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Finding a place at the Met, this opera sings in a language of its own

Ailyn Pérez in the title role of Daniel Catán's <em>Florencia en el Amazonas</em>.
Ken Howard
Met Opera
Ailyn Pérez in the title role of Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas.

Ailyn Pérez is an American soprano on the go. Her work often takes her to the world's leading opera houses, where she performs a steady string of standards by European composers.

Her most recent premiere offers something different: a chance to play a part that feels closer to home.

Florencia en el Amazonas opened recently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a company Pérez keeps returning to. She's taking on the title role of Florencia Grimaldi, a character who is also a soprano and a woman on a journey.

"She's a mysterious woman," Pérez told NPR, "a diva returning home to Manaus to give a reopening performance at the theater, but really in hopes of finding her beloved, Cristóbal."

The story is set in the early 20th century, at a time when Florencia has conquered European audiences with the power of her voice. On her way to fame, she chose to give up the love of her life.

Pérez described the character as having a unique talent. "She's been given the gift of singing," she said, "and then realizes she got caught up in the journey and never went back home."

A Latin American journey

To reconnect with her roots, Florencia has gone back to South America, and she's traveling down the Amazon in a steamship.

Taking the ride along with her is the ship's captain, sung by Greer Grimsley, who knows the river like the back of his hand. He wants to pass on that knowledge to his nephew, Arcadio, Mario Chang, who dreams of seeing a wider world.

The passengers include a feuding couple, mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and baritone Michael Chioldi, trying to rekindle a fading sense of love. Rosalba, played by Gabriella Reyes, wants to write a biography of the great Florencia.

Navigating the tricky waters of desire is a big part of the story. Riolobo (Mattia Olivieri) personifies the river's spirit and tries to steer the characters toward their destination. Nature has other plans. Mary Zimmerman's exuberant production, by turns whimsical and threatening, captures its power.

"I'm swept away by the beauty," Pérez said of the dancing birds and piranhas that share the stage with the characters on the boat. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the orchestra through lush musical textures punctuated at times by tropical birdsong.

Florencia en el Amazonas originally came together in the mid-'90s. Co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and production houses in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Bogotá, it was the first major work in Spanish to be supported by companies in the U.S.

Composer Daniel Catán was a driving force behind the project. The Mexican creative team includes librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain. She remembers Catán as an artist trying to find new avenues for the stories of Latin America.

"Daniel was completely obsessed with putting our language and our music in operas," Fuentes-Berain said.

Her relationship with the art form was different. She's a screenwriter, a craft she learned from Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize winner from Colombia. It was Gabo, as he was known by his friends, who approached her with the idea of writing an opera inspired by his novels.

"No, Gabo, I don't write operas," she remembers telling him. "And he said, 'Yes, you can. I will teach you how.'" He then brought Fuentes-Berain and Catán together. Since its original premiere in 1996, Florencia has been performed in South America, the U.S. and Europe, but a full production has never been presented in the country that claims it as its own.

That changed earlier this year when it was staged in Mexico City for the first time. It served as a posthumous tribute for Catán and García Márquez, both of whom died years before.

Arias of belonging

The opera originally came together in the mid-90s. Since its premiere,<em> Florencia </em>has been performed in South America, the U.S. and Europe<em>. </em>
Ken Howard / Met Opera
Met Opera
The opera originally came together in the mid-'90s. Since its premiere, Florencia has been performed in South America, the U.S. and Europe.

And now Florencia en el Amazonas has made its way to the Met, the first opera in Spanish to take its stage in almost 100 years. In an art form steeped in tradition, Ailyn Pérez says it takes time for contemporary work to break through.

"There's a language barrier sometimes for new opera composers to have that platform," she explained. "Because you have to have a sense that it's going to sell, and it's going to connect. And how do you know until you invest in it? You don't."

The Met is embracing change in its current season, which mixes classics with the work of a contemporary, more diverse set of writers and composers.

The role of Florencia gives Pérez a rare chance to sing in Spanish. As the bilingual daughter of Mexican immigrants, she learned early on that language had the power to shape her experience and voice.

"My mom would be very hurt that she thought I was yelling or talking back to her," she said, remembering the tone that could come out in conversations at home, in Chicago, when she was growing up. "But actually, I was taking the tone of English and using that in Spanish. So it sounds brusque. It sounds brusco. It sounds like you're yelling at someone."

Singing in Spanish has opened new expressive possibilities for her.

"I feel like my whole sense of self shifts," she said. "I feel anchored in knowing who I am. My value."

The stage is one place where Pérez described feeling at home. Now, as she steps into the role of a famous soprano reconnecting with her roots, it's a space where she's finding a new sense of belonging.

Florencia en el Amazonas is playing at the Met through Dec. 14. It will be broadcast live in HD in movie theaters nationwide on Dec. 9.

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Luis Trelles
Luis Trelles is a senior editor on NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit, where he helps shape international stories that hit close to home for the Rough Translation podcast.