Daniel Catán: A Remembrance

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Daniel Catán (April 3, 1949 – April 8, 2011)
Photo by James Baker

[Ed. Note: Composer Daniel Catán died unexpectedly on April 9, 2011, in Austin, Texas. He was 62. Catán was especially well-known for his Spanish-language operas such as Il Postino, and he was at work on an adaptation of Meet John Doe, commissioned by the University of Texas’s Butler School of Music, at the time of his death.—MS]

As near as I can recall, it was in December of 1983 when I first performed music by Daniel Catán. I was then employed by the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico. The orchestra was kept so busy that one could rarely take an outside job, a hueso (bone), as they were called in Mexico, yet I was assured by a friend that this would be a gig worth playing. Besides, he told me, you’ll get to meet the composer Daniel Catán.

I am so glad I took the work. The music was a pastorela, a piece of musical theatre common in Latin America at Christmastime. I don’t recall the title of this particular work, but it left its mark on me. I found it to be at once challenging and fulfilling. Upon being introduced to the composer, I expressed how much I liked the music. He thanked me and we went our separate ways, though not before I made a mental note to remember this Daniel Catán. Eventually everyone else would be saying the same thing, for Daniel charged onto the scene in a big way in 1994 with a production by the San Diego Opera of his La Hija de Rappaccini.

For many years, my path never again intersected with Daniel’s, nor his music. However, in 2005, as I began to seriously develop a radio show pertaining to Latin American music, I rediscovered the music of Daniel Catán. By then his output had mushroomed. Listening to the excellent recordings of his music by Eduardo Diazmunoz and the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico and then the Houston Grand Opera performance of Florencia en el Amazonas, the proverbial light bulb glowed as I thought: “I know this composer.”

I soon tracked down an email address for Daniel and wrote him, asking for an interview. He graciously agreed and we soon found ourselves speaking to one another on the phone. I reminded him that I had once met him and played his music, saying how much I enjoyed the experience. “Oh really?” he said. “My music was really pretty lousy back then.” I defended it, saying it sounded Stravinskyesque. “He’s still a very big influence on me,” said Daniel. “Maybe I will go back and revisit the piece.”

As far as I can tell, he never revived that particular score. His interest had obviously shifted to writing for voice, and it was here that he had found his way. Not that it had been easy. “When I announced to my family my intention to become a professional musician, that certainly wasn’t in their game plan,” he told me. “I met a lot of opposition. They wanted me to be what people normally want their kids to be, a doctor or lawyer or something sensible.”

The more I talked to Daniel, the more thoughtful and warm I found him to be. Continuing on the track of his father’s resistance to his becoming a musician, Daniel reasoned “this was not altogether a bad thing. The path of the composer and of all musicians is so hard that if you are not 150 percent sure, you won’t last too long.”

Daniel was clearly 200 percent sure of his track. There is no need to recount here his successes. However, there were also frustrations which he expressed to me, especially regarding Florencia en el Amazonas. “Even though this opera has been one of the most successful ones in the past 50 years, it’s incredibly painful to see how little it has been performed,” he lamented. Daniel worked through this frustration and saw the larger picture of a flawed system, however. In his typically thoughtful manner, he used this as a reason to propose radical new ideas for expanding the audience for opera. This, as much as his music, must be seen as Daniel’s legacy. In his 2010 keynote address to Opera America, Daniel proposed a way into the heart of the 21st century which should be on the desk of every arts administrator in the country. He told the conference audience, “Developing a great product is essential. But if the distribution of it works against it, it will go down the drain, regardless of how good it was. Our distribution model is a serial killer and needs serious rehabilitation.”

I came away from my first interview with Daniel feeling as though I had been speaking to a kindred spirit, even an old friend, and this began to repeat itself with each subsequent interview, all done by phone. We talked at length about the birth of Il Postino and his rescoring of Rappaccini’s Daughter. Now and then I would suggest he write some chamber music, or perhaps a concerted work, but his heart was ever more involved with the theater, especially opera. I have finally come to realize that this is (I still can’t think in the past tense regarding Daniel) his perfect genre. There is an intellectual layer to Daniel’s music which is best expressed through vocal expression. Then there is the emotional side, where vocal line and instrumental color blossom. It is here that we find the genius of Daniel’s music as it matured into the masterpiece Il Postino. Oh, it’s to be found elsewhere, too. I never tire of the skilled orchestration and soaring vocal lines of Florencia, and I even played devil’s advocate in pleading the case for the full-bodied score to Rappaccini as he reworked it into chamber dimensions—2 pianos, percussion (2 players), and harp. For Daniel, there was no turning back and, in the end, I came away convinced he was right.

It was the “new” Rappaccini’s Daughter which brought Daniel to Austin, that and a commission from the University of Texas Butler School of Music to compose a new opera based upon Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. I called Daniel and asked if we could meet for another interview. “We could do this over the phone,” he said, but I was insistent that this interview would finally be face to face. On the appointed day I drove to his apartment complex in Austin, alerting him by phone as I pulled through the gate and rounded into a parking space. I recognized him immediately as he walked out to greet me.

“This feels as though we are old friends seeing each other after a long time apart,” he said. I couldn’t have agreed more, though we both knew this was only the second time we had actually met face to face. I followed him into his apartment. He made coffee for me and we chatted small talk as old friends do. Then we sat for one more interview, talking about the new Rappaccini, which I would hear a week later, and the already half-composed Meet John Doe. His face glowed as he told me of his pride and joy, Il Postino. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined that this would happen to me,” he said in speaking of seeing Postino performed in Vienna. Earlier, he had spoken in that same tone of working with Placido Domingo: “It’s really the highlight of my life. When I see him perform, it hits home that I’m writing music for this fantastic singer. I have to pinch myself to see that it really is true.”

I saw Daniel only one time more. That was at the premiere of the chamber version of Rappaccini’s Daughter. Again, it felt as though we were old friends. In fact, there was a genuine old friend who helped tie this all together. I had known his wife, the harpist Andrea Puente, years before he married her. Rappaccini provided the occasion for this happiest of reunions. “You really must see Postino,” Andrea told me. We agreed we would meet again in Houston for the early April revival of Postino. I looked forward to it.

The good of it was that I did make it over to Houston for Il Postino. It was what I expected, and more. I laughed and cried with Daniel’s skillfully made masterpiece. It made me think, it touched my heart, it felt like an old friend.

The bad of it is that none of us knew on that evening the fate which had befallen Daniel. There was a degree of puzzlement that he was not there, though I felt certain his plans had simply taken an unexpected course. Surely, he’s back home in Los Angeles by now, secure as was Neruda when he returned to his home in Chile. I was happy for Daniel. I was happy for Andrea. I knew the love songs of Postino were written for her. I was thankful he had shared the music with us.

Daniel Catán lived to create music, to share his music; he was generous to me at every turn and for that I am thankful. I’m thankful as well to know his music lives on, reminding us always of Daniel, dear friend to so many.

“To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life.”

—Pablo Neruda

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James Baker

James Baker is a radio producer and announcer for KPAC-San Antonio. He produces Itinerarios, a weekly show which focuses upon classical music with Latin American roots. He also co-hosts Alternate Routes, a program of contemporary classical music.

Baker is a professional musician, with more than 40 years experience as a French horn player with the Austin Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico, Orquesta Sinfonica del Estado de Mexico and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa. He was also hand selected by Eduardo Mata for the Mexico based chamber ensemble Solistas de Mexico.

Baker currently serves as Principal Horn in the regional Mid-Texas Symphony. He is an avid marathon runner and gardener.