Interview with Juan Diego Flórez
Transcript from the television documentary, The Voice (WNET)
Watch the video and more about the program HERE [external link]
Photographs from the program HERE
After briefly pursuing a career in popular music, Juan Diego Florez was
seventeen when he realized his love for singing classical music while
studying at Peru's Conservatorio Nacional de Música. He received a
scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied
from 1993 to 1996. His big break came in 1996 when Bruce Ford, the lead
tenor of "Matilde de Shabran," became ill and Florez emerged from the
chorus as his stand-in. His performance was a smash hit, and his career
has been catapulting ever since.
EGG: Why did you start singing opera?
Juan Diego Florez: When I was singing pop music or my songs or Peruvian
music, I wanted always to learn to sing better. And when I was at high
school, there was a teacher, a music teacher, who was the chief of the
chorus at high school, and he took me to sing the solo parts in the
choral works that we would do. And he would give me also some lessons,
voice lessons -- how to sing better the solo part -- but also general
voice lessons, private. I would go to his studio. I had to pay him
because it was a private lesson, and I remember owing him some money,
and I remember him telling me, "You owe me so much money, why don't you
go to the conservatory, which is free?" You know, because it's a state
conservatory. I said, "It's a good idea." So I auditioned to the
conservatory just when I finished school, and he had taught me two opera
arias, and I auditioned with those two arias and I got in and I started
to train my voice. The thing that drove me to train my voice was the
fascination I had with being able to sing better through studying. It's
maybe an abstract thing, but, you know, in high school when I started to
train with this guy, I could tell that I could sing better just with
some lessons -- concentrating on one song and trying to make it sound
better. And in the conservatory I had a lot of contact with classical
music, so I was surrounded by classical music, all young people playing
cello or violin or singers, and going to concerts in the evening. And I
loved it. And I stayed with that music and started to do that.
EGG: What do you find special about the voice?
JDF: I think the special thing about singing is the fact that you can do
things with your voice that with other instruments you really can't. The
technique for the voice is not as tangible as the technique for the
piano or violin. It's more about feelings, it's more about sensations.
You have to experiment. You know, you move something inside and you
produce a certain sound. The voice is about movement, but you don't know
where you're moving, really. It's really very abstract, sensations. Even
certain notes, the human voice, especially in the tenor -- to produce
them in a certain way, you have to know what to do. But to explain what
you're doing to somebody else is not really possible. You know, "What
are you doing?" "Well, I'm opening S" "Opening what?" "I don't know. I'm
opening a little bit my throat, and then I'm placing the voice forward."
"How?" "I don't know." You have to try it to do it. But if somebody
tries what you do, maybe it's not going to work for him. So he has to
maybe do something else. The polishing of the technique and more
difficult stuff, I think, is very personal. It's very personal because,
as I've said, it's about sensations and about trying things out. What
thing is good for you and what thing works for you? Maybe a simple
movement, to take air in a different way for certain notes, you know.
EGG: In opera, what is the relationship like between the singer and the
JDF: I think the relation of singer-conductor is one of the most
difficult ones in the world of opera. And I think the best relation is
when a singer meets a conductor that loves voices and understand voices.
If the conductor doesn't love or understand well the voice, he's not
going to try to be flexible. He's going to try to do his tempos and even
if it's fast and the singer cannot handle it, he's not going to be so
willing to slow it down. Because he has an idea and he wants to
accomplish that idea. And I think opera is about voice, is about
singers. And the conductor, in order to make music, has to understand
the voice and understand the singer's voice, and do things in favor of
the voice. I think that's the best [way] to accompany a singer. You
know, to breathe with the singer. This is very important. If a conductor
knows about voice and loves voices, he's going to breathe with the
singer. He's going to give the singer time to breathe and to make a nice
phrase. He's going to understand when the singer is in need, and he's
having a hard time with the fast tempo, maybe. You know, you have to do
many runs and it's a fast tempo, so the conductor who understands the
voice starts slowing down because he knows the singer is in need. So he
helps the singer. That's the great conductor. And there are not many,
really. There are not many, believe me.
