Q & A: Nancy Fabiola Herrera on ‘Florencia en el Amazonas,’ Zarzuela & the Importance of Bringing Opera to the Hispanic Community

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Joaquín Fuentes)

In 2005, Nancy Fabiola Herrera made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly.” Since then she has been a frequent presence at the Met singing works by Verdi, Strauss, and Bizet, among others.

She has also made an important career in Spain where she has delved into dramatic operas and also made a career singing Spanish opera and Zarzuela at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, Teatro Real, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Now as an advocate for Spanish-Langauge opera, Herrera is returning to the Met reprising her acclaimed Paula in the third Spanish-Language opera at the Met.

The Mezzo-Soprano spoke to OperaWire about her journey to “Florencia en el Amazonas,” working with the late Daniel Catán, and the importance of this opera at the Met.

OperaWire: After so many years, this opera will be the third opera in Spanish presented at the Met. Why do you think this is the right opera to change that trend at the Met?

Nancy Fabiola Herrera: It’s been almost 100 years. “Goyescas” was the last one. I think it is marvelous that it is this opera to break that silence after so many years. It is an opera that I think the audience will love and will remain in the repertoire because it deserves it.

It is a great work and I think the Metropolitan Opera doing this work is a message to the Latino community that the Met is not only for the elite but is also accessible for everyone.

I think audiences will lose the fear that the art form isn’t for them and they will have a great experience.

OW: Tell me about the role of Paula and what brings you back to it.

NFH: This will be the fourth time I sing Paula. I did it before in Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington. It is a beautiful role and I am a huge fan of Daniel Catán. He is a marvelous composer. He has gorgeous melodies and the way he uses the orchestra is incredible.

He is a contemporary composer with a tonal sound that is influenced by Latin America. There is an exoticism that you don’t hear in other parts of the world.

I had the immense fortune of meeting him because he chose me for “Il Postino” when he was composing it. So he wrote the role for me and I had the experience of sharing time with him. He was a spectacular person. He had a sense of humor and wisdom. He was very spiritual and that is reflected in his music.

He then asked me to look at the role of Paula after doing “Il Postino.” I looked at it but unfortunately, he died before I could do my first “Florencia.” The work had already world premiered but unfortunately, I never got to work with him on this.

Paula is a beautiful role. I think many couples who have been together for so many years end up in the habits of the couple represented in this opera. It also sends a message that no matter how many years you are with someone, there is always a need to change. If something doesn’t work, you can examine yourself and you can see how you can reconnect with that gentle part of yourself that we all have inside. It examines how we shouldn’t let ourselves be fueled by the boredom of a relationship that can become bitter and that slowly loses the gentle side of it. It shows how you can lose that companionship and love after you have been with someone for so many years.

In all this is a stupendous story that uses magical realism in the style of Gabriel García Márquez. I know that when they were writing the opera, they were in García Márquez’s house working with him on the libretto. Catán told me that to get to García Márquez’s house, you had to arrive in a helicopter because he was confined to the house. They worked with García Márquez for 15 days without leaving the premises of the house. It was like a bunker.

But the end product is a beautiful story about change amid a journey through the amazons. It’s also a symbolic journey for all the characters about the power of love. So each character confronts themselves and there are a lot of questions and they make decisions in a moment. I think it is something very beautiful and that is why it touches the hearts of many people because everyone feels reflected in one of the characters.

The other interesting thing about this opera is that every character is very well developed. They are all particular and are developed through the libretto and their music.

I am so grateful that this opera is being done more often and I do hope that it will finally become part of the repertoire. It’s an opera that one leaves in high spirits and that is necessary in the world that we live in today.

OW: This is a very ensemble-driven opera. Can you tell me about working in this way?

NFH: The ensembles are very complex. But when you work with them the way Daniel meant for them to be sung, you can do it.  It’s impressive and it’s like a puzzle. When all the pieces are together, it’s magical.

