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Daniel Catan Opera Classical Composer

Daniel Catan Daniel Catán

Daniel Catán composed in a lyrical, romantic style that lends itself particularly well to the human voice. Lush orchestrations reminiscent of Debussy and Strauss, along with Latin American instruments and rhythms, are regularly heard in his music.


His opera Florencia en el Amazonas has the distinction of being the first opera in Spanish commissioned by a major American company. The success of this opera led to the commission of Salsipuedes for Houston Grand Opera. His fourth opera, Il Postino, was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera and premiered in Los Angeles, Vienna and Paris in 2011 featuring Plácido Domingo.


At the time of his death, Daniel Catán was at work on his next opera, Meet John Doe.


Born in Mexico, Daniel studied philosophy at the University of Sussex in England before enrolling in Princeton as a PhD student in composition under the tuition of Milton Babbitt, James Randall and Benjamin Boretz. His music is published by Associated Music Publishers.

Short Biography
Daniel Catán Authorized Biography

By Sean Bradley

The music of Daniel Catán (April 3, 1949 - April 9, 2011) is among the most significant and best-loved of any composers in the 21st century. Known principally as a composer of operas, Catán’s oeuvre spans works for orchestra, chamber music, and art song, as well as music for film and television, music theater, and even traditional Latin pop.  His opera, Rappaccini’s Daughter, was the first opera by a Mexican Composer ever produced by a professional opera company in the United States (by San Diego Opera in 1994) and he is primarily responsible for the adoption and popularization of the Spanish language in contemporary opera and art song. A keenly interesting departure from this lifelong mission, his last work-the unfinished Meet John Doe would be his first major opera with a libretto sung entirely in English.


Daniel Catán experienced an extraordinarily global upbringing and superior education on multiple continents.  Born in Mexico City, of Russian and Sephardic Jewish heritage, his mother felt it was important for him to receive proper instruction in music, so she arranged for him to receive piano lessons. His father loved to sing boleros and Cuban son, instilled in the boy an affinity for the human voice.


In 1963 while still a young teenager, Catán moved to England where he was admitted to boarding school. He continued his piano studies in England, showed promise on the instrument, and won local performance competitions. While in England as a teen, Catán was first introduced to opera during long hours of listening to LPs with friends. Remaining on the south coast of Britain as a young adult. Catán took degrees in philosophy at the University of Sussex in Brighton, and also in music at the University of Southampton. In 1973, during his early twenties, he moved to the United States to complete his studies in composition, where he received a PhD. From Princeton University under the care of noted American music pedagogue and serialist composer, Milton Babbit, as well as with James K. Randall and Benjamin Boretz. In addition to philosophy and music, Catán was an avid reader and scholar of literature and critical review of works by Spanish writers and poets served to augment his activity as a composer throughout his life.


Upon completing his university studies in 1977, Catán returned to Mexico, taking a post as an administrator at the Palacio de Bellas Artes  (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City. Apart from his duties there, he founded and conducted a small chamber orchestra, allowing him to hone his skill as an orchestrator.  His first operatic venture, Encuentro en el ocaso, had him bringing his own living room furniture to the stage.


Fascinated by the Orient, Catán received an award from the Japan-Foundation to live in Tokyo during the late 1980’s.  This was followed by a stay in Indonesia, where the composer immersed himself in Balinese gamelan.  His experience in the Orient informed his compositional style and influenced later musical works including, for example, his duet for harp and flute Encantamiento.  Before his sojourn in Asia was complete, the region’s musical and cultural attractions were coupled with an unexpected influence from his homeland—the poetry and writings of Mexican literary titan Octavio Paz.


Catán was a contributor to Paz’s literary magazine, Vuelta (Paz founded the magazine in 1976 after the disbanding of a worker’s cooperative which managed Mexico City’s daily newspaper). Catán essays led to a lasting friendship with Paz. Ultimately the composer’s exposure to Asia exotic sounds and Paz’s words be brought to bear synergistically on what would become Catán’s first major operatic success- La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter).


“I worked six years on the composition of the opera. This work took me to live in Japan and Indonesia a year and a half, and to Europe for a year more.  They were years of exuberant musical activity and profound critical revision against an intense and passionate monologue with Octavio Paz and his work.  I discussed every scene, every word; sang every syllable.”


Catán described the opera as a “modest homage” to Paz and his work.


