LOS ANGELES — The Mexican composer Daniel Catan — who died at 62 in his sleep over the weekend of as yet causes unknown — was a mensch. He made his name with opera, especially with his last work, “Il Postino,” which the Los Angeles Opera premiered in September starring Placido Domingo as the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
Like its composer, “Il Postino” proved warm and popular.
Everyone — even singers and stage directors and opera administrators — liked him. Critics and some important people in the music business were put off by Catan’s unabashed neo-Romanticism, but no one had a bad word to say about him. His students adored him. He always struck me as someone who cared about people and who cared about music and had no intention of letting one form of caring obstruct the other.
He had a sterling music education and received a doctorate in music composition from Princeton University, where he studied with the ultra-Modernist master of complexity and taskmaster Milton Babbitt. Soon after, Catan returned to his hometown of Mexico City for a while and it looked as though that he might become a kind of Mexican post-Modernist. That certainly seemed the case in 1991 with his rhapsodic “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” his first opera. Based on the writing of the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, it heralded what many of us had hoped would be a much-needed new voice in Latin opera.
Catan had moved to the Los Angeles area by the time of his second opera, “Florencia en el Amazonas,” written for the Houston Grand Opera. After the 1996 premiere, a German colleague who had flown in from Frankfurt to cover it joined me for a drink in a Houston hotel. He was distraught. How, he bewailed, was he going to explain to his editor that he had spent all this money to come to Texas for what he called in English “Puccini soup.”
Catan had changed. But despite a Magic Realist-manque librettist and too much pretty music, this proved attractive and effective opera, fresh in its lack of cynicism, that resonated with audiences for a reason. Still, I figured “Amazonas” would be a slight detour demanded by Houston. Catan, after all, was a Princeton progressive with Babbitt’s stamp of approval. But what Catan later told me was that what Babbitt taught him was to be himself. With “Amazonas,” Catan had achieved the courage of his convictions.
He was a Romantic. He wanted to tell stories, write music that people readily responded to. He did. And with “Il Postino,” he especially won hearts of his Los Angeles audience, in sold-out performances at the Music Center and overflow free screenings at outdoor plazas. Yes, it was a little sappy in places, but the music and the ambience played into Domingo’s most engaging qualities. The opera had a glow and an anti-fascist political point of view.
I didn’t know Catan, who ultimately settled in South Pasadena, Calif., well. We had a mutual friend who happened to be a mentor to a number of major composers and conductors, and we spent a couple of extremely pleasant evenings in civilized conversation at her place. He had a sophisticated mind and was almost profoundly unargumentative. My friend guided some of the progress of “Il Postino” and at one point she tried to move Catan in a slightly more musically pointed direction. Without being overly confident, he nonetheless wrote what he meant to write and made it work. He knew himself and he knew what he was doing.
The next opera was to have been “Meet John Doe.” Could Catan have given a classic Frank Capra film a new life or might he simply given in to sentimentally? This would have been his first opera without a Latin subject, his first in English, but perhaps he might have provided a Latin point of view on a quintessentially American political comedy.
The film ends with a line no one needed to tell Daniel: “There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!”
He was a friend of the people. And we will miss him.