Juan Diego Florez : A might at the opera
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 12 May 2002
Tenors usually have big voices - and waistlines to match. But Juan Diego
Florez proves that small really can be beautiful
Life is hard for the youngest, brightest, best-looking new opera kid on
the block. At 29, Juan Diego Florez has the world's great opera houses -
La Scala, Milan, London's Covent Garden, the New York Metropolitan - at
his feet, and is being hailed as the new Pavarotti. He's none too
pleased about the comparison, although he admires the older Italian
tenor and records for the same company, Decca.
"I'm not another Pavarotti," he says when we meet at a restaurant in
Covent Garden during rehearsals for his appearances in Bellini's La
Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) at the Royal Opera House. "In fact, the
only one of the famous tenors you can really compare my voice with is
Alfredo Kraus, who concentrated on Donizetti, Bellini and the lighter
Verdi roles. I sing some of his operas, but I go back to Rossini rather
than forward to Verdi. I also have two or three operas in common with
Pavarotti, but this can be a problem because people hear me and think,
'Wait a minute - this isn't how Pavarotti sang those parts.'"
Kraus, a Spaniard of Austrian descent from the Canary Islands, was
renowned as one of the most aristocratic tenors of his generation - he
sang opposite Maria Callas in the legendary "Lisbon" Traviata, a pirate
recording of Verdi's opera that acquired such cult status that it was
eventually bought by Callas's record company, EMI - but his fame was
nothing compared with Pavarotti's or even that of the other two members
of "the Three Tenors", Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
But Florez's reluctance to be compared with Pavarotti - the most
successful classical performer of our day, perhaps of all time - is
understandable. In addition to the wealth, the adulation, the
jet-setting, there's a downside to Pavarotti-style celebrity that must
be daunting for a man on the threshold of his international career.
Florez knows that even Pavarotti spent years as a jobbing opera singer.
The Italian started singing in the early 1960s and had his first big
international break at Covent Garden and the London Palladium in 1963.
But it wasn't until almost 20 years later that the big man with the
handkerchief began to attract mass audiences, through arena stadium
concerts and burgeoning record sales of his popular Neapolitan songs and
standard Italian opera favourites, such as Puccini's Nessun Dorma, which
became the 1990 World Cup anthem.
Florez comes from a modest background in Peru. His father is a folk
singer and both his sisters are musicians. He never intended to become
an opera star. As a teenager he played spanish guitar with his father's
ensemble and electric guitar in his own rock bands. It wasn't until he
went to study piano at the Lima conservatoire that his voice was
discovered. He so impressed his teachers that he was engaged to sing for
the professional national radio choir, which earned him enough money to
further his vocal studies in Philadelphia and Italy.
When we meet, Florez looks informal but somewhat overawed at all the
attention he's been getting, thanks to his imminent Covent Garden
appearances and the release of his first solo album of Rossini arias on
Decca. In a world supposedly dominated by fat ladies and Big Lucy -
Pavarotti's nickname at Covent Garden - Florez is a rarity. A fit and
elegant young man, it doesn't require much suspension of disbelief to
imagine him as a swashbuckling hero in Rossini's Otello or as a
fairy-tale prince in the same composer's version of the Cinderella
story, La Cenerentola (the two operas in which Florez has triumphed,
prior to the Bellini, at Covent Garden).
He orders mineral water, a coffee with hot milk and devours a gigantic,
gooey brownie with vanilla ice cream. "It's a long time since lunch and
I didn't have a dessert!" he claims. He has the good looks of a Latin
soccer player and he must have a footballer's metabolism, too. Although
he claims, like most tenors these days, to love the beautiful game, his
busy schedule gives him little time to support his team in Milan, let
alone play himself.
He's obviously at a stage when almost all his energy is focused on his
career and mastering the bel canto virtuoso technique that is not unlike
that of a crack striker: dribbling intricately and at dizzying velocity
around the musical stave and aiming for goals a good few steps higher
than the climactic top Bs and Cs that are the boundary notes for singers
such as Pavarotti and Domingo.
Perhaps mindful of the intrusions into privacy that have accompanied
Pavarotti's celebrity - the peekaboo snapshots of the then 60-year-old
with his 30-year-old girlfriend, Nicoletta Mantovani, the messy divorce
with his wife and manager, Adua, the investigation of his tax affairs -
Florez clams up when asked about his life. Yes, he has a girlfriend, the
Italian soprano Laura Giordano. They live together in Bergamo,
Donizetti's birthplace, near Milan. No, there's no time for hobbies:
he's too busy learning new operas. Eliciting information from him is
like opening an oyster with your fingernails.