Adapted from Paz’s 1956 play and based on the short story of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the world premiere of Rappaccini’s Daughter was brought to the stage in 1991 by his friend conductor Eduardo Diazmuñoz.  Initially the opera failed to achieve the critical success Catán needed.  Catán had completed the opera between 1987 and 1989, but rewrote several scenes entirely before its debut.  The opera would be revised yet again after its premiere and, in tandem with Diazmuñoz, the composer revisited the score and made multiple changes for the next two decades.  Upon mixed public reception at Rappaccini’s premiere, however, Catán found himself despairing over his future prospects.  In need of money the composer took a job as a loan officer at the local bank.


When Paz won the Nobel prize for literature in 1990, this in turn of events brought the needed international attention on Catán’s operatic setting of Paz’s play.  The media descended on the bank where Catán worked, much to the composer’s own joy and the surprise of his co-workers, especially as cameraman co-opted the use of the bank manager’s office to photograph an interview of the young composer.  Concurrently, John Dwyer, an American diplomat and writer working for the U.S. Information Agency in Mexico, facilitated the delivery of recordings of Rappaccini’s Daughter in San Diego, essentially cementing Catán’s commitment to opera and his role as a major proponent for the use of the Spanish language in opera. It also convinced Catán that the United States, home of the largest Spanish-speaking population outside of Mexico, was soon to be the epicenter of the Latin-American culture around the world.

Further exploration in long forms and motivic development in support of a narrative pointed Catán toward the allure of film and television music.  Catán’s ability to crossover into multiple stylistic practices while crafting entirely accessible tunes was made evident in his music for the 1994 telenovela, El vuelo del águila (The Flight of the Eagle)—an immensely popular historical romance about the life and times of late Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. The soundtrack was recorded in the fall of 1993 also under the baton of Diazmuñoz, who later led the orchestra for the U.S. premiere of Rappaccini in San Diego. In his first contractual negotiations with a major producer of any kind. Catán made no royalties from the success of his television series.  The net result caused the composer to refocus his attention on music for the stage.

Lean times followed. Under tremendous financial duress, Catán continued to solicit multiple opera companies via correspondence and his recordings. David Gockley, the enterprising director of Houston Grand Opera, took interest in the composer’s work and shepherded a co-commission with the Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera.  The result was Florencia en el Amazonas, featuring a libretto which was inspired like its predecessor by another revered Latin-American author: the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. The opera was immediately embraced by singers and the public alike, albeit its premiere met with some degree of circumspect by Los Angeles critics until its re-staging in 2004 by Opera Nova Santa Monica under the baton of Sean Bradley. Most important, however, Florencia’s  winning debut among singers in Seattle, Houston and Los Angeles in the mid-1990’s garnered for the composer an important champion of his Works: legendary tenor Plácido Domingo.  Catán and Domingo would forge a lasting partnership that would leave an indelible mark on the operatic landscape and on the Spanish-speaking culture.


After the premiere of Florencia, nearly eight years passed before the completion of his next major work, Salsipuedes: a Tale of Love, War and Anchovies.  Unique not only for its Caribbean flavor, but for its orchestration which dispenses entirely with violins and violas. The libretto for Salsipuedes was drafted by Catán’s close friend and Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto, the son of Eliseo Diego whom Márquez regarded as “…one of the greatest poets in Spanish language.” After receiving the commission for Salsipuedes, Catán traveled to Cuba and then to Miami where his interest in music from Cuba started to grow.


Cuba had always played a significant influence in the composer’s life. Catán’s grandfather had emigrated from Turkey but had made a five-year stopover in Cuba while in en route to Mexico, presumably falling in love with the culture, thereby influencing Catán’s father and in turn, Catán himself.


Upon landing in Miami, Catán began looking for steadier employment in the United States to sustain his composing.  At first he moved to New York but eventually felt it less than fertile ground for his efforts as a composer. Ultimately, Catán was introduced to a post at the College of the Canyons in Los Angeles County by former student and head of the college’s composition department, Bernardo Feldman. It was during this time that Catán connected with a romantic interest he had first sparked while in administrator in Mexico City. Andrea Puente, former principal harpist of the Orquesta del Teatro de Bellas Artes, would become a major influence on the composer.  Upon re-uniting with Catán in Los Angeles, the two married few years later. Subsequently, Catán’s increasing use of harp in his operas and chamber music is plainly evident.  His transcription for the composition of Encantamiento for flute and harp was written expressly for her and her longtime collaborator Salpy Kerkonian. Catán also references his wife subtly in the libretto for his next major work—and opera that would become a watershed moment and the crowning jewel of his career: Il Postino.


