by João MacDowell
After reading the US reviews of the Met premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, I feel compelled to write a review of the reviews. When Anglo-Saxon critics experience Latin American works, they often display their lack of knowledge about the history and context of the development of Latin American culture and the artistic styles that sprang from it.
One cannot review this opera out of context. Florencia at the Metropolitan is a landmark of a new time, and one hopes it will open the door for many more Latin American titles at the most celebrated opera stage in the world. The Met Opera belongs to all of us. Lincoln Center was built by dislodging thousands of Black and Latino families. The cultural institutions that thrive in Lincoln Center have a longstanding debt to the Black and Latino communities. This debt has not been cleared by staging works by two African-American composers and one by a Latin-American. This is an honorable gesture in the right direction. It cannot be a mere token accomplishment that sits on the shelf. The leaders of these institutions must continue on the path and do more.
The Florencia en el Amazonas reviews by Zachary Woolfe in the NY Times and by Mr. Justin Davidson for the New York Magazine exemplify a broader lack of understanding of the Latin-American cultural paradigm. Neither critic chose to trace the cultural context that led to Daniel Catán’s aesthetic choices. We must start to look at non-Anglo-Saxon works that cross the barriers into large US cultural institutions from a more knowledgeable perspective.
When Daniel Catán wrote Florencia en el Amazonas, he had a specific goal at a particular point in his career. Daniel’s La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter) was the first ever work by a Latin American composer to be commissioned by a major US opera house. It displays virtuosic elaboration of Latin rhythms and a daring orchestration that eliminates the string section. It was received with a mix of commercial success and bashing criticism. There is no novelty in US critics who are oblivious to the originality of Latin American art.
Zachary Woolfe acknowledges that Daniel Catán was trained by Milton Babbitt. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and music theorist also trained Stephen Sondheim, yet no one complains that Sondheim wrote memorable melodies. Woolfe fails to connect the dots on why a fully trained composer would write a contemporary opera with a musical vocabulary of the 19th Century. The question of why a composer would choose a nostalgic style and how that connects with the specific narrative of Florencia is left unanswered. The reasoning is typical of the colonizer’s perspective: when one fails to understand a cultural manifestation that blends and twists the oppressor’s perspective, one emits an adverse judgment. It is a textbook prejudice case scenario.
Florencia is often compared to Puccini. No one would waste much time on this comparison if they had taken the time to listen to other works by Catán. It would be similar to evaluating Beethoven’s entire work based on the Moonlight Sonata alone.
Puccini is the most-performed composer in US opera houses. Catán was working to open a door for Latin Americans in the US opera scene. Is it so hard to connect the dots? Daniel Catán demonstrates through his technical achievement that he is a better composer than Puccini and deserves to be performed. This is not a fantastic compliment for Catán; it is a mere statement of historical fact: Catán was a fully trained and proficient artist. He had studied Puccini; however, Puccini did not study Catán.
Catán deserves more lavish praise for creating works that unite Latin American expression from Brazil to Mexico, spearheading a south-of-the-border way of thinking about the genre, rather than for being able to do it in an ultra-romantic style. The style of Florencia must be considered in context.
The relationship between Latin America and opera is older and more profound than these Anglo-Saxon critics seem to fathom. The only composer from the large American continent to succeed in Europe in the 1800s was a Brazilian of mixed race: Antonio Carlos Gomes. However, his work remains largely ignored in the USA.
In the opposite direction, the most famous aria of the standard repertoire is “Habanera,” an aria that Bizet plagiarised from a Spanish composer featuring a Cuban rhythm. I never heard a US critic complain about cultural appropriation in Bizet’s Carmen or Bernstein’s West Side Story. We may still love these works despite their cultural flaws. Now, if a Mexican composer makes knowledgeable use of a romantic vocabulary… “How did he dare?”
Florencia is a love letter to opera and its potential to revitalize itself and become culturally relevant again. When Florencia leaves her boat cocoon and turns into a butterfly, Catán tells us that all that is beautiful in the old opera may be transformed into something new and powerful, letting the past die while still honoring the tradition. There is an aspirational optimism in Catán that is characteristic of Latin-American art. Magical Realism finds hope under desperate circumstances. This is a lesson from which many in Europe and the USA could benefit.
There are fundamental differences between the 1800’s operatic archetype and what we witness in Florencia. Catán utilizes orchestral combinations and rhythms unheard of in Puccini: the subtle percussion blends rhythmic nods to Latin America. Yet, there is something more profound about what makes this piece unique.
In golden-age Italian opera, we often witness the death of the heroine. The archetypes that these deaths reveal are subconsciously connected with older rituals where women are sacrificed to preserve the status quo. Something fundamentally different separates Florencia’s death from those of Gilda, Tosca, Mimi, Carmen, etc. Florencia turns into a Butterfly; she brings hope to a new age of sublimist opera. This is the fundamental connection that went utterly over the heads of the critics.
Opera has always been a collaborative art. Its international and transcultural characteristics have been in the genre for a long time. We see it in Puccini’s appropriations of exotic cultures and when Carlos Gomes moves away from the native Brazilian stories that made him famous and wrote operas such as Fosca, Salvator Rosa, and Mary Tudor, all from a transcultural point of view. It means we can learn from each other. We can create profound communion ceremonies in the opera house to celebrate all that unites us, even within the differences that set us apart.
On November 28 at the Americas Society, the Metropolitan Opera NY, in partnership with the International Brazilian Opera Company, will present a recital with arias from Florencia en el Amazonas and João MacDowell’s The Seventh Seal with libretto by Ingmar Bergman. The event will feature a conversation between Andrea Puente-Catán, a Latin American music specialist, and João MacDowell, artistic director of the New York-based International Brazilian Opera Company.
More info at:
About João MacDowell:
Noted by the Swedish press as “a new thinker in the genre,” the Brazilian composer João MacDowell has a career that spans from punk to opera. Currently serving as artistic director of the International Brazilian Opera Company – IBOC in NYC, MacDowell had his first Symphony premiered by the National Orchestra of Brasilia. He is the author of five operas, including The Seventh Seal. Other works by the composer include chamber music, film soundtrack, and songs.
Florencia en el Metropolitan:
Americas Society – Council of the Americas:
Further reading & References:
Lincoln Center and its Diversity Debt: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/nyregion/how-lincoln-center-was-built-it-wasnt-pretty.html
Operas by Black Composers: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/arts/music/black-operas-composers.html
About a 19th Century Brazilian Opera Composer: Antonio Carlos Gomes
About Bizet’s Cultural appropriation in the most famous aria in the repertoire: Habanera
About IBOC and our work to support unrepresented voices in classical music: International Brazilian Opera Company.