This fall, Houston Grand Opera unveils the world premiere of Salsipuedes, a tale of Love, War and Anchovies‹the second Spanish-language opera commissioned by the company from preeminent Mexican composer Daniel Catán.
Literature has always been the main source of inspiration for Daniel Catán. In the past he turned to the works of Mexican poet Octavio Paz for Rappaccini's Daughter and the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcìa Márquez for Florencia en el Amazonas. This time, the distinguished Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto and award-winning Mexican writer Francisco Hinojosa accompany him on a magical journey to the Caribbean.
Playbill: How did you come up with the idea for the libretto of Salsipuedes?
Catán: Chatting with Eliseo Alberto and dreaming up stories. The original idea was his and it is based on a true story. When Cuba went into World War II it decided to recondition a small ship and send it out to sea to patrol the Caribbean‹this was their contribution to the war effort. The day the launch was to take place, a band of musicians went onboard to play popular songs as a way of bidding the soldiers farewell. The problem arose when the ship started moving away from the pier before the musicians had had time to get off. The event is known in Cuba as "the day the band of musicians went to war." This is how our project got started, with this wonderful idea. Eliseo wanted to write a script for a movie, but fortunately I managed to convince him to do an opera with me. Obviously, many things had to be changed. For example, in the opera, it is only Ulises and Chucho who board the ship and not the whole band.
Playbill: How did the collaboration work between composer and librettist?
Catán: Once we were sure that we had an interesting story to tell, we started working on the libretto. I had a very clear idea as to how the opera should develop musically, so we started creating the scenes and the characters to fit those musical ideas. The sequence of scenes, for example, tells a great deal about how the characters develop. The characters should come alive and the audience must believe in them and identify with them. Then there is the question of variety: the sequence of scenes needs to be interesting and varied so that the opera does not become monotonous. I pay a great deal of attention to the succession of arias, duets, and other vocal ensembles. Once we have agreed on a musically attractive and convincing sequence, then‹and only then‹are we ready to start working on the dialogue for each of the scenes. We were about halfway into the libretto when Eliseo won an important international prize for his book Caracol Beach. He had to go away for months at a time, so we decided to ask Francisco Hinojosa to help us complete the libretto. Francisco read it and caught the spirit of the work so perfectly that the overlap of librettists was seamless. Francisco then proceeded to complete it, enriching it with his intelligence and creativity.
Playbill: Has your method of work with the librettist been the same in your previous operas?
Catán: Almost the same in all of them, except that I am now more experienced. I now know better what it is I need, musically, so I am better able to convey it accurately to the librettist. Remember that the art of writing librettos for operas has practically died out. Many writers approach the libretto as if it were a play and this creates many problems. It's true that theater and opera have many things in common, but there are also important differences. For example, where does the composer need an aria, where a duet, where an ensemble or a chorus? Musical "numbers," on the whole, stop the action for a moment and muse upon it. From a purely dramatic standpoint, they just seem to delay the action, but they are very important.
Playbill: What are the most important musical influences in this opera?
Catán: The music from the Caribbean is the most important one. But opera has a lot to do with the voice, with great lyrical vocal lines. I therefore had to integrate two elements that were not readily compatible: the sparkling rhythms and accents of Caribbean music with the operatic tradition and the kind of vocal lines that I like so much. This was not easy at all, because these elements pull in opposite directions. My first sketches were conscious attempts to combine them. Once I found the right balance, the composition began to flow very fluently.
There was a difference, however, in composing Salsipuedes as compared to my other operas. The work of a composer is generally solitary, chained to a desk or a piano and most likely in a room without windows. Salsipuedes was happily different. For reasons strictly musical, I had to incorporate many visits to dance clubs! First I moved to Miami where I started composing the opera in between dance and mojito sessions. Then I moved to Los Angeles where I was lucky enough to find a healthy number of clubs in which to continue my investigation. It has been a very happy experience indeed.
Playbill: What has been the evolution in the different musical styles of your operas from Rappaccini to Salsipuedes?
Catán: The music of Rappaccini is very complex and very intense. The orchestra maintains a constant dialogue with the singers. In Florencia I chose a more diaphanous role for the orchestra and I gave the singers the undisputed front and center stage. Of course, the orchestra still remains important, but it plays a different role. In Salsipuedes I have continued what I began in Florencia, but with a new ingredient: rhythm. This musical dimension plays a very important role in Salsipuedes. Even in scenes where the music is not particularly Caribbean, the role of rhythm is still crucial. The importance of this dimension is new to me.
Playbill: Why are you so interested in composing for the human voice?
Catán: I think the voice is the most beautiful instrument of all and opera the most complete art form. The combination of music, literature, scenery, and other elements that form an opera has exerted in me a fascination for many years. I have been lucky enough to have my operas interpreted by extraordinary singers and directors. This has fueled my imagination even more and has given me the much needed strength to continue on this path. Because, believe me, it requires enormous amounts of energy. Keeping a project in your head for many years, working on it through all kinds of changes and bringing it to a felicitous conclusion is exhausting. I started working on Salsipuedes in 1997 and lived in four different cities before I could complete it.
Playbill: What comes next in your career?
Catán: For now I am taking a break. I need to see Salsipuedes and learn from this experience before I embark on another operatic project. I don't like to be idle, though, so I am writing chamber music. This is the perfect antidote for coming back to earth. This and the mojitos, of course!
Ramon Jacques is an opera critic who contributes regularly to the magazines Pro-Opera (Mexico), Opera-Actual (Spain), Opera del Buen Ayre (Argentina), and L'Opera (Italy).</