In the early 1900s, a riverboat winds its way along the Amazon River, headed to Manaus, site of the legendary opera house in the jungle heart of Brazil. On board is a great diva, Florencia Grimaldi, ostensibly traveling (incognito) to an engagement at the theatre—but really in desperate search of her long-lost lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who has disappeared in the rainforest.
Also on the boat are a middle-aged couple who bicker incessantly, a writer at work on a biography of the opera diva (whom she nevertheless fails to recognize), and a mysterious figure who seems to know everyone on board, among others. Along the journey, the writer Rosalba unaccountably drops her research notes into the river; the middle-aged husband falls overboard, seemingly to his death, until his wife’s unlikely cries of despair miraculously spare him; storms rage as nature makes her presence felt; and the threat of cholera lurks beneath the surface.
If all this sounds charmingly improbable in the manner of the great Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (in particular his classic romance Love in the Time of Cholera), it’s because the author’s singular literary style, the apex of magical realism, was an essential source of inspiration to composer Daniel Catán as he wrote his seminal 1996 opera Florencia en el Amazonas.
The poignant and evocative Florencia has its long-awaited Metropolitan Opera premiere on November 16—the first Spanish-language opera at the Met in nearly 100 years and only the third in company history. It’s also the first opera at the Met by a Mexican composer, Catán, whose librettist, Marcela Fuentes-Berain, also hails from Mexico City. Mexican American soprano Ailyn Pérez, who grew up in Chicago the daughter of Mexican immigrants, stars in the title role, for which she gets to trade in the usual operatic Italian and French for the Spanish she speaks fluently. The set designer for Mary Zimmerman’s visual feast of a production is the Havana-born, Buenos Aires–reared Riccardo Hernández, in his Met debut. These key players, the language, and the Brazilian setting add up to an unprecedented Latin American cultural and artistic moment for the Met and for New York City.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Catán, who died in 2011, cut his compositional teeth largely in the U.K. He left Mexico City as a teenager to study piano in London, where the lively music scene awakened him to the work of Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky. In his 20s, he returned to Mexico, and in much the same way that his hero, Benjamin Britten, essentially created the notion of English opera as we consider it today, Catán set to work on his first music-theater piece with the intention of giving birth to a distinctly Latin American strain of opera.
“Because I had lived so many years in Britain and in Europe and in the States, I assimilated the operatic tradition of the West,” Catán told the Cincinnati Opera on the eve of Florencia’s performances there in 2008. “I respect and love that tradition very deeply, but at the same time I wanted to reconnect with my own roots and not only write operas in Spanish, but to use a Spanish that evoked our whole culture—otherwise, they would sound like translated operas. The works of great writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, all of these wonderful people that created a literary boom, who made their works important the world over—they were a great inspiration to me to try and do the same thing in opera.”
In an essay he wrote entitled “On How I Found Florencia and Got to the Amazon,” Catán describes the “seductive, glittering, mesmerizing” music he was attempting to summon in Florencia. “I discovered an African drum called a djembe that … can capture the crisp rhythms of the tropical rain as well as the deepest rumbles of a fearful storm. … I thought of the marimba, its luscious wooden sounds and the way they would combine with flutes, clarinets, and harp. The sonorities of these instruments seemed to me to capture the sound of the river, the way it changes its timbre as it flows, transforming everything in its path.
Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducts the run of Florencia, is enamored of the “rich, sumptuous harmonies” Catán crafted. “The score is irresistible, from the melodies to the orchestration, and immediately brings the Latin American setting to mind,” he says. “People often say it reminds them of Puccini in the way the piece is just packed with emotion— and that’s true. But whereas Puccini is a distinctly Italian kind of tear-jerker, there’s something mystical, and dreamy, in the way Catán’s music grabs you that I think Met audiences will really respond to.”
