As opera composer Daniel Catán tells the story, many years ago he had a poet friend who wrote "really wonderful erotic" verse. So one memorable evening Catán decided to try out a few lines on his girlfriend.
"We ended up having a very sexy night," Catán recalled in an interview last week ahead of the world premiere of his latest work, "Il Postino" (The Postman), set for Thursday at L.A. Opera. "So I passed it on to the writer of those poems, who said, 'She should've been falling in my arms, not yours!'"
But, as the Mexican-born composer contends, channeling a line from the 1994 Italian film that inspired "Il Postino," "Poetry doesn't belong to the person that writes it, it belongs to the person that uses it." Or, as the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda put it, "Poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all."
That generous, swoony sentiment pervades "Il Postino," the fictional tale of how Neruda befriends a romantically naive young mailman named Mario (performed by tenor Charles Castronovo) while living in exile on an Italian island in the 1950s. Encouraged by Neruda, and using his ardent love poems as amatory aids, Mario resolves to win the heart of Beatrice (soprano Amanda Squitieri), a local beauty who works in the village café of her aunt (mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola-Herrera). As his mind and heart mature under the great man's influence, Mario also gets fatefully drawn into the political turmoil engulfing his community.
"The subject matter of this opera, like all my other operas, really, is the place that love and art hold in the context of our lives," said Catán, 61, whose best-known work, "Florencia en el Amazonas," was co-commissioned by L.A. Opera and performed there in 1997. "I see them as deeply related, love and art. Love and art are the vehicles to self-realization as a human being in the full sense of the word."
Written in Spanish, "Il Postino" will be performed with English supertitles. The role of Neruda was written for, and will be played by, L.A. Opera general director Plácido Domingo. "Of course, I have known his poetry from childhood," the superstar tenor said of Neruda's work last week. But, he added, you can't "really know it until you grow up."
Growing up, and wising up, are twin motifs in Catán's libretto. The composer said that he wanted to fashion "a completely new version of the story" that draws on both the movie and on Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta's 1985 novel on which Michael Radford's film was based.
Picturesquely shot, with a commanding performance by Philippe Noiret as Neruda, the movie unspools as a voluptuous, sentimental romantic fable. It acquired a poignant postscript when its co-writer-star, Massimo Troisi, suffered a fatal heart attack the day after filming ended in 1994.
But Catán's opera aspires to be more than a boy-meets-bard, boy-gets-girl love story. In the film, Neruda functions mainly as a benevolent, avuncular figure guiding his young protégé in the ways of love and poetry, a knowing Virgil to Mario's tongue-tied Dante.
In actuality, Neruda was not only a major 20th century artist, often described as the Walt Whitman of Latin America, but also a passionate advocate of working-man rights who served as a senator for Chile's communist party and was driven into exile for his socialist beliefs. For Neruda, the personal, political and poetic were all of a piece.
Catán said his opera has "restored the figure of Neruda, so that he's not simply a vehicle for Mario's transformation, but a fully fledged character with its own journey." "Il Postino" also fleshes out the character of Neruda's wife, Matilde, who'll be sung by the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs.
In a Skype interview from his home in Chile, Skármeta expressed admiration for Radford's film, along with satisfaction that the opera is seeking to put back some of the historical context that the movie largely jettisoned.
"There are some political touches on the truth of Chilean history that [the] film is missing," said Skármeta, who was himself forced into exile from 1973 to 1988, during the repressive regime of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Skármeta said that Neruda's popularity derived from his genius in crafting challenging, enigmatic poetry as well as simpler, broadly accessible verse that "expresses the joy of living." "And also he's a damn good romantic poet," Skármeta added. "Young men all around Latin America, they found a tool to seduce the girls they like with his poetry."
An almost preternaturally amiable chap, Catán is the product of a mixed Anglo-Latin cultural upbringing. Descended from Russian-Turkish-Jewish immigrants, he was born and raised in Mexico City and later studied philosophy at the University of Sussex in England and music at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt. Among his influences he cites Stravinsky, Ravel and Alban Berg. He and his wife, a professional harpist, have two grown children and make their home in South Pasadena.