Love Language

November 16 marked the Met premiere of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, a magical-realist tale of love lost and found amid the Brazilian rainforest. Running through December 14, it’s just the third Spanish-language opera ever presented at the Met, and the first in nearly 100 years. It’s also a ravishing work that, as Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin recently explained to the Met’s Matt Dobkin, draws on the best traditions of grand opera and powerfully translates life into art.

This is already the second Met premiere you’ve conducted this fall, following Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.
Yes, and after we said goodbye to Dead Man Walking—a harrowing story that brought us face-to-face with a hard truth about our country—Florencia has been just the perfect antidote. We’ve moved from realism to magical realism, from prison to nature, from being trapped in one place to being on a ship, constantly in motion.

How would you describe the preoccupations and the effect of Florencia?
Ultimately it’s about love, in all its forms— love that we find and then lose, love that we rediscover, or that we refuse, or that we try to hold onto even after it has died. But the music and the text and the orchestration make it all feel as if in a beautiful dream. That’s opera. You see the beauty of the production, you hear the wind and the trees and the birdsong in the orchestra, and you revel in the soaring voices, but at the end of the evening, you’ve learned something about life.

It’s often said that the music is reminiscent of Puccini. Do you agree?
It sometimes is, yes, and sometimes also it sounds a bit like Strauss. But what strikes me most is that Catán knew operatic history and how to draw on the best dramatic, orchestral, and lyrical qualities of many great opera composers—but also how to make it his own and to create a quintessentially Latin operatic sound. There’s a lot of percussion—marimba, djembe, and steel drums, for example—and rhythms that evoke Mexico and Colombia and Brazil, all of which add flavors that we aren’t used to hearing in opera.

Ailyn Pérez is having a major triumph in the title role. What makes her so compelling?
A human voice comes from what someone is living inside. We often talk about the development of a voice over time. But the reason why this happens is life experience. In the opera, Florencia, who is an opera diva herself, explains that her artistic success is because of the love she has experienced. That’s a great reminder that when we encounter these amazing voices, we aren’t just hearing vocal technique, but also the artists’ inner lives. This is what makes them unique, makes them ethereal, moving, passionate. That’s what makes Florencia, and Ailyn, so powerful.