Musical America reports that the Mexican composer Daniel Catan, 62, has been found dead in his hotel room in Texas. He was there to work with the opera center at the University of Houston, which is presenting his latest opera, “Il Postino,” over the weekend. (The link to Musical America may not work for non-subscribers, but in any case details of the story are still sketchy.)
“Il Postino,” you’ll remember, had its premiere at the Los Angeles Opera last fall, with Placido Domingo in the title role. I reviewed it for the Washington Post (my blog post includes reviews from other critics as well), and last fall I also reviewed Catan’s earlier opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” which was presented by the Maryland Opera Studio.
Personally, I was a little distant in my admiration for Catan’s work; although “Florencia” was hugely popular, I found it somewhat insubstantial musically: one more example of the lush neo-Puccinism that many audiences seem to desire most from opera.
But there’s no denying he was an important composer, and a significant presence on the opera scene.
“Il Postino,” in addition to being tailored to Domingo’s current strengths, was the first corrected:“Florencia en el Amazonas ” was the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by a major American company: certainly a smart move in a field dominated by foreign language works, in a country where more people speak Spanish than any other language that isn’t English.
I was also tremendously impressed by the keynote speech he gave last year at the Opera America conference, “In Search of the Next Great American Opera, or, Waiting for Godot.” I’m hoping that speech will be made available to the public in the course of the day; I quoted it briefly in the article I wrote last year about the current state of new American opera. The gist of his argument is that opera needs to be part of the cultural conversation of this country in order to be truly relevant, and it isn’t, in part because the system is set up in such a way that work is not widely disseminated — he compared it to trying to open a blockbuster Hollywood movie in one or two theaters. Edited to add: Opera America has posted a video of Catan’s talk on their website.
The comparison isn’t quite apt: Catan’s own works, after all, seem to be having a pretty healthy life. Unfortunately, their composer is no longer with us.