On June 26, 2010, I spoke with Daniel Cat·n, an American composer who writes operas with Spanish texts. He and his wife, Andrea, were at their lovely California home not too far from the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita where he teaches. His brand new Opera, Il Postino, will receive its world premiere at Los Angeles Opera on September 23, 2010. The libretto is based on the 1994 film of the same name directed by Michael Radford. The opera was commissioned by LA Opera as a co-production with the Theater and der Wien in Vienna and the ThÈ‚tre du Ch‚telet in Paris.
MN: Did you grow up in a musical atmosphere?
DC: Not exactly. My parents loved music. My father loved singing in particular, but he did not expect his children to be musicians. I went to boarding school in England shortly before my fourteenth birthday. After graduation, I attended the University of Sussex where I majored in philosophy. Then, I went to the University of Southampton to study music. After that, I came to Princeton University in the US where I did my graduate work, eventually receiving a master’s degree followed by a doctorate in composition.
MN: Who were your teachers at Princeton?
DC: I studied with Milton Babbitt and two of his students, Benjamin Boretz and James K. Randall. They were very inclusive in their outlook and they worked at helping their students find their own voices. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write opera. I always found that having a dramatic text was very inspirational for me. That really got my creative ideas flowing. I’ve composed operas and more or less stayed working at that until now, but I had to learn to use the orchestra as an operatic tool. Opera demands a different type of orchestration from an instrumental piece. In the latter type of work, the instruments are right in the forefront. When you orchestrate the accompaniment for a singer, it has to function so that the singer’s music is in the forefront.
MN: How has your music changed over the years?
DC: My music changes for practical reasons. It differs with each commission, for example. The more I work with singers and see my work staged, the more I understand that not everything that looks good on paper will work equally well on the stage. My composition has progressed based on the experiences that I have had. When my students ask my advice, I tell them to be sure to go to all the rehearsals of their works because that is a composer’s learning process. The composition is most definitely not finished just because you put a double bar on the page! You need to make changes as you see your piece evolving on the stage. One learns by experience and at this point I can anticipate certain things. You want to frame the voice in such a way that it shines. Being able to do that, again, is something that comes with experience.
MN: Where do you teach?
DC: The courses that I am currently teaching are Fundamentals of Music, Music Appreciation, Harmony and Counterpoint and Orchestration. All are at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California where they are very good to me.
MN: What is the makeup of your overall musical palette?
DC: It really depends on the piece that I am writing. In Florencia en el Amazonas, for example, I used clarinets, marimbas and harps because I was trying to invoke the fluidity of the Amazon River and the ambience of that area. Then I wrote Salsipuedes, which takes place in the Caribbean, so I used a different set of instruments and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to set that scene. There, I did not really use any upper strings; I mainly used clarinets, trumpets and percussion. Thus, the sound world of that piece is unique, in much the same way that the sound world of Florencia is. In Il Postino, I used a more Mediterranean sound because the opera takes place in Italy. Thus, I’ve constructed an orchestration that sounds more Italian and not quite as exotic. There are more strings and I’ve included an accordion in the stage banda.
MN: What aspects of composition do you find the most rewarding and the most challenging?
DC: What I like best is working out the smallest details in a turn of phrase or a harmonic twist that makes a phrase shine just so. That gives me a great deal of the pleasure of the artisan. I love that. I can spend hours on a phrase, but it’s worth it if in the end I can get it to come out just right. I think the most difficult thing is to find the right voice for each character. It would be much too easy to rewrite the music you wrote for a previous character, but no two characters are really the same. You need to have that very clear in your mind and think of each character from the ground upwards. Not to repeat myself, that’s what I find most challenging.
MN: How large an orchestra do you like to use for opera and does the size of the orchestra make a difference in getting the opera performed?
DC: That depends on the piece. Some of the works I write are intended for small orchestras and small spaces. If you have a large space, you need to fill it with an appropriate sized orchestra. But, that being said, I have been gratified to find that Florencia has been performed in both very large and very small spaces. It has been very successful in both and so has Salsipuedes. Now, with Postino, I am considering making an orchestral reduction. I did it for Rappaccini’s Daughter (La Hija de Rappaccini). I did not do it for Florencia and Salsipuedes because their orchestras were not very large to start with. They were only around forty players. Postino has, I think, sixty-five players for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center in Los Angeles. Postino has a chorus, too. When I first started writing opera I tried to avoid choruses and large orchestras, but in Houston, when I did Florencia there, they said they had a chorus and they wanted me to use it. Actually, a few companies have said that to me. I like to tailor some aspects of the opera to the companies presenting them, as long as I can maintain the integrity of the work.
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