music in the park san jose

.Opera San José Mounts Bay Area Debut of ‘Florencia en el Amazonas’

Daniel Catán work marks South Bay company’s first Spanish-language production

music in the park san jose

This week, Opera San José debuts Florencia en el Amazonas, the final production in its 40th anniversary season—a landmark for the company, but also one for Shawna Lucey, its still-new general director and CEO.

“This is the first season that is totally my own,” Lucey says. And the season finale, Daniel Catán’s romantic, lyrical Florencia en el Amazonas, exemplifies one of her paramount goals as the leader of this local cultural treasure.

Lucey says she and Joseph Marcheso, OSJ’s music since 2014, “thought a lot about how we can celebrate our past and log our present but then also usher in the future and really think about the next 40 years of Opera San José. We’re dedicated to incubating opera’s next talents on stage. But we also focus on incubating opera’s next audiences.”

So while the season included classic titles like Verdi’s Rigoletto and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Florencia en el Amazonas is a Bay Area premiere—and also the company’s first Spanish-language opera. Lucey hopes the six performances from April 20 to May 5 will draw in members of the Latino community as well as regional fans of modern opera.

A groundbreaking talent, Catán was the first Mexican composer to have an opera produced in the United States. For his 1996 opera, Florencia en el Amazonas—jointly commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera—Catán got novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s permission to convert Love in the Time of Cholera into an operatic work.

On the day of Florencia’s piano rehearsal, Lucey is bubbling over with enthusiasm. “For folks who are considering experiencing Florencia, it is truly gorgeous music that is going to feature long-standing friends of the company, like Efraín Solís, but also folks who are new to the company, like Guadalupe Paz and Elizabeth Caballero.

“It’s a brand-new production, and it’s very sumptuous in its design,” she continues. “The opera clocks in at just about two hours, so it’s a perfect afternoon or evening of theater that tells the story of the power of love in our lives—something that everybody needs, especially in this moment. We all deserve a moment to think about love and the power of music. And I’ll just say it’s a great harbinger of the future of our company.”

Lucey is particularly thrilled about the look of the production. “It is just absolutely gorgeous. It’s a real tribute to the talents of our craftsmen,” she says. “I think people are going to be really delighted at how beautiful every object on stage is, as well as every costume. It matches the beauty of Catán’s compositions.”

Lighting the Way

Crystal Manich, the stage director that Lucey selected to bring Florencia to life, is well versed in the composer’s oeuvre. She has thrice directed Il Postino—Catán’s work based on the 1994 film about an Italian postman’s relationship with exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda—and also mounted a pandemic-era livestream of La Hija de Rappaccini.

 “I have a great attachment to Catán’s work,” Manich says. The veteran stage director, who lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is working with “an all-Latino team for the show. Our lighting, set and costume designers all have some kind of Mexican or Latino heritage.”

QUEST FOR LOVE Elizabeth Caballero takes the title role of Florencia, a character she has played in several productions by other companies. Photo by Anthony Popolo for Nashville Opera

The stars are also Latino. “I’ve worked with Efraín, who’s playing our Alvaro. He’s a wonderful baritone. We did Il Postino together in Virginia Opera before the pandemic,” Manich says. “Our Florencia, Elizabeth Caballero, I’ve known her for years but we’ve actually never worked on a production together.” Manich says the Cuban American soprano has deep experience with the role and embodies the theme that drives Florencia: “the quest for rekindling and refinding a lost love.”

“When Shawna approached me about this piece, we talked very specifically about what she wanted and why she wanted me to do it,” Manich says. “She was on board with my idea from the beginning of what I wanted to accomplish. It’s always really wonderful when that happens because we set up expectations and then there are no surprises on the way.”

The spirit of magical realism is central to the work of both novelist Márquez and composer Catán and defines the story of Florencia, an opera singer voyaging down the Amazon in search of a lost love. “Opera is definitely well positioned to really execute magical realism at its finest,” Manich says.

“The first mandate that I gave to my set designer was that I didn’t want a boat on stage. For me that rooted it too much in realism,” she explains. “I think a lot of other productions go in that direction. But I felt strongly that the boat is not the important part. It is the actual journey in the Amazon itself.”

Deemphasizing this obvious visual trope, Manich says, “allows for the audience to feel the magical realism in the piece as opposed to trying to figure out how realistic the boat is.”

For Manich, “The lighting in all of my productions is a huge element that I find to be of utmost importance. But also in the costumes we’ve really represented the period in a particular way and the choristers—who are representations of the people of Colombia when they’re leaving dock, but also the spirits of the Amazon—take on that magical realist approach to these characters. It’s an exciting collaboration with our design team.”

Growing Opera Audiences

As a former stage director herself, Lucey can appreciate the struggles Manich faces. But in her new role as an arts administrator, Lucey is more concerned with navigating the company’s future.

