Remembering Daniel Catan With 'Il Postino'

Nov 25, 2011
Originally published on November 24, 2011 7:32 am

December is just around the corner — a time when we look back at musical events, catalog our favorite records of the year and, inevitably, remember musicians who died.

One of 2011's biggest losses was composer Daniel Catán. Tomorrow (Friday the 25th), many PBS stations will broadcast his final opera, Il Postino, in the world premiere LA Opera production starring Placido Domingo.

Catán was born in Mexico City, studied at Princeton with Milton Babbitt and later became an American citizen. More than any other composer, Catán made the opera world safe for the Spanish language. He wrote all of his operas in his native tongue, and though they were embraced by America's great opera houses, he felt there needed to be a different kind of acceptance.

"At what point," he asked in a Los Angeles Times interview, "are we going to start thinking of these as enriching our culture, rather than being examples of some exotic other culture?"

Catán was never bent on pushing musical envelopes. He wrote in a plush tonal style not too far removed from Puccini, and incorporated pop and folk elements. He was working on n operatic adaptation of Frank Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe when he died suddenly in April of a heart attack. He was 62.

His successful Il Postino, written for LA Opera, is based on the 1994 Italian film of the same name. The story centers on a shy postman in a small Italian fishing village who discovers his own courage, and a few tips in the romance department, through his daily deliveries to the famed poet Pablo Neruda, played by Domingo.

The opera is smartly cast and produced, with a plum role for Domingo and a terrific performance by tenor Charles Castronovo as the bashful postman. The story may not be for those wary of sentimentalism, but Catán's score shines with full-bodied lyricism and touches of '50s pop.

The broadcast, part of the Great Perfomances series, is an appropriate way to remember a gifted composer determined to write operas in his own language — with music you can whistle after the curtain comes down.

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