When San Diego Opera opens “Florencia en el Amazonas” on Saturday, the star soprano will be singing the title role for the very first time. But that’s no problem for Elaine Alvarez, who was virtually born to play the part.
“Florencia en el Amazonas” is Daniel Catán’s 1996 Spanish-language opera about a famous Latin-American opera soprano who returns to her hometown and cultural roots in hopes of reconnecting with her long-lost love.
The role is a homecoming as well for Alvarez, who was born in Miami in 1980, just a year after her parents emigrated from Cuba. Although she has built her career playing the heroines of Puccini and Mozart, she said it’s a dream come true to play a Latina opera singer re-embracing her heritage.
“I can definitely relate to this character and her connection to the earth and her culture,” said Alvarez, who now lives in New York with her 14-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Lola. “As a Latin-American myself, I understand how closely tied these characters are to the air, water, sun, moon and everything around them. It’s very real.”
“Florencia” is set entirely on a boat traveling down the Amazon River toward the singer’s childhood home. During the journey, she interacts with the other passengers, who are all dealing with their own troubles and regrets. The opera is interwoven with elements of magical realism, a style of Latin-American fiction that blurs the line between reality and fantasy.
The natural world comes to life in “Florencia,” with singers transforming into water creatures and butterflies. But the strongest influence of magical realism is in the music, according to “Florencia” conductor Joseph Mechavich, whose past company credits are “Moby-Dick,” “Nixon in China” and “Great Scott.”
“The magical realism in this comes from the colors of the orchestra,” said Mechavich, who lives with his partner, a painter, in Philadelphia. “He creates the sounds of the river, the sounds of the jungle, the buzz of the insects, the call of the birds. You can say it sounds like Puccini, but this is Daniel Catán. He has a complete understanding of the voice.”
“Florencia” is the final mainstage production of San Diego Opera’s 2017-’18 season, which concludes May 5 with a joint recital by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley and soprano Lise Lindstrom.
This past season was the first entirely programmed by General Director David Bennett, who joined San Diego Opera in mid-2015 and has steered the pared-down company in a more inclusive direction.
This season included the company’s first Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, “Pirates of Penzance”; the first production geared for the LGBTQ audience, “As One”; and two Spanish-language operas, the Argentinean tango operita “Maria de Buenos Aires” and now “Florencia.”
“Spanish speakers represent a large part of the San Diego community, and the Hispanic community alone grew from 27 percent to 32 percent over the past decade,” Bennett said. “With that in mind, it is important for San Diego Opera to reflect the entire community on our stage.”
All seven principal singers in “Florencia” are bilingual, including Mexican soprano María Fernanda Castillo, Mexican-American baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco and American singers Daniel Montenegro, Adriana Zabala, Levi Hernandez and Hector Vásquez.
“This clearly makes the singing of Catán’s beautiful score sound organic, but also makes it possible for our diverse community to see a bit of themselves on our stage,” Bennett said.
“Florencia” isn’t San Diego Opera’s first opera by the Mexican composer, who died in 2011. Back in 1994, the company presented the American premiere of Catán’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” was based on a short story by American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. After its premiere in Mexico City in 1991, famed Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez went to Catán and asked if they could collaborate on an opera with Latin-American roots.
Márquez proposed they musicalize his 1985 novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” but the longer the two men worked on the project the more its story and characters took on a life of their own.
The project, with a libretto by Marquez’s protégé Marcela Fuentes-Berain, became “Florencia en el Amazonas,” which debuted in 1996 at Houston Grand Opera in a co-production with LA Opera and Seattle Opera.
Mechavich said “Florencia” has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, but it’s been having a resurgence of late. He first conducted it in 2015 for Arizona Opera.
Mechavich grew up in Minnesota where his parents told him he was conducting LPs with toy pick-up sticks at age 3. At first he studied piano with the dream of becoming a touring solo artist, but he got hooked on the operatic voice in high school when he attended a rehearsal at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. During a rehearsal break, famed New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa — whom he hadn’t heard of at the time — sang a lullaby to her child and the sheer power and beauty of her voice electrified him.
Now he spends nine months of the year conducting operas around the world. He calls it a privilege to work with “these athletes,” his word for opera singers like Alvarez. His said his greatest joy is finding the ideal dramatic and musical elasticity between the singers onstage and musicians in the pit.
“I’m obsessed with figuring out how I can make (Elaine) shimmer as much as possible and I want the same for the timpanist beside me,” he said.
Alvarez said she feels equally honored to be working for the first time with Mechavich, particularly as she prepares for both her company and role debuts.
“Oh my God, I love Joe,” she said, during a rehearsal break last month. “A lot of conductors need to be in control .. and you become a marionette. But this is somebody who is a collaborator who loves making music with other people.”
Like Mechavich, Alvarez discovered music at the age of 3. Her mother was a music teacher who noticed that whenever she sang at home, her toddler daughter would repeat every musical phrase perfectly and in pitch. Alvarez attended arts magnet schools through high school, then moved to New York at the age of 17. Her professional career began in 2006 with Opera Leipzig, where she spent two seasons in the German company’s resident ensemble.
Her first experience with Catán was a 2013 touring production of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” that was produced by Bennett, when he ran Gotham Chamber Opera in New York. She said Catán’s lush, melodic music is an ideal fit for her voice.
“For me, it most closely mirrors Puccini in how expansive the range is and how much vocal color is required of the soprano. It also sits in the middle range of the voice like Puccini, which has been home base for me,” she said. “The language is the most beautiful thing I have ever sung in my career.”
While Latino audiences in America have been slow to embrace opera, Mechavich and Alvarez said the numbers are growing, particularly in culturally diverse cities like Dallas, Houston, Miami and Santa Fe, where the supertitles are translated in both English and Spanish. There has also been a recent surge in opera singers coming out of Mexico.
Alvarez said the key to building a new audience is exposing opera to children when their minds are open to new experiences. She and Mechavich said they’re impressed by how San Diego Opera has transformed itself over the past few years in response to community feedback.
“It’s a great honor to be here, especially performing for a company that was saved by the public from being shut down,” she said. “That tells me that I’m coming to sing in a place where opera is really valued.”
“Florencia en el Amazonas”
When: 7 p.m. March 17. 7 p.m. March 20. 7 p.m. March 23. 2 p.m. March 25.
Where: San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: $48 and up
Phone: (619) 533-7000
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