EGG: How does the conductor develop this understanding between himself
and the singer?
JDF: I think the conductor can help a lot during the rehearsals with the
piano. I think one of his main tasks is to prepare the singers. A singer
comes with an idea already set in his mind because S for example, I have
done "Barber of Seville" many times. So I have already an idea of what I
want. But then you have to meet the conductor and he has maybe certain
ideas; or hearing your way of singing it, he wants to say something
else. I think the singer has to be open for more information and try not
to be closed and I think you can always, even if you have done many
times the role, you can get something else. So, you have to try it out
and then if you don't like it, or maybe if it doesn't sound right, you
don't do it. But it's wonderful when there's a collaboration.
EGG: How do you train your voice to sing opera?
JDF: Well, now the way I train is very simple, very automatic. Before I
started my career, or even before I was in the conservatory, I used to
practice a lot. I used to tape my rehearsals or my lessons, and I used
to listen to them and then try it again, try to do it better. So I was
alone most of the time in a room in the conservatory by myself. You
know, I started studying in Lima, and then in Philadelphia in the Curtis
Institute of Music. I remember having a room for myself and studying
alone, trying things out by myself. I think that's very important for
young people -- to experiment. When I met my last teacher, I used to go
from Philadelphia and travel on my vacation to Italy to have lessons
with him. We were preparing the operas very carefully and doing lessons.
And I think I concentrated a lot in that period on my technique and
really working hard. I think then your technique becomes automatic. And
that's very good, because nowadays we sing a lot. We travel a lot. We're
in Vienna, in London, in New York, in Italy, and you cannot have
lessons, really. With whom? Your teacher cannot follow you around
wherever you go, so it's very important that you're independent. You
have to be independent and know how your voice works already. And now I
think I can just warm up the day of my performance, warm up a little
bit, try some passages by myself and then sing. That's it, and when you
have problems, you have your own solutions. You know what to do, and
that's very important nowadays for a singer, to have your technique
already inside of you.
EGG: Can you give an example of how you might solve one of these
JDF: It depends. It depends how my voice is a certain day. If I have to
sing and my voice is a little heavy, I warm up with the "e" and the "a"
to make it lighter. If I feel I am a little closed, my throat, I try to
do "ah" and "oh" and try to open or maybe just exercises of opening my
throat. Because sometimes you have sung too much and your muscles are
stiff, so you don't want to work with an "e" because that closes it a
little bit more. You want to work with more open vowels. Or, for
example, if I feel my body a little bit tired, I go out and run a little
bit maybe, and get in shape. That helps a lot.
EGG: It sounds like you're talking about the way you breathe S
JDF: The most important thing for a singer is the breathing technique.
Breathing is about moving muscles and also singing is about moving
muscles. All your throat is made of muscles and they interact to make
the chords move. But especially the breathing is about muscles, is about
moving all the abdominal muscles. These muscles have to be in shape,
have to be fit, have to move well. So you have to train them, and many
people don't do anything really. And that's maybe the reason why some
things are not working, because you should make everyday exercises,
breathing exercises, and keep those muscles fit. Because they are going
to move a lot; they're going to move in different ways. For example, if
you have a low part, you don't need so much air to sing that. So the air
has to be exhaled in a very slow motion and the muscles have to keep it
there, not let the air flow so fast. The muscles have the task of
controlling how much air comes, for example, for a fortissimo. But when
you are singing a very legato line, the air has to go less, with less
EGG: It must be incredibly satisfying to be so in control of your own
JDF: Exactly. I think there's a moment in which you feel it is exciting
because you feel that you are able and you are in control of yourself.
This is very important. Because of course it's about letting go, feeling
free, but also about controlling yourself, having a lot of control.
Because otherwise it's not possible to do this music. It's emotion, it's
phrasing, but under control.
This page was last updated on: November 14, 2002