The ensembles have this mix of humor, seriousness, spirituality, earthiness, and magic. I think that the combination is very potent. It touches every area in the music and the text. And the truth is that the text in every character is profound. It boards very interesting philosophical questions.

And that is why it is very close and we all see ourselves reflected in it and every character. That is also why I think that the work is so successful.

OW: You have sung a lot of Spanish Opera and Zarzuela. What is the difference when you are singing Zarzuela or a Spanish opera to Catán’s music?

NFH: I think the difference is the musical language. What they have in common is their language. Even if you do a Zarzuela or an opera you always have nuances in the accents and idioms. And the language gives them a common form.

Catán’s music however is like a symphonic poem.

Whatever Spanish opera you have will reflect, the way the composer has his musical discourse. So there is a difference because Daniel’s discourse is Daniel’s. What he does have in common with the Zarzuela is that he takes elements from Latin America and incorporates them into his music the way Zarzuela and Spanish opera do.

In his case, he incorporates the sensuality of the Caribbean and Brazil. The instrumentation is also different. He uses the marimba and the timpani. He also imitates nature’s sound and gives it a different character and sound from what we are used to, for instance, in Zarzuela.

But even in Latin American Zarzuela, there are interesting sounds. Our patrimony and musical language take rhythms from the places they take place in and where the composer is from. It’s not always like that, but many times it is.

They take the format and adapt it to the musical language of the country. There are Cuban Zarzuelas as well as Colombian. There are 3000 Latin American Zarzuelas registered in the world and a total of 9000 Zarzuelas are registered. People don’t know that and we don’t know many of them.

We only do a couple of the Zarzuelas and it is the responsibility of Latin artists to take our history and find a way to promote and showcase it. Otherwise, how is anyone going to know it if we do not take care of it?

It is a work that has to be done and it is something that should be emphasized in schools and conservatories. There is so much emphasis on German, Italian, and French opera. And Spanish works are always relegated to the last thing. We have such a rich patrimony and I think it is in the education system where it has to start. That is where we can stimulate composers to continue to write new works. Thanks to that we have Daniel Catán and other important composers. But, can you imagine if we continue to have new composers who continue to inject that fresh air and who help us take some of those works out of the closet? We would discover so many great works.

But this is our responsibility and we have to work towards bringing these works to the fore and showing them to all the programmers around the world.

OW: Tell me about the work you do for Zarzuela Por El Mundo.

NFH: I collaborate with the organization and we unite with all the Zarzuela movements around the world so the genre obtains the importance it deserves and so the programmers can learn more about the genre.

I remember the first time we did a Zarzuela conference in Mexico, we spoke to the programmers after, and we realized that the reason that Zarzuela isn’t done so often is because they don’t know about it. The past generation knew much more about Zarzuela but the youth today does not know about it.

There is a conscious effort being made by companies like the Teatro de la Zarzuela and other theaters to do more Zarzuela for the youth. So I think all those initiatives are important.

One of the most important things about Zarzuela is that it reflects our culture. I have learned a lot about Spanish culture and other countries thanks to Zarzuela. They are a part of our history and they can be adapted to these times to make them accessible. This is a genre of music that has potential around the world.

OW: Talking a little about Spanish opera and Zarzuela, I know that the Teatro Real and the Gran Teatre del Liceu are emphasizing bringing back Spanish works. What do you think of this?

NFH: I think it’s fantastic and I think it has to be like that. They are also the most important theaters in Spain and I think they can lead this initiative. They can help bring these operas back and there are a lot of beautiful works.

The Teatro de la Zarzuela is also doing an important job bringing these works to the public. There was a time that if you sang Zarzuela, you weren’t taken seriously. They wouldn’t let you sing opera. They considered it a lesser genre of music and less important. That was the practice.

But thankfully it has changed a lot. The Teatro de la Zarzuela also started a movement of inviting Spanish singers with prominent careers and solid opera careers. It started to open that space up and the singers stopped fearing singing Zarzuela.

