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Love and Anchovies: Catan's 'Salsipuedes'

Somehow, Hitler and the Third Reich don't seem like natural material for musical comedy. But Mel Brooks managed to pull it off.

His jaunty little number, "Springtime for Hitler," was the title tune from the show-within-a-show that Brooks created for his musical, The Producers. And it was a hit — first in its original, movie version in 1968, then on Broadway in 2001, and back in the movie theaters in 2005.

Now, one might think that would be just about all there is when it comes to musical comedy evoking the Nazis. Wrong.

In 2004, Houston Grand Opera presented the world premiere of a brand new comedy by the Mexican composer Daniel Catán. Its title — almost as unlikely as its story — is Salsipuedes: a Tale of Love, War and Anchovies.

The setting for Catán's opera is a fictional, island republic in the Caribbean, called Salsipuedes, in 1943. And the story at times comes off as a loopy cross between "Springtime for Hitler" and Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte.

Like Mozart's opera, it involves a double love story, in which two happy couples don't necessarily trust each other. There's also a "Salsipuedean" ship, bound for the open sea to repel marauding German submarines, and a corrupt administration determined to make a fortune by dealing with — of course — the Nazis. Specifically, by selling them a boatload of the most coveted product of Salsipuedes: anchovies.

The concept might sound a little crazy and random, but Catán approaches his comedy in a no-nonsense way.

"For me, comedy is a very serious matter," Catán says. "It has to joke about things that are otherwise difficult to discuss, and it must also reflect contemporary issues. A comedy in this century cannot be the same as it was in the 17th or 18th century. You have to draw a smile from the listener, and at the same time deliver a very serious message. That is what makes it so very challenging."

Daniel Catán was born in Mexico City in 1949. He studied philosophy and music at the Universities of Sussex and Southampton, and went on to receive graduate degrees from Princeton. When he went back to Mexico City, he took the post of music administrator at the Palace of Fine Arts, where he became much more involved with opera and what he calls "the whole magical world of the stage."

The first Catán opera that Houston Grand Opera premiered was Florencia en el Amazonas. It was such a success that the opera company decided to premiere Salsipuedes as well, during it's 2004-2005 season.

Musically speaking, Catán drew from what he calls the "melting pot" of Caribbean culture, employing rhythms and melodic ideas from Europe, the Middle East, Spain and Africa.

For the world premier performances of Salsipuedes, Houston Grand Opera picked up on the drama's zany seagoing vibe and its Caribbean locale. HGO ushers greeted audiences wearing floral shirts and beach wear. Mojito cocktails were served in the lobby, where images of palm trees flickered on the walls.

And that's the production that host Lisa Simeone presents on World of Opera, with Guido Maria Guida conducting the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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