URBANA — After conducting Daniel Catan's opera "Rappaccini's Daughter" in 2009 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Eduardo Diazmunoz made a toast to Catan and Thomas Schleis, promising that he would conduct all of Catan's operas at Illinois.
"The toast I made was to good friends; both are gone now," Diazmunoz said before a rehearsal Sunday of Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas," opening Thursday night at Krannert.
"It's a little spooky. There were three of us, making all these fabulous plans."
Mr. Catan died unexpectedly in April 2011 at age 62; he had been looking forward to "Florencia" being produced at the University of Illinois.
So had Mr. Schleis, the longtime UI Opera Program manager who died in July, also at age 62.
He loved Catan's operas, Diazmunoz said.
The Houston Grand Opera was the first to present "Florencia," in 1996. It garnered good reviews for its "lyric beauty and lush orchestration," as one critic wrote.
Diazmunoz, director of the UI Opera Program, and Stephen Fiol, stage director for the UI production, said the music is beautiful, with Catan paying homage in "Florencia" to Giacoma Puccini, Richard Strauss and others.
In it, Catan also pays homage to the magic realism of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, Marquez's protege, Marcela Fuentes-Berain, wrote the libretto.
Set in the 1920s, "Florencia" (sharing the title role are Cristin Colvin and Yaritza Zayas) takes place on a steamboat traveling the Amazon River.
The story follows soprano Florencia Grimaldi, who after a 20-year absence is returning to her homeland in Brazil to perform and to find her long-lost love, a butterfly collector who had promised to wait for her.
"Their love affair made her voice soar, and she captured the operatic houses of the world," Diazmunoz said. "She had promised to return, but fame spoiled her and she forgot. She realizes love is what's missing in her life and she was cheated by fame. She claims fame is disastrous; it changes your perception of love."
Traveling on the same steamboat is the magical, mysterious character Riolobo (JinUk Lee and Timothy Renner share the role). A creature of the river, Riolobo — baritone Nathan Gunn sang the role in the Seattle Opera production in 1998 — is an aide to the captain.
"Through a tumultuous journey filled with dreams and revelations, Grimaldi and her fellow passengers experience — and demonstrate — love, faith and beauty, and their liberating power," reads the Krannert summary.
All the action in the 17-scene, two-act opera takes place on the steamboat, part of an appropriately mysterious set that evokes the 1920s, with opera posters and other props. It was designed by Reuben Lucas.
"There will be amazing technical surprises," Diazmunoz said.
But the conductor, who will lead a 50-piece orchestra, promised that the music itself will seduce audiences.
"The singers actually sing; they don't bark," he said. "That's something to be admired in 20th- and 21st-century opera. Daniel's compositions always remained faithful to melody, harmony and rhythm.
"He always said he owed a great debt to opera composers, from Monteverdi to Alban Berg, but he acknowledged a great admiration for Mozart, Puccini, Richard Strauss and, in the way he treats the orchestra and voice, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. He related to all that so well."
But Catan created his own language and style, which is easily recognizable, said Diazmunoz, who was a good friend to Catan and is now a specialist in the late composer's music. Both are Mexican; they first met in 1976, when Diazmunoz was Catan's student at university in Mexico. They soon became colleagues.
At the time of his death, Catan was living in Los Angeles. He died, though, in Austin, where he was in-residence at the University of Texas, composing his fifth opera, "Meet John Doe," his first in English.
At Krannert, "Florencia" will be sung in Spanish, with English supertitles.
If you go
What: University of Illinois School of Music Opera Program presents "Florencia en el Amazonas," with music by Daniel Catan and libretto, Marcela Fuentes-Berain; conducted by Eduardo Diazmunoz, with stage direction by Stephen Fiol
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $26 for adults; $22 for seniors; $17 for students; $10 for UI students and youths high school age and younger
Information: www. krannertcenter.com; 333-6280