Florencia was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, and the director of that original production was Francesca Zambello, current artistic director of Washington National Opera. In a program note, Zambello wrote of an unforgettable visit with Catán and Fuentes-Berain to the Colombian compound of García Márquez, who gave the team suggestions for an operatic story that Catán hoped would evoke the marvelous spirit of the literary giant’s prose.
“It was not meant to be an adaptation of one of his works, but it was meant to be like his work in general,” says Fuentes-Berain, who was a student of García Márquez’s. In her libretto, she wanted to capture the essence of what she prefers to call “mythical realism,” which she defines as “all the experiences that are not completely logical, but come from passion.” The inspiration for the key element of the story came from Love in the Time of Cholera. “I love the steamboats in that novel, and all the communications between cultures that can take place during this type of travel,” she says. “And then I thought it would be very interesting to focus on romantic couples and on love—old love, new love, love at first sight, even love for nature.” From there, she and Catán set to work, with the specific goal of creating something simple and direct, something that would reach people’s emotions.
To give this ethereal story a striking onstage identity, the Met turned to director Zimmerman, widely praised for her theatrical flights of fancy. “I wanted to put the emphasis on the landscape and the sky—the gorgeous setting of the Amazon—more than on the little boat itself,” Zimmerman says of the world she’s conjured with set designer Hernández and costume designer Ana Kuzmanić, with whom she worked on the Met’s visually stunning 2021 production of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice. “Another thing that’s present in the production is the flora and fauna of the Amazon, which is all exaggerated. There are exaggerated takes on water lilies, and there’s a heron and a hummingbird and butterflies. We have dancers and actors as those creatures, but we also have some puppet evocations as well.”
Despite the magical-realist pedigree, Zimmerman sees in Florencia a dramaturgical connection to, of all things, Chekhov. “There are these three sets of couples on the boat, and each is at a different stage of life, of love. And one of the couples is incomplete—that’s Florencia, longing for her past lover,” the director explains. “She’s on a journey into her past and into her imagined future, what she’s dreaming could be, as she searches for Cristóbal. It’s an examination that you have as you get older, where you look back over your life and you see the patterns, and you have your regrets. So even though the story is expressed in this large landscape with crazy animals and flowers and so forth, it’s really about the internal life and the imagination.”
For the soprano who sings the title role, the demands of conveying a complicated emotional life while unleashing great outpourings of deluxe vocalism are considerable. But Pérez is up for the challenge. She has had great successes on the Met stage as Mimì in La Bohème, Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites, and Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, among other roles—but with Florencia, it’s personal. “I cannot tell you how meaningful it is for me to be singing in Spanish on the stage of the Met, and it’s a soulful honor to be in the first Met opera by a Mexican composer,” the soprano says. “That alone is incredibly emotional. But it’s also this character—this woman, who’s an artist, who’s made such sacrifices for her art, and who’s trying to figure out how love and art fit together in her life. It’s overwhelmingly powerful.”
Zimmerman agrees: “The young, ardent journalist is saying, ‘I will never tie myself down to a man. I want to be like Florencia. She’s lived a free life.’ But when they finally speak seriously, Florencia says, ‘Do not make the mistake that I made. Do not turn away from love.’ Rosalba, the young person, says, ‘But being alone is what makes Florencia such a great singer.’ And Florencia says, ‘No, it was my great love that made me such a great singer.’”
This mingling of music and love comes to glorious fruition in an extended final aria of transformation, “Escúchame,” or “Hear me,” in which Florencia calls out to Cristóbal in a thrilling set piece that concludes the opera. “In the final aria, I think Florencia is, in a sense, performing for Cristóbal—or just for herself. She’s singing her heart out, and there’s a kind of transformation that takes place, a metamorphosis of the singer through the transformational power of her own art,” Zimmerman posits.
Catán would agree. In his essay, he wrote, “As Florencia sings her final aria, her voice, her song, and she herself, become intertwined with the image of a butterfly. She breaks through her cocoon and enters her finest moment; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings. Love and beauty metamorphose into one another and become indistinguishable from each other."