Bel Canto Beauty Flórez Called 'Little Luciano'
Elisabeth Franck, The New York Observer, 18 February 2002
On a gray afternoon on Feb. 4, Juan Diego Flórez, the 29-year-old
Peruvian tenor who's just debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Almaviva
in Gioacchino Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia, arrived at Il Violino
running and panting, 15 minutes late. He pushed the restaurant's doors
with both hands and a shake of the head and apologized profusely.
"It's the traffic; I came from midtown," he said with emotion. "I took
the bus-it got stuck in traffic."
Mr. Flórez's speaking voice is a mixture of Italian and Spanish
inflections, but his singing voice is another matter. It's beautiful and
high, and he has now taken it-a coloratura best suited for Italian bel
canto-to the big five opera houses of Milan, Berlin, London, Vienna and
New York. He has a recording contract with Decca-the company that signed
Luciano Pavarotti, Cecelia Bartoli and Renée Fleming-and has released
his first solo album of Rossini arias.
The artistic and marketing line on Mr. Flórez is direct, effective and
based on potential: He is, for Decca, the heir to Pavarotti. His voice
is distinctive enough to earn comparisons with great singers past, from
tenors to sopranos, thanks to its elegant, supple sound and dexterity.
And he is, in the tradition of Mario Lanza and Domingo, a matinee idol.
What definitely shattered the image of the marketed matinee idol,
however, was the look on Mr. Flórez's face when he was shown the glossy
brochure Decca had prepared for the release of his CD. He hardly knew
what to make of it. His eyes went from one picture to the next, almost
in disbelief, before he managed a smile. "I hadn't seen it yet," he said
with a half-convincing laugh. "It's nice, no? What do you think?"
There was a photograph of him on a Vespa, wearing suede shoes. Not quite
used to the business, he said he never rides Vespas and that the suede
shoes weren't his. As for that comment quoted on one of the pages-that
Peru might have found the heir to Pavarotti-he laughed and said, "I don'
t think I'm the next Pavarotti, simply because he has another kind of
voice and he's another kind of tenor. Pavarotti sings a repertoire that'
s more appealing to people, like Verdi and all that, and I sing a kind
of repertoire that's liked by less people."
At 29, Mr. Flórez has spent the last six years building up his career,
ever since his performance in a 1996 production of Matilde di Shabran in
Pesaro's Rossini summer festival. To many of his colleagues, he's still
very much a kid. Maybe it's the long eyelashes, or the air of humility
with which he bows down, very deep, at the end of the performance during
the applause, or the sheer, childish joy he takes springing and bouncing
his way onstage in his comic scenes, attracting all the laughs. "My
colleagues, like Simone Alaino-I sang with him in 1995-or Bruno Praticò
or Michele Pertusi, people that have seen me from when I was 23,
especially Italian colleagues, they see me as a baby, they treat me the
same," he said at one point with a laugh. "'Ai bambino, bambino viene,
fillio mio!' But they defend me, always. They're leale; they're loyal."
Riccardo Muti, director of Milan's La Scala, where Mr. Flórez made his
first real theater debut, said to him, "Don't forget you were born here,
you grew up here."
"He's always saying to everybody," Mr. Flórez said, shaking his index
finger, "This is a son of ours; this is a son of La Scala.'"
There comes a turning point in a young opera singer's life when talent
is no longer judged by personal progress, or how you might stand
compared to your contemporaries, as much by the place you could hold in
opera history-where you would rank within the entire pantheon of singers
who've sung that role before you. It's the sign that you've arrived in
the big league.
But despite Mr. Flórez's ambition, the years of practice and studying it
took to achieve his voice, and the calm resolution with which he tackles
each new role, he seems to be squirming under the weight of comparisons.
After catapulting to fame, at the age of 23, in Pesaro he proceeded to
make made a name for himself thanks to his looks, his comic talents and,
most of all, his incredibly agile, high-toned tenor, which can cut right
through an orchestra.
Mr. Flórez is aware of these qualities. He's not overly anxious when he
takes the stage; he says he relies on a pretty systematic practice. It's
the lineage that makes him nervous.
"They're always talking about the next great tenor, like Domingo or
Pavarotti, a full lyric voice," he said. "They're thinking like in
boxing-heavyweight this, heavyweight that. They're like,
'Lightweight-what's that?'" Then he added, "You know, people are always
saying things, comparing, like 'He's not the real thing; he doesn't have
this voice.' They say, 'Di Stefano would have been a better Barbiere.'
They're comparing me with Di Stefano! That's like comparing water
with-with, with steak!"