Born and raised in Houston, Lucey sees San Jose as similar to her hometown, “an incredibly diverse and vibrant city.” As a stage director, Lucey worked often in the Bay Area. “It was a part of the country that I felt I knew well.” She was also drawn by Opera San José’s “specific mission about focusing on emerging operatic talent.”

Having worked both back stage and in the front office, Lucey understands the different roles played by artists and administrators. “When I did my soul searching about my career, what I wanted to dedicate myself to, it’s not just the art making itself; it’s also about the audience building,” she explains. “I love our art form and I want more people to have the power of this music in their lives. And sitting in this chair gives me the opportunity to focus on that.”

“Coming from backstage, one of the things it gives you is a lot of bravery and an ability to work quickly on your feet, to think nimbly on your feet, because if you are in any kind of technical rehearsal, things can go terribly wrong,” she says. “Having been shaped by my time backstage, it means that I don’t always make the absolute right decision, but I’m ready to move nimbly and quickly. You’ve got to be able to pivot.”

To promote Florencia, Lucey focused on outreach into the local community. For the monthly SoFA First Fridays event, she says, OSJ presented opera concerts at the California Theatre and also hosted folklorico dancers and a mariachi band while serving up empanadas and aguas frescas. “It’s a great way for people to first encounter not just opera but take in the glory of the California Theatre.”

In addition to First Fridays, OSJ did presentations at local libraries, “and also a performance at the School of Arts and Culture on the Eastside, highlighting Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s rightful place in the most important composers in the operatic repertoire.”

Cultivating Culture

Director Manich’s familiarity with his work shapes her understanding of Catán’s importance in the art form.

“I always wonder what else he could have written,” she says of the composer, who died at age 62 of a heart attack. “His work was just scratching the surface of what he was going to be able to accomplish.”

She adds, “He started something that needs to keep going. I feel that the lack of new Spanish language opera coming out of the United States is really unfortunate. I really hope that my next commissioned work is one that is in Spanish.”

Given that Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the United States, Manich says, “Spanish-language opera in the United States is not as popular as I would expect it to be. And I think doing pieces like this really inspire the idea that we can expand the repertoire. … We’re always talking about getting young people to the opera, but the huge market of Latinos to me is a really overlooked market.”

Manich also understands the importance of taking steps to ensure that opera stays relevant. “I think sometimes as directors we can get lost in the idea that this is the way it’s always been done. And this is how this piece goes. And I find that to be to the detriment of opera,” she says. “Even when I’m directing Bohème for the sixth time, I always go back to the text because I’ve grown and changed and gotten older since the last time. … I’m willing to put in the work and look at it again, and make it work for the performers you have in the room.”

One way she finds freshness is to tackle unfamiliar works. “A period of opera that’s underestimated is baroque,” she says. “Those works really lend themselves well to a contemporary audience because we don’t really know how they were done. … For the most part you can just create what you want and there’s no expectation as to how that should play. I’ve never heard an audience member say, ‘Oh, this is how The Coronation of Poppea should be portrayed.’ No one ever does that.”

But she also speaks passionately about the need to treat familiar operatic works as living things. “I think some of them do need to be edited and rewritten in a way if you’re going to inspire a new audience,” she asserts. “If we leave opera in a museum box, it’s not going to grow and change. Shakespeare, centuries ago, was released from its box, and it continues to play today in different ways.”

Coming Attractions

Both Manich and Lucey have many projects coming up that preserve the vitality of the performing arts. Coming in May, Manich will direct “a large-scale circus show in Luxembourg as part of the first ever art biennale there.” She’s also writing a libretto for an opera called Time to Act, commissioned by multiple companies—including Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Santa Barbara.

And she’s serving as director and dramaturge on a play called La Llorona that was granted a commission by the Minneapolis-based Theater Latté Da. “We’re at a point now where we’re figuring out what the next steps are, now that we’ve put it through those two workshops.”

For Lucey, she’s looking forward to the 2024-25 season. “Next season features a number of audience favorites. We start up with Magic Flute and move to Bohème. Then we have a company premiere of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle sung in English—really an exciting and heartstopping conclusion,” she says.

“And we conclude our 41st season with the Bay Area premiere of Zorro. Who doesn’t love Zorro? Signed with a Z, operatic in scale … by the incredible composer Héctor Armienta,” she enthuses. Directing the opera will be David Radamés Toro, making his OSJ debut. “We are thinking about our South Bay audiences, and how the California Theatre and opera can live for every generation.”

Florencia en el Amazonas runs April 20-May 5 at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose. Tickets are $50-$195.

Read more about Shawna Lucey in a Metro Silicon Valley article published when she first joined Opera San José.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Giveaways

Enter for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate to Capers Eat & Drink in Campbell. Drawing May 22, 2024.
Enter for a chance to win a $40 gift certificate for Poor House Bistro in San Jose. Drawing June 5, 2024.
Metro Silicon Valley E-edition Metro Silicon Valley E-edition
music in the park san jose