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'Il Postino's' route: '70s Chile to '50s Italy to Thursday night in L.A.

September 22, 2010 |  2:05 pm

031“Poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all,” Nobel-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote. 

Author Antonio Skármeta of Chile agrees.  His 1985 novel with Neruda as a central character,  “Ardiente Paciencia” (Burning Patience), gave birth to 200 adaptations, including theater, radio and film; a ballet and musical are planned. The 1994 Italian movie “Il Postino” (The Postman) is the book’s most famous iteration.

Now, audiences can sample another version.  L.A. Opera’s “Il Postino,” featuring tenor Plácido Domingo, will have its world premiere Thursday night at the Music Center. 

Skármeta is in town this week for the opera's opening. On Tuesday, he visited Occidental College in Eagle Rock to talk about the work's origins and the implications of its operatic incarnation.

Speaking in a charming manner with flawless but thickly accented English, Skármeta began his presentation by explaining to a crowd of students and faculty the basic plot that the adaptations share:

Mario, a simple postman, befriends the legendary Neruda. While using his verses to win over the town’s beauty, Mario realizes his own identity and artistic creativity. 

“Ardiente Paciencia,” later published as “El Cartero de Neruda” (Neruda’s Postman), takes place in 1970s Chile, and the setting’s social and political climate frames and shapes the plot. As Skármeta put it, “My novel is 100% Chilean history.”

And Chilean history is not just for Chileans, Skármeta said. The events that shook the country in the 1970s had meaning for all of Latin America as well as the United States.

The book begins on the eve of Salvador Allende’s 1970 election to the presidency. After decades of repressive governments, Allende ushers in an atmosphere of creative expression, mirroring Mario’s own artistic growth. But the freedom is short lived.  In 1973, military dictator Augusto Pinochet takes command in a coup d’etat.  Just 12 days later, Neruda dies in Chile. Against military orders, Chileans take to the streets, bemoaning the loss of their country’s “voice of the people.”  The novel ends when officials summon Mario to the police station.

And this is when readers cry, Skármeta said in his talk. “They know from real history what it means to be a disappeared person in a political repressive regime.” 

PDCatanThe film “Il Postino” moves the story to a 1950s Italian fishing town. Little in the movie reflects Skármeta’s intended commentary on Chile. Though the writer was quick to note his deep admiration for the film, he also said, “Many Latin American touches and real history are missing.”   

For “Il Postino” the opera, Skármeta granted composer and librettist Daniel Catán complete creative freedom. Catán based his story on the film, retaining the 1950s Italian setting. Despite this displacement, Skármeta said that Catán had imbued the opera with a “powerful, meaningful representation of Pablo Neruda and the Latin American situation,” which made him happy.

Skármeta also expressed excitement that the opera was sung in Spanish.  (The film was in Italian.)  For Mexican-born Catán and Spanish-born Domingo, presenting a Spanish-language opera is an important milestone for Los Angeles, a city with a massive Spanish-speaking population.  As Domingo said at a recent press presentation, for L.A. Opera to create a work in Spanish is “a privilege, it’s a great responsibility.”   

Skármeta hasn’t heard or seen any aspect of the opera yet; he’ll have to wait until Thursday to see how it plays out. All the author can do is hope for the best.  “I tell you, I am going to pray,” he confided to one literature student. “I gave all liberties to the composer, so I hope he has done good work.”

Skármeta has no doubts that Domingo will give a stellar performance. But don’t get confused, he warned; Plácido Domingo isn’t the real Neruda.

“I would never say that my idea of Neruda is the realistic portrait of him,” Skármeta said, punching the air for emphasis. “On the contrary. My portrait of Neruda is the work of an artist inventing another artist.  It’s just a character in a novel.”

After concluding his talk, Skármeta mingled with students, chatting in both English and Spanish. In parting, Skármeta remarked on the endurance of what began as just another novel. " 'The Postman' has inspired numerous adaptations because this stuff has energy," he said. “Not just in Neruda, and not just in the postman; there’s energy when people can get together about sophisticated things like poetry and language, hope and dreams.”

-- Daina Beth Solomon

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Photos, from top: Antonio Skármeta prepares to sign a copy of "The Postman" for a student at Occidental College.  Credit: Daina Beth Solomon. Plácido Domingo and Daniel Catán at a dress rehearsal for L.A. Opera's "Il Postino." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

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