Mr. Flórez is a son of Peru. His father was a Peruvian folkloric singer
who divorced his mother when Mr. Flórez was 2. Mr. Flórez grew up
singing rock songs by Led Zeppelin and the Beatles with his band, before
heading to the conservatory to learn orchestration and arrangements. He
planned to become a pop singer, but he discovered he had a voice-a real
voice-and took it to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. During
the course of his studies there, he met his mentor, Ernesto Palacio, a
Peruvian bel canto tenor who spotted the coloratura qualities.
"He told me I was wasting around," Mr. Flórez explained. "I studied with
him and everything changed. I started to understand; I discovered a way
of making my sound. He's very straight, and he told me singing is about
simplicity: 'Do clear sounds. Sing vowels. Why sing an euh if its an ah?
Why sing an ay if it's an euh?' I was singing so laaaaaaaaa, and I
thought that was so good."
Mr. Flórez followed in Mr. Palacio's footsteps and started practicing by
recording himself to analyze his voice and sharpen his sounds. Today,
Mr. Palacio is his teacher and agent; he tours around the world with him
and is part of Mr. Flórez's relatively small entourage, which sometimes
includes a younger Italian girlfriend (also a singer, a soprano) and
sometimes his mother, who spent last month with him in New York. Mr.
Flórez's father has yet to travel with him.
"When you bring somebody," Mr. Flórez said, "you bring your mother-I see
it like that."
To Mr. Flórez, after his audience comes Mr. Palacio. "The first year, I
remember, in La Cenerentola, in Genova," he said, "he came to my
dressing room in the middle of the performance and said, 'Everything is
shit. Everything is shit. You have to sing better in the second act.
Some people would hear that and get totally down . but in the second
act, I was incredible. That gave me-strength."
Saying the word "strength," he pulled back his hands as if he were
holding back a horse. "I'm not afraid of seeing reality," he added.
"When you fuck up, you fuck up. You assume the responsibility of that,
and it gives you strength to win at the end, in a way. If the first act
doesn't go well, in the second one you have the opportunity to win."
To do that, it seems, Mr. Flórez must content his elders. So far, it
seems to have worked: Plácido Domingo comes to his performances and his
dressing room, and every once in a while they're on the phone. Mr.
Pavarotti's also heard him, in La Sonnambula at La Scala-and according
to Mr. Flórez, jokingly told Decca when they signed him, "You finally
put a good tenor on." Yet Mr. Flórez is constantly upping the ante, as
"The vocal chords are muscles, they are not chords," he said of his
singing in Barbiere. "They have to be very"-he clenched his fists. "It's
like you're in the Olympics or something. You have to jump high, and
there's this tension: 'Am I going to make it? Huh? Am I?' In opera, you
have just one opportunity to make it right."
In Lima, Mr. Flórez did high-jumping and ran the 100-meter race.
Competition is very much a part of him. In Pesaro, he filled in for a
jittery tenor and didn't think twice about accepting the part, which he'
d never even read. Several years later, he did it for his Covent Garden
debut in La Sonnambula, when he stepped in for a tenor with two days'
notice and practiced on the plane ride over with the 250 pages of score
he'd received by fax.
"Some people would think that's crazy, some singers," he said. "But it
saves you time; you can maybe do things you wouldn't do and take
opportunities you might not get in normal circumstances."
Now, it seems, Mr. Flórez wants the opportunity to sing that one piece
that will set him apart. Very conscious of history, he mentioned at one
point that Rossini wrote with castrati in mind, those singers who could
really take on the "tic-a-tic-a-tic" cadence of his arias. He pointed
out that in the last century, tenors would sing different parts of the
same Rossini opera, such was the physical challenge. Clearly, he's
setting the stage for his own exploit, one that could make his name. So
he brings up "Cessa di più Resistere," Barbiere's purple patch, which is
rarely performed because of the sheer agility and physical stamina it
"It's not the Barber you're used to seeing, with Figaro as the main
thing. Here, with this aria, it changes: The tenor has sung two arias
already, and he sings the last one. After that, it's finished. And so he
becomes the main character. I'm pretty sure that was the purpose of
Rossini; the opera was called Almaviva in the beginning."
In Italy, where bel canto is sung more often, Mr. Flórez said, it's a
little easier to get recognition. "At La Scala," he said, "people know."
Here in New York, where operagoers want heavyweights for their money, a
Rossini performance holds no frisson. Yet on a recent Saturday
afternoon, when Mr. Flórez launched into the first notes of the last
aria-"Olà, t'accheta. Cessa di più resistere"-his voice trilling higher
and higher, bounding and leaping from note to note in a way that no
operagoer could remember hearing, it was as if he had at last crawled
out from under the weight of tradition. So what if he'll never bring the
house down in Verdi? That afternoon, his "Cessa" was greeted with a
small reflective hush before the applause-and for a second it seemed
that all you could see onstage was Mr. Flórez, taller and stronger in
his last costume, a military getup of Almaviva's. And no shadows came to
steal the spotlight..
This page was last updated on: May 11, 2003