells the story, many years ago he had a poet friend who wrote "really wonderful erotic" verse. So one memorable evening Catán decided to try out a few lines on his girlfriend.
"We ended up having a very sexy night," Catán recalled in an interview last week ahead of the world premiere of his latest work, "Il Postino" (The Postman), set for Thursday at L.A. Opera. "So I passed it on to the writer of those poems, who said, 'She should've been falling in my arms, not yours!'"
But, as the Mexican-born composer contends, channeling a line from the 1994 Italian film that inspired "Il Postino," "Poetry doesn't belong to the person that writes it, it belongs to the person that uses it." Or, as the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda put it, "Poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all."
That generous, swoony sentiment pervades "Il Postino," the fictional tale of how Neruda befriends a romantically naive young mailman named Mario (performed by tenor Charles Castronovo) while living in exile on an Italian island in the 1950s. Encouraged by Neruda, and using his ardent love poems as amatory aids, Mario resolves to win the heart of Beatrice (soprano Amanda Squitieri), a local beauty who works in the village café of her aunt (mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola-Herrera). As his mind and heart mature under the great man's influence, Mario also gets fatefully drawn into the political turmoil engulfing his community.
"The subject matter of this opera, like all my other operas, really, is the place that love and art hold in the context of our lives," said Catán, 61, whose best-known work, "Florencia en el Amazonas," was co-commissioned by L.A. Opera and performed there in 1997. "I see them as deeply related, love and art. Love and art are the vehicles to self-realization as a human being in the full sense of the word."
Written in Spanish, "Il Postino" will be performed with English supertitles. The role of Neruda was written for, and will be played by, L.A. Opera general director Plácido Domingo. "Of course, I have known his poetry from childhood," the superstar tenor said of Neruda's work last week. But, he added, you can't "really know it until you grow up."
Growing up, and wising up, are twin motifs in Catán's libretto. The composer said that he wanted to fashion "a completely new version of the story" that draws on both the movie and on Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta's 1985 novel on which Michael Radford's film was based.
Picturesquely shot, with a commanding performance by Philippe Noiret as Neruda, the movie unspools as a voluptuous, sentimental romantic fable. It acquired a poignant postscript when its co-writer-star, Massimo Troisi, suffered a fatal heart attack the day after filming ended in 1994.
But Catán's opera aspires to be more than a boy-meets-bard, boy-gets-girl love story. In the film, Neruda functions mainly as a benevolent, avuncular figure guiding his young protégé in the ways of love and poetry, a knowing Virgil to Mario's tongue-tied Dante.
In actuality, Neruda was not only a major 20th century artist, often described as the Walt Whitman of Latin America, but also a passionate advocate of working-man rights who served as a senator for Chile's communist party and was driven into exile for his socialist beliefs. For Neruda, the personal, political and poetic were all of a piece.
Catán said his opera has "restored the figure of Neruda, so that he's not simply a vehicle for Mario's transformation, but a fully fledged character with its own journey." "Il Postino" also fleshes out the character of Neruda's wife, Matilde, who'll be sung by the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs.
In a Skype interview from his home in Chile, Skármeta expressed admiration for Radford's film, along with satisfaction that the opera is seeking to put back some of the historical context that the movie largely jettisoned.
"There are some political touches on the truth of Chilean history that [the] film is missing," said Skármeta, who was himself forced into exile from 1973 to 1988, during the repressive regime of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Skármeta said that Neruda's popularity derived from his genius in crafting challenging, enigmatic poetry as well as simpler, broadly accessible verse that "expresses the joy of living." "And also he's a damn good romantic poet," Skármeta added. "Young men all around Latin America, they found a tool to seduce the girls they like with his poetry."
An almost preternaturally amiable chap, Catán is the product of a mixed Anglo-Latin cultural upbringing. Descended from Russian-Turkish-Jewish immigrants, he was born and raised in Mexico City and later studied philosophy at the University of Sussex in England and music at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt. Among his influences he cites Stravinsky, Ravel and Alban Berg. He and his wife, a professional harpist, have two grown children and make their home in South Pasadena.
The composer's previous operas generally have fared better with foreign critics than some of their U.S. counterparts. The New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini judged "Florencia," in its 1996 Houston production, to be "derivative and almost sunk with symbolism." By contrast, a critic for the Spanish newspaper El País, in a 2004 review of Houston's production of the composer's Caribbean-set opera "Salsipuedes," praised Catán's works for "encarnating the image of the Spanish language sung in the United States, far above that of any other creator."
Catán said that when he first saw "Il Postino," he thought it had operatic potential. But at that time he was developing "Florencia," in collaboration with another Nobel Prize-winning author, Gabriel García Márquez and librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, one of the Colombian novelist's pupils. "I was not going to say to Garcia Marquez, 'I've found another story, bye-bye!'"
Back then, the composer said, he empathized most with the character of Mario. But when he finally began working on his opera a few years ago, the middle-aged Catán found himself identifying more with Neruda, "looking at a new generation that is going to come after me."
"I think this connects to working with Plácido, because I feel that is the role that I wrote for him," Catán said, "and he's also a very generous man, very generous artist, with young singers."
The reciprocal bond between Neruda and Mario is underscored by Catán's decision to make them both tenors. "They are like mirror images, or images of an artist at an earlier age and a later age."
Castronovo, a tenor who was born in L.A. to Sicilian-Ecuadoran parents and still makes his home here, said the music for "Il Postino" tracks his character's evolution from youthful ingenuousness to confident, eloquent manhood. "As far as Mario's music goes, it starts out very simple and cut up, and there's very few lyric lines, even in his love duet with Beatrice," Castronovo said. Then, as Mario absorbs Neruda's life lessons and literally discovers his own voice, "you start to get some high notes, when his emotions become bigger and he gets more mature."
Grant Gershon, who will conduct "Il Postino," described some parts of the score as "Italianate" and others as possessing "a very Spanish or Latino quality, the dance-like rhythms, the harmonies that have that light and dark, chiaroscuro kind of quality." The opera is scheduled to be performed in Vienna in December and Paris in June. There's interest in Madrid and Mexico City as well, Domingo said.
Even in a country where Latinos now constitute the largest "minority" group, productions of Spanish-language operas still are rare. When Catán's "La Hija de Rappaccini" ("Rappaccini's Daughter"), inspired by the Octavio Paz play, opened in San Diego in 1994, it was touted as "the first fully professional production of an opera by a Mexican composer to be staged in the United States."
Although he appreciated that opportunity, Catán, now a U.S. citizen, thinks it's time to retire such classifications.
"If Philip Glass wrote a story, or an opera, about Egyptians in Sanskrit or whatever it is, as he does, that's an American opera, it's not a Sanskrit opera," Catán said. But by some logic, he continued, his own operas are classified as "foreign" works. "At what point," he asked, "are we going to start thinking of these as enriching our culture, rather than being examples of some exotic other culture?"