By Marcela Fuentes-Berain
Cinematographic tales are told through the eyes; the author imagines the story, so to speak, from a visual point of view. In the case of opera, we could say that narrative develops from auditory imagination. Rhythm and meter must serve the melody, and ultimately, they both serve the voice.
Florencia in the Amazon was created as a tribute to the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Twenty years after its premiere, it now serves as a memento of both Márquez and its composer, the late Daniel Catán, a Mexican musician of audacious vision.
I had the privilege of working closely with Gabriel García Márquez, and the honor of befriending my mentor. He was a skillful writer and a creature of daylight. He woke up with the dawn and claimed that, before anything else happened, he connected his dreaming unconscious with his waking life through the act of writing. This is the moment where silence, calm, and solitude reign.
Our opera contains no direct quotes from Márquez. This meant a greater challenge for me, the writer responsible for the homage. To try to imitate the style of my outstanding mentor would have been as tasteless as impossible. Which is worse? I recently read a Buddhist/Zen aphorism, consoling words indeed: “Don’t follow your mentor’s footprints; rather, seek after what he sought.” That is what I have happily tried to do.
When I wrote the libretto I took into consideration that to sing and to tell (in Spanish, cantar/contar) makes demands on both hemispheres of the brain, each of which are also activated with the act of writing. Consciousness is present in Gabriel García Márquez’s work through both real and symbolic universes. But only through the unconscious mind can human nature be truly understood.
Our opera originates from an apparently linear story, which stretches from the two points—the two harbors—of Puerto Leticia and Manaus. The main character, Florencia Grimaldi, is a diva who was born there and belongs to the Amazon and its jungle. She left her hometown seeking fame, retaining only a murky memory of the place. Years have passed, and the long-awaited public recognition has become a burden to Florencia. Fame has invaded her world of inner emotions. She has lost her sense of identity in the process of trying to please crowds of strangers. She believes that if she can find the butterfly hunter Cristóbal—the boy who fell in love with her when her voice blossomed—she will recognize herself, and all that defines her. Instead, her journey down the Amazon will show her that true meaning lies not in a single encounter, but in the flow of events.
The other travelers are making the journey to witness the great prima donna as she reopens the Manaus Opera House with her singing, never dreaming that she is on the ship with them. The passengers hope Florencia’s singing will guide them toward a redefinition of the experience of love and happiness in relation to the present time.
The Captain guides the vaporetto and the passengers’ destiny; he maintains balance on the journey through his balmy voice and wise advice. He keeps the helm of the boat pretending to lead Florencia to Cristóbal, even if he believes that the butterfly hunter is dead. Ríolobo is also a leading character. The spirit of the river reveals itself always and forever, and, in its infinity, gives voice to nature, which is an important element in this opera. The ship is guided not only by its skillful captain, but also by Ríolobo’s timeless experience.
The two couples, one formed by youths, the other by adults, contrast with each other to express different stages of life and the experience of love. The Captain’s nephew, Arcadio, must prove to his uncle that he is capable of taking the helm and commanding the boat. Adding to this rite of passage, this character also faces the incomparable dazzle of first love. Rosalba, who is the subject of his passion, is not quite convinced by the idea of joining the adventure proposed by Arcadio. She wants to be the biographer of Florencia Grimaldi so that she can have the privilege of getting to know her closely. Because of Rosalba’s immaturity, she’s unable to realize that the diva stands before her.
Paula and Álvaro have ventured into the absurd labyrinth of power that can consume love. In their effort to dominate each other, they’ve fallen into the habit of addressing each other in opposed monosyllables. Between them sprout bitterness and resentment. They have forgotten the joy they once found as a loving couple and now habitually seek happiness from outside sources; they are traveling to Manaus because they hope the diva’s song will rekindle their love.
A cholera outbreak prevents El Dorado from landing. To Florencia, at this point, death is not considered a tragic, final experience, but one of many moments that are part of human evolution. Love is the door that connects mythical sleep and wakefulness in the hallucination of lovers who can meet, alive or dead, because the energy of their emotions. Florencia’s last song evokes Cristóbal, and she creates a magical moment of metamorphosis between Eros and Thanatos.
—Marcela Fuentes-Berain is the librettist of Florencia in the Amazon