Harper’s Bazaar

It starts with a departure. As the boat leaves the dock, fast-paced NYC operagoers bid farewell to the old gray concrete jungle; seated and warm in surrender, they are swallowed by a tsunami of color. Florencia en el Amazonas, by late Mexican composer Daniel Catán, is the first-ever Latin American Spanish opera to take the main stage at the Metropolitan Opera, and the Met’s first Spanish opera in nearly a century.

The set stuns with two towering rainforest walls, emerald along each side of a winding river under the bluest skies of the Amazon jungle. Right on time from the deck of the boat, the baritone voice of Riolobo sings, “¡Hace años que esperabamos este momento! (For years we have waited for this moment!)” The line rings true for characters and audience alike, one of a multitude of mirroring instances the show has produced, on and off the river stage. “It’s just the start,” Met general manager Peter Gelb wrote in his open letter in the 2023–24 season book. There, he declared the Met’s renewed commitment to presenting new music, faces, and stories that fully reflect its audiences and the city we live in.

According to the Hispanic Federation and the World Population Review, nearly one quarter of New York City’s population today is Latine. Florencia en el Amazonas, which debuted in 1996, gives Latin American love, dreams, music, mystery, and magic. The Mexican librettist, Marcela Fuentes-Berain, pays homage to the giant of surreal storytelling Gabriel García Márquez and the Nobel winner’s 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

The quest is love. In Act I, cruising through the Brazilian rainforest to the theater in Manaus, the passengers on the El Dorado are each in various stages of love. Old love, for the bickering married couple, Paula and Alvaro. Young love buds between the captain’s nephew Arcadio and the journalist Rosalba, who is writing a biography of the famous opera diva they are en route to see. The mystical Riolobo is in love with nature, and nature is in love with him. The captain is in love with his vessel. And unbeknownst to all, the diva of the title, Florencia Grimaldi, is also on board, her face stylishly cocooned under a silk scarf, concealing her identity. Having performed around the world, she has finally returned home, to sing at the opera house and to find her lost love, Cristóbal, a butterfly catcher who may be caught in the net of the Amazon.

Mexican-American soprano Ailyn Pérez returns to the Met stage to portray Florencia effortlessly and passionately. The Chicago-born daughter of immigrants has had a long, successful career singing opera for over 15 years in every language but her own.

“This is the dream,” Pérez says. “I think there is something when we return to our language or native place, you feel something that only roots can give you.” To hear and to sing Latin American Spanish—“what you hear your family speak”—is empowering, she says, an “unbelievable joy” that “unlocked in me a way of being a leader.”

Inspired by Amazonian flora and fauna, the visual set by Riccardo Hernández and Ana Kuzmanić’s costumes create a world of beauty and wonder. “Ana invited me to look at her illustrations, and I cried, because even the shapes of the people—I’m like, ‘That’s my family!’” says Pérez. The designers visited Mexico City’s anthropological museum as part of their research on typical clothing of the period in all the regions from Mexico to Manaus, she says.

As the voyage continues, the riverboat passes an ominous waving flag—a warning of cholera on shore. Surrounded by virulent death, the passengers steam up the river to the opera house. (It would be remiss not to mention the eerily large, bold words projected across the stage. In the least mystical way possible and throughout the entire production, the English translation of the libretto is neatly typed over the emerald-green rainforest walls, like surgical scars in need of healing. A bit of beauty is often lost in the transition from Spanish to English.)

In a 2008 interview about Florencia with NPR’s Classical 101, composer Catán said he wanted people to listen to his work without prejudice, and without worrying about the language. “Sometimes people feel, Oh, it will be in Spanish and I won’t be able to understand it,’” he said. “Not at all. It’s an opera that speaks to all of us—anybody that has experienced the glories, the difficulties of love will probably get something out of that. I want them to learn something about themselves through the piece. That’s what the role of art is all about.”

The opera ends with a departure—an unheavenly transcendence, death not as a journey into the beyond but somewhere else, a transformation into a new form, destined for love. As Gabriel García Márquez once wrote: “Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but … an end in itself.”