Il Postino was an opera that almost never came to be.  Catán, having explored the rich literary traditions of Latin America, was challenged to some degree by the collaborative process of working with librettists. Having since developed a highly evolved and unique model of musical storytelling, one that demanded seamless integration between the libretto and the music, the composer labored to find inspiration for a new work capable of surpassing his previous artistic successes while continuing to honor the Latin tradition. Finally, Catán found inspiration in Il Postino’s compelling screenplay—a story which straddles both comedy and tragedy alike.


The film Il Postino, written by and starring the late Massimo Troisi, is the fictitious account of a relationship between real-life Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and a provincial mailman, Mario Ruopolo. The setting is a small Italian island where Mario aspires to learn poetry from the revered master of words in order to win the love of his life, the beautiful Beatrice Russo.  Prior to having a commission in hand, Catán risked significant personal expense to acquire the rights to use the screenplay as the basis of his new opera. The composer and his wife travelled to Italy to secure the rights of the story by appealing directly to the heirs of Massimo estate, a delicate and daunting undertaking insomuch as there were five heirs, both brothers and sisters.


The role of Neruda was written especially by Catán for Plácido Domingo, and with Domingo’s input. Moreover, the composer drew upon a circle of close instrumentalist friends to help vet the orchestration.  But by this point in his career, Catán had already obtained complete and total mastery of his craft, both as storyteller and composer.  Il Postino, conducted by Grant Gershon at its premiere, served to galvanize the Catán fan base internationally, reinvigorating the Los Angeles Opera as an institution which commissioned and presented new music. Immediately following its debut, free public video screenings of the Los Angeles Opera performance were presented in the city’s center under the auspices of Catán’s close friend and presenter, Michael Alexander. Near riotous applause confirmed Catán’s music had found its way into consciousness of contemporary American culture and succeeded in bridging great art with popular appeal.


With retirement looming, the composer, after decades of artistic toil and financial struggle, turned his attention to teaching the next generation of opera composers. Having won his next commission from the University of Texas in Austin, coupled with an opportunity to cultivate a potential teaching post at the University, he took up a visiting professorship there. In Austin, the composer poured himself into the venerable task of mentoring young musicians and singers, while painstakingly committing to paper what would be his last contribution to the operatic repertoire.  Like Il Postino before it, Meet John Doe is based on a screenplay. The 1941 screenplay for Meet John Doe was directed by Frank Capra, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story with Gary Cooper and Barbara playing the main leads.  Also, like Il Postino, Catán served as his own librettist and adapted the screenplay for the stage himself. However, Meet John Doe was intended to be a radical departure from the themes explored in his earlier operas.  Il Postino, considered the nature of art, the role of an artist and his or her admirers, friendship and romance, as well as the tragic insertion of politics into these fragile human relationships.  But Meet John Doe dramatically highlights the story of everyman’s struggle against, and reconciliation with, the will of society at large.


One could argue that in Catán’s previous operas, the composer most frequently framed his own point of view within the role of the captain, a patriarchal leader in the musical universe he created for other characters.  As an example, the main character in Florencia en el Amazonas is an opera diva in search of a love she sacrificed for her career.  In this the captain plays a supporting role navigating her toward self-redemption.  In Meet John Doe, however, the story is more deeply relevant to the composer himself.  In essence, Meet John Doe is the story of a man that sacrifices himself, and finds his own salvation.


While Catán regularly stamped the presentation of his themes with a uniquely Latin perspective, Meet John Doe incorporates decidedly North American colors into its music and even playfully employs the rhythms and harmonies of vintage mid-century pop music, transporting audiences back to the era of big bands and dancehalls. The signature style wholly unto itself include a penchant for symmetrical formal structures, shimmering polytonal harmonies and voluptuous orchestrations—a perfect elision between background accompaniments and their gratuitously diatonic and voice-friendly melodies.  All of these are propelled by world rhythms and the inventive inclusion of musical nods from everything to folkloric to pop music. Most important and utterly integral to the success of his works, is a deep and articulate understanding of story.  Impeccable pacing and the stirring juxtaposition of linear but often diametrically opposed plot elements are central to the composer’s masterful and dramatic use of language to evoke emotion.  The overreaching impression is invariably romantic and charming, yet remains sophisticated, cosmopolitan and highly accessible among the broadest sampling of listeners.


Like Puccini, a composer to whom Catán was frequently compared, the maestro passed away before his last opera could be finished, but not before his music would echo in the memories of countless others. Upon listening to his words and music, the sounds of Daniel Catán makes devoted friends of us all.


Copyright © 2011 by Sean Bradley

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