Daniel Catán, an opera composer and librettist whose works including “Il Postino” and “Florencia en el Amazonas” have been praised for their lyrical romanticism and humane generosity of spirit, died suddenly Saturday in Austin, Texas. He was 62.
Catán’s death was announced by the Butler School of Music of the University of Texas, where he was a visiting artist. The cause has not been determined. A South Pasadena resident, Catán had been commissioned by the Butler School to adapt Frank Capra’s 1941 classic film “Meet John Doe” for the operatic stage.
Catán’s most recent opera, “Il Postino” (The Postman), which was adapted from the popular 1994 film based on Antonio Skarmeta’s novel about a fictional friendship between a mail carrier and the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, had its world premiere last fall at L.A. Opera. “Florencia en el Amazonas,” inspired by the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was co-commissioned by L.A. Opera and performed there in 1997, after premiering in Houston in 1996.
Reviewing “Il Postino” last September, Times music critic Mark Swed noted the “rich instrumental colors” of the work, which co-starred Placido Domingo, L.A. Opera’s general director, as Neruda. “Domingo has never had a better role tailored for him,” Swed wrote.
In a statement issued Monday, L.A. Opera Chairman Marc I. Stern expressed shock and grief at “this terrible loss.”
Like Catán’s other works, “Il Postino” deals with several themes central to the composer’s creative outlook: the redemptive power of love and art, and the capacity for heroic action that ordinary people possess.
“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,” Catán said in an interview with The Times last fall before the opening of “Il Postino.” “Love and art are the vehicles to self-realization as a human being in the full sense of the word.”
“Il Postino” also expressed Catán’s gift for composing broadly accessible works that occasionally drew on folkloric and popular 20th-century musical styles, as well as the passionate theatricality of the late Romantic period.
“He was able to translate abstract musical concepts so that they would be brought down to very simple levels,” said Bernardo Feldman, a former student of Catán’s and chairman of the music department at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, where the composer taught for many years. “Every single piece of music that he wrote was beautifully crafted and profound, with a subtle sense of humor.”
Born April 3, 1949, in Mexico City, Catán was descended from Russian-Turkish-Jewish immigrants and grew up in Mexico. He studied philosophy at the University of Sussex, England, and music at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt. Following his studies, he served from 1983 to 1989 as music administrator at Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts.
Catán cited Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Alban Berg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold among those who had most influenced his music. His first opera, “La Hija de Rappaccini” (“Rappaccini’s Daughter”), a 1991 symbolist work inspired by an Octavio Paz play based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, with a libretto by Juan Tovar, was performed in San Diego in 1994. The Spanish-language work was billed at that time as “the first fully professional production of an opera by a Mexican composer to be staged in the United States.”
The success of that work led to the commissioning of “Florencia en el Amazonas,” loosely based on Garcia Marquez’s magical realist novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
To mark its 50th anniversary, the Houston Grand Opera commissioned Catán’s third opera, the darkly humorous “Salsipuedes, A Tale of Love, War and Anchovies.” A reviewer in the Spanish newspaper El Pais commended Catán’s works for “incarnating the image of the Spanish language sung in the United States, far above that of any other creator.”
The composer, who later became a U.S. citizen, was pleased to have contributed works in his native language to the operatic repertoire. But he also believed that the time had come to recognize Spanish-language compositions as being part of the fabric of American culture.
“At what point,” he asked The Times in an interview, “are we going to start thinking of these as enriching our culture, rather than being examples of some exotic other culture?” “Meet John Doe,” about a down-on-his-luck former baseball player who gets cast in the invented role of a social crusader, was being written in English.
Catán said that when he first saw the movie “Il Postino” he had identified with the character of the young postman. But when he began working on his opera a few years ago, the by-then middle-aged composer found himself empathizing more with Neruda, “looking at a new generation that is going to come after me.”
Catán is survived by his wife, Andrea Puente; three children, Chloe, Tom and Alan; and four grandchildren.