But one of the defects of our culture is that we have an inferiority complex. We always believe that everything from the outside is better and we don’t give importance to our work. We don’t know how to sell what is ours because we do not believe in its importance. It is a mentality that persists and it is changing very slowly. We can change it and the new generation is working on it. We have to value our culture and what we do.

OW: “Florencia en el Amazonas” has several Latino cast members. What does it feel like to work with so many Latinos in one cast?

NFH: The rehearsals have been exciting and the atmosphere is marvelous. Those who are not Hispanic become contagious of our energy and the non-Spanish speakers, try to speak whatever Spanish words they know. We all arrive at the rehearsal and everyone says hello in Spanish. Everyone says “hola hola” and “cómo estás?”

There is a great environment of unity and camaraderie. There is great hope in everyone around the theater from the wardrobe department to the musical coaches to the staff. There is something special that this piece is creating.

Catán’s music has that catalyst that brings unity. I have seen this in every production I do of his music. It’s music that moves you and opens your heart.

I also think one of the unique things that is happening right now in this theater is that “Malcolm X” is happening at the same time as “Florencia.” So you are seeing a production with an African American community and in the next room, you see Latinos. It’s quite a unique environment and it shows that this house represents the communities of this very diverse country. The Met is a world temple and the country’s temple and I am happy that they took this initiative to showcase all these communities.

And I hope that this opens up a path for other works.

OW: Do you think this will bring out the Latino community?

NFH: This is a great way to bring the millions of Hispanics that are here and around the world. If you look at it economically, there is a huge potential. I don’t only like to look at it romantically. I like to look at the economic potential and you can see that in Spain, Latin America, and even here at the Met, where there are millions of Hispanics.

We have to offer work for the community and we have to introduce the works to the Hispanic community.

I loved watching “Dead Man Walking” because it is a very American work with an American language. We learn so much from the culture when you bring it to another culture and it immerses us completely in the American culture. I love that “Florencia” and “Malcolm X” can do that for the Hispanic and African American cultures.

OW: This opera is going to be presented in HD. Do you think that could get the opera to be presented in Europe?

NFH: I think that is one of the positive things about technology. We can bring all this to the world and that can always make a potent impression.

OW: Tell me about the process of working with Mary Zimmerman and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

NFH: Working with Mary is very beautiful and it is very creative work. Dance has a very crucial place in this production. The choreographer is an amazing Latino.

They are also creating a magical world of fantasy that has the sincerity and honesty of the characters. Amid this magical world, there is a direct heartfelt message. So I think the work with her is very open and she lets us bring our ideas in.

With Yannick it is the same, We are enjoying it so much. Yannick is a very open conductor and I admire him a lot as a musician. He has such amazing musicality and intuition. He is a very close person and he is not your typical maestro. He is accessible and he does not put up barriers. You can always be open and he tries to understand each singer’s personality and vocality and he gets the best of all of us. He is also very nice and always has a smile on his face. Working with him is always a pleasure and the atmosphere is always very tranquil and respectful.

OW: Is this your first time working with Yannick Nézet-Séguin?

NFH: Yes it is. I had some rehearsals when I was covering Eboli in “Don Carlo.” But this is the first production I am doing with him. I think we are working with such excitement for this production.

OW: What do you hope this premiere will do for the Met?

NFH: In a way, you feel this union with the Latino community. There are a lot of Latinos that work at the Met in all the areas. So there is an initiative that we want everyone to celebrate this premiere and make it feel like it is their day.

It’s really exciting. It has beautiful music and gorgeous arias that allow you to show the beauty of each voice. There are complex moments like the ensembles but there are arias that allow you to do whatever you want with your voice. You can do legato phrases and be dynamic with your voice. And to see the Met orchestra performing this opera is magical. It is marvelous. This is a very special occasion for me.