A tenor for the 21st century
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 15 March 2002
Opera fans are almost running out of superlatives to describe his voice.
Rupert Christiansen meets Juan Diego Florez, a man whose time has
'The List" is a corner of cyberspace where some thousands of the world's
most fanatic opera buffs foregather to debate and celebrate their
obsession. It's a noisy, impassioned internet forum: few trainspotting
fraternities could be more ferocious than its vendettas or judgments,
and even fewer can be so extraordinarily learned or experienced. Nobody
and nothing is sacred for long, but early last February, the List
erupted in an explosion of enthusiasm which it rarely permits itself
The Metropolitan Opera debut of the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego
Florez had just been broadcast - he was singing his signature role,
Almaviva in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia - and from all corners of
the opera community, the superlatives came rolling in.
"Unbelievable vocal facility", "staggering bravura", "meltingly
beautiful legato", and "utterly flawless" were among the accolades;
several diehards were "rendered speechless", and others were "blown
away". Not since Joan Sutherland burst on to the international scene in
the early Sixties has a vocal technique caused such a stir among the
cognoscenti, and what looks set to be one of the great operatic careers
of the 21st century has clearly been decisively launched.
Florez possesses a very specific sort of tenor: don't ever expect him to
hear him singing La Boheme or Tosca, or even much operatic music
composed after 1850. He can't fire the big guns of Pavarotti or Domingo,
nor is he yet an artist of the calibre of Carlo Bergonzi or Alfredo
Kraus. What he represents is a type of singer known as the tenore
d'agilita or tenore di grazia, peculiarly suited to the operas of the
bel canto era, especially those of Rossini.
This label implies a light, high-lying voice that can move with
extraordinary rapidity and accuracy through the coloratura runs and top
notes with which most arias of this era reach their climax. Most singers
in this field either skimp, skid and cheat or resort to something like a
reedy and weedy falsetto. What distinguishes Florez is the robust
firmness and masculinity in his tone (professional note: he sings
exclusively in chest voice), combined with a capacity to sustain the
clarity of his singing at a faster pace than any of his rivals.
Perhaps he is not the most sensitive musician or even a heart-tugging
interpreter, but as you can hear on his debut solo album (Juan Diego
Florez: Rossini Arias, just released on Decca), for sheer acrobatic
skills and thrills, he is without doubt numero uno.
Behind this vocal marvel is a good-looking, intelligent and self-assured
29-year-old who speaks fluent English and seems firmly in control and
aware of his sudden rocketing to superstardom. He is in London to sing
in Marco Arturo Marelli's new production of Bellini's La Sonnambula at
the Royal Opera House, a role rather more lyrical and reflective in
character than his usual flamboyant show-stopping assignments, and one
that he much enjoys. He has already performed this updated staging in
Vienna, and calls it "weird, but not that crazy. It could be
interesting". He doesn't seem much bothered, one way or another. "You
know, I am lazy. I don't like rehearsing so much. Sometimes I arrive
late. I am like that."
Born in Lima, he grew up singing to his father's classical guitar and as
a teenager listened to the usual run of pop music. After a few years of
study at Lima's conservatoire, he won a scholarship to the Curtis
Institute in Philadelphia and fell under the influence of another
Peruvian tenore di grazia, Ernesto Palacio, who became his mentor, and
now serves as his manager too.
"My first teachers tried to make me sing like other tenors" - he
demonstrates this with a fruity aaaawww sound. "Palacio taught me to
produce something brighter, clearer and more forward - aaaahhh." He also
claims to have learnt a lot from himself, developing his phenomenal
breath control and effortless high notes through listening to home tape
There's no mistaking the physical relish Florez has in his own
virtuosity. "It's a fantastic feeling," he says, "like driving a very
Nothing daunts him. He suffers from none of the usual opera singer fads
and fears, and follows no dietary regime. "A bit of everything is my
only rule. I am a gourmet and love good wine." For exercise, he plays
football whenever he can, and supports Inter Milan - "Italy will win the
World Cup, for sure." Home is Bergamo, where he has a "very beautiful"
Italian girlfriend, but he spends little time there and claims that he
is perfectly happy with the plane-hopping lifestyle that his schedule
Since Florez made his professional debut at the Pesaro festival in 1996,
Rossini has been the composer he sings most often. He takes a scholarly
interest in the musicological problems that his operas present, and
enjoys the challenge of reinstating passages long cut because they were
considered too difficult.
He also writes his own extra decorations and cadenzas. "Rossini invented
the operatic tenor," he expounds. "When he was a young man, he heard the
castrati. But by the time he was writing operas, they had died out, and
he tried to make them live again in tenors and mezzo-sopranos. This
makes his music very fresh, very exciting."
Its lack of expressive variety doesn't seem to worry him (the women in
Rossini always seem to get the best tunes), and he is happy to return to
Il Barbiere di Siviglia again later this year at La Scala and the Met.
"Almaviva is a great role for me. I have restored a big bravura aria at
the end of the opera, and I like the acting - comedy is better for me
than tragedy." Mozart can wait, he thinks. "I must keep my voice
exercised and flexible. To sing more lyrical music like Sonnambula or
Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, you need to use different muscles and if you do
that, you risk losing the other muscles you need for Rossini." His
repertory is nevertheless slowly expanding: Covent Garden has booked him
for Ernesto in Donizetti's divine Don Pasquale and he will soon sing
Arturo in Bellini's I Puritani.
One day, perhaps, he will try the lecherous, licentious Duke in Verdi's
Rigoletto, but that's a prospect beyond his current horizons - the diary
is already pretty much full until 2006.
His signing to Decca opens up the possibility of another interesting
development - partnership with another great contemporary Rossini
interpreter, Cecilia Bartoli. She too is on contract to Decca and a
record of their duets would be a chart-buster. To date, however, La
Bartoli has proved elusive, perhaps because she feels that her days as a
Rossini diva are over.
"A couple of things we booked, she cancelled," he says vaguely. "But of
course I would love to sing with her - she is phenomenal."
Meanwhile, he is not going to hang around waiting. "It's the age of the
tenor now," he says, by which he might well mean that it's the age of
Juan Diego Florez.
This page was last updated on: July 27, 2002