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Catán was of Russian Sephardic Jewish descent. He was born in Mexico City, and studied philosophy at the University of Sussex and music at the University of Southampton. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he studied with Milton Babbitt, James K. Randall, and Benjamin Boretz.
Catán was the first Mexican composer to have an opera produced in the United States, when San Diego Opera produced his opera Rappaccini's Daughter in March 1994. He has also composed orchestral and chamber works and film music. His style can be described as neo-impressionist. His music is richly lyrical, often painting evocative colours with the orchestral palette with soaring melodies atop.
In addition to composition, Catán had a fruitful career as a writer on music and the arts. He lived in South Pasadena, California. In 1998, Catán received the Plácido Domingo Award for his contribution to opera, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. His last opera, Il Postino, whose premiere featured Plácido Domingo in the role of Pablo Neruda, is based on the 1983 novel Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta and the 1994 film Il Postino by Michael Radford; it premiered at the Los Angeles Opera in September 2010.
Catán was a highly learned littérateur, with an abundant knowledge and love of world literature. In numerous discussions with his friend, the writer Michael Charles Tobias, Catán was, towards the end of his life, working out the conceptual materialization of Tobias' libretto, "The Misadventures of Pinocchio".
Catán died aged 62 on April 8, 2011, in Austin, Texas, a few days after he attended rehearsals for Il Postino at the Moores Opera Center at the University of Houston. At the time of his death, Catán was a member of the faculty at College of the Canyons and had been commissioned by the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin to write a new opera, Meet John Doe.
Catán composed his music in a neo-Romantic style that was highly lyrical. Opera News stated that his music had "a distinctive lushness that seemed of a piece with the twentieth century's great movie music yet remained unquestionably operatic in scope." From the modest compositional oeuvre during his life, one cannot evince a predominating style that follows some previous composer. Accountable to constraints of their commissions, Catán’s compositions stand clearly self-contained. Music critic David Patrick Stearns wrote, "Though Catán's style was often compared to that of Puccini and Debussy, it changed with every work, from the lush nature painting of Florencia en El Amazonas (1996) to the Cuban ethnic influences of Salsipuedes (2004), and the more integrated sonorities that portrayed the inner emotions of Il Postino (2010). Other critics noted the influences of Richard Strauss and Heitor Villa-Lobos with his orchestral structures.
Of his own music Catán said, "I have inherited a very rich operatic tradition. In my work, I am proud to say, one can detect the enormous debt I owe to composers from Monteverdi to Alban Berg. But perhaps the greatest of my debts is having learnt that the originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition—which would be like blindly embracing the condition of an orphan—but rather the profound assimilation of it, so as to achieve the closest union between a text and its music." Catán also cited in many interviews Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold among those who had most influenced his music and compositional style.
- Encuentro en el ocaso (1980)
- La hija de Rappaccini (1991)
- Florencia en el Amazonas (Florencia in the Amazon) (1996)
- Salsipuedes, a Tale of Love, War, and Anchovies (2004)
- Il Postino (2010)
- Ausencia de Flores (Absence of Flowers)
- El Vuelo del Águila (The Eagle's Flight)
- El Árbol de la Vida (The Tree of Life)
- En un Doblez del Tiempo (A Fold in Time) (1982)
- Vocal Orchestral
- Cantata for Soprano, Chorus, and Chamber Orchestra
- Tierra Final (Final Earth), for soprano and orchestra
- Mariposa del Obsidiana (Obsidian Butterfly), for soprano, chorus, and orchestra (1984)
- Chamber music
- Encantamiento, for 2 recorders
- Divertimento, for 2 violins, 2 violas, cello, and double bass (2004) 
- Film music
- "Breaking: Domingo composer found dead", Norman Lebrecht, ArtsJournal (11 April 2011)
- "Daniel Catán, composer of the opera Il Postino, dies at 62" by Chris Tomlinson, Associated Press (11 April 2011)
- "Daniel Catán", Profile by Allen B. Ruch (2 June 2003)
- "Daniel Catán, 62, Composer of Il Postino and Florencia en el Amazonas, Has Died". Opera News. 11 April 2011.
- Il Postino, Production information at Los Angeles Opera
- "Daniel Catan's sad death - the official statement" by G. Schirmer on ArtsJournal (11 April 2011)
- David Patrick Stearns (17 April 2011). "Daniel Catán obituary:Mexican-born composer whose romantic operas in Spanish have flourished in the US". The Guardian.
- "Daniel Catán (1949–2011)". Gig. 13 April 2011.