University of Maryland set to stage its first-ever Spanish-language opera
When asked to name an Italian opera, Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" or Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" come to mind. If asked for a German-language opera, most fans can name Wagner's "Siegfried" or Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."
But can you name a Spanish-language opera? Not so easy.
Spain and Latin America don't have operatic traditions that are as well known at least not yet.
The Maryland Opera Studio, part of the University of Maryland School of Music in College Park, is about to help build that tradition by opening its 2010-11 season of student performances with its first opera sung in Spanish.
"Florencia en el Amazonas," an opera in two acts, was composed by Mexican composer Daniel Catán. Catán was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera to create the work, which premiered in 1996.
Catán went to England when he was 14 and later graduated from Princeton University. He returned to Mexico in 1977 to become music administrator at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City before settling in California.
"Florencia" tells the story of a famous diva who travels down the Amazon in a steamboat to perform at the opera house in Manaus. Twenty years before, she parted ways with her long-lost love, a butterfly hunter, and she still longs for him.
The Maryland Opera Studio will present it in the 650-seat Ina and Jack Kay Theatre as a "white" opera, which refers to the off-white muslin clothes that student cast members will wear.
The simple 19th century costumes, with their corsets and britches, are designed as a way to learn how to sing and move in period costumes but without visually distracting the audience from their performances.
"Scenery, props and fancy clothes can become crutches to hide behind, so we take away all that is unnecessary, leaving only that which is crucial to telling the story," writes Leon Major in his director's note in the "Florencia" program.
On-stage props will be minimal, with a raised platform and a steering wheel to suggest the steamboat and paper representations of birds, butterflies and trees to evoke the jungle. The music will also be played on a piano instead of with a small orchestra.
"The music is beautiful. Catán has a unique way of coloring certain musical passages with motives from previous scenes," said singer Monica Soto-Gil in an e-mail.
A native of Mexico, Soto-Gil plays Paula, a married woman, in the opera. She is one of eight students in the class, and all of them are on stage during the entire performance.
"The piece is very cohesive and has a great story arch," she wrote. "Catán paints pictures with the music that call to mind natural elements for listeners. You can really see butterflies, birds and the rushing of the river."
Major first became familiar with Catán's work when the Maryland Opera Studio did a workshop around the first act of the composer's comic opera "Salsipuedes." He said the experience was musically and dramatically so exciting that he wanted to work with one of Catán's full-length operas.
"Florencia" is a rare opportunity for students to sing and perform an opera in Spanish, Major said.
Singer David Blalock, who plays Riolobo, a mystical river creature, in the opera, said that has been somewhat of a challenge, since has not had any formal training in Spanish diction.
"Often times I will pronounce a Spanish word as if it were Italian, because my brain is so used to Italian by now," he said in an e-mail.
Because Spanish operas are performed less often, there are more chances for students to create their own interpretations of characters, said Major in a press release
"They might only hear one recording of it, so there aren't a lot of precedents," he said. "They'll have to create the roles themselves but there's a lot of joy to be taken in finding a character and then they become the precedents."
In addition, "Florencia" is a contemporary work, another plus for students and something that Blalock appreciates.
"Opera composers use their work as a form of expression, or to make a statement, to have a voice," he wrote. "How can we express our own point of view without producing new works? ... We cannot rely on the art that generations of the past have given us to take into the future. We must use our own voice to keep art alive."
Major believes in presenting students with a mix of old and new.
"Having live composers and librettists present, of course, gives the signers the opportunity to work with living creators and so understand how the operas are constructed," he wrote.
The Opera Studio has commissioned works of its own, including "Shadowboxer," an opera about the life of 1930s boxing champion Joe Louis, which premiered at the Clarice Smith center in April.
"It's crucial that singers perform the classics and contemporary opera, but it's contemporary opera that will be the salvation of the form," writes Major in a Q&A posted on the Clarice Smith center website. "I love contemporary opera. Unless we infuse the art with new blood and new writers, it won't advance. I think audiences want contemporary opera. We can learn about ourselves. And because of that, I think more and more new operas will be written, produced and presented."
Catán's latest opera, "Il Postino," which recently premiered in Los Angeles, is based on the 1994 Italian movie of the same name about Chilean exiled poet and politician Pablo Neruda.
A New York City group recently formed Opera Hispanica, an opera company that will present Spanish-language operas as well as zarzuela, the Spanish equivalent of operettas or musical theater first performed in the 1600s.
Soto-Gil, for one, was hooked as a child by opera and remains captivated by it.
"What draws me to opera is how many different access points there are for the audience," she wrote. "Of course there's the music, the voices, the orchestra, the conductor, but there's the story, the drama, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the makeup. It's so exciting."
ON THE WEB
For the "Florencia" program, including cast bios and synopsis, visit http://claricesmithcenter.umd.edu/2010/ and click on calendar.
For more about the Maryland Opera Studio, visit www.music.umd.edu/ensembles/opera.
For a YouTube interview of Daniel Catán by Lorena Mora-Mowry, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=adoDkwvVO5g.
IF YOU GO
Florencia en el Amazonas
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Monday, Tuesday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Kay Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park
Tickets: $25, $20 subscribers, $9 full-time students with ID. Order at www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu or call 301-405-2787.