His teacher and manager, Ernesto Palacio, is a bit more forthcoming,
however. Even though Palacio, himself one of the outstanding Rossini
tenors of the 1970s and 80s, wasn't wowed by his young protege's voice
at first, he recognised its special qualities, and knew how best to
channel his talents at a crucial stage in his career. Says Palacio:
"When I first heard Juan Diego, he sang arias which were too heavy for
him. I told him he had to be careful with such a beautiful, delicate
voice. He was shocked and surprised that I wasn't more enthusiastic. But
I invited him to come to Italy to study with me and sing a small role on
a recording. He improved quickly. He's very intelligent, very musical
and he works hard."
Florez progressed rapidly, and Palacio retired from singing in 1998 to
focus on managing his protege's career and his agency, which represents
10 young singers, including Giordano. Indeed, he takes the credit for
bringing them together. "I was in Palermo, where Laura was singing a
small role in Massenet's opera, Werther, and I phoned Juan Diego and
said, 'You have to come and hear this wonderful young soprano who is
also very good-looking,' and that interested him a lot. He said he was
bored at home and so he came to Palermo, and since then they've been
They haven't sung together on stage, but these are early days for
Giordano: at only 22, her career lags a few years behind Florez's, even
though she has her own engagements at the Rossini festival in Pesaro
this summer and will sing at the Paris Opera next season. Palacio beams
when I suggest he may have another romantic duo in the mould of the
husband-and-wife team of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu on his
books. "Well, I have a project in mind, but nothing fixed yet."
For now the lovebirds spend as much time together as their schedules
allow. The day after my meeting with Florez, I bump into him on the
Eurostar. He's meeting Giordano in Paris, where she is singing at the
Theatre des Champs-Elysees, but he seems disinclined to chat. Perhaps he
is embarrassed - I later discover that his PR lady is unaware of his
impromptu tryst with Giordano and assumed he was spending the week
before his important Covent Garden opening in London.
During our meeting, he had admitted to being bored by the rehearsals
because he has done this production of Bellini's Sleepwalker before, at
the Vienna State Opera in November, when he had rehearsed it for five
weeks. He's no great friend of opera directors. "They rehearse too much.
Three weeks is enough for a new production, and even that can be tiring
for my voice," he complains.
"When I was young," says Palacio, "I didn't have anyone to give me the
sort of guidance I've given to Juan Diego, and I am not sure that I'd
have taken it, anyway. I think it is a quality of his that he can
believe in someone and take advice. He's young, but he's mature for his
age." Mature enough to realise that he isn't another Pavarotti?
"Yes, we don't like it when journalists write this, because Juan Diego
is the first Florez. This is a new phenomenon for tenors; there was
never a big star who specialised in my repertory. If you like, he is the
male version of Cecilia Bartoli, who has shown that a small but
brilliant voice can become a big star. Maybe the time has come for
Certainly, Pavarotti never sang any of Rossini's operas on stage. It is
in this composer's brilliant, frothy comedies that Florez's star has
shone more brightly than any other tenor of recent history. In The
Barber of Seville, for example, the star is usually the baritone who
plays the titular barber, Figaro. But Florez points out that Rossini
originally called his opera Almaviva - to distinguish it from an earlier
Barber - and he has reclaimed a staggeringly difficult aria that Rossini
had cut, when he realised it was beyond most tenors' technical
capabilities, and had transferred to the finale of his next comedy, La
Cenerentola, and into the mouth of his Cinderella.
It's a piece many of us know from commercials and radio signature tunes
thanks to the flautist James Galway, who made a dazzling concert
arrangement. Florez sings the original on his debut album, and his vocal
fireworks are sensational, the notes pouring out of his throat with an
ease and rapidity. When he sang this rarely performed show stopper at
the Met, one New York critic wrote: "He held the final high note for at
least 10 seconds and the crowd in the 3,800-seat auditorium responded
with a prolonged ovation."
But most of Florez's material is far from familiar to the kind of
audience that has brought fame and fortune to Pavarotti. Indeed, the
relative obscurity of his operas is unlikely to bring him the mass
audiences and record sales of even the "karaoke Pavarottis", Andrea
Bocelli and Russell Watson.
Since the success of the Three Tenors concerts, there's been enormous
pressure on young singers to reach a wider audience by using electronic
means - microphones and amplification - to fill vast auditoriums. But
it's a career path Florez has no intention of following. "I wouldn't,"
he says. "I can't. My repertoire is not for arena concerts." If
Pavarotti is not his model, then who is? "Well, Bartoli. She became
famous, in a way, with music that no one knows." The Roman
mezzo-soprano, a few years older than Florez, shot to stardom like him
in her twenties, with her singing of Rossini's comic prima-donna parts.
Their careers bear other similarities. When Bartoli first emerged, her
charisma and vocal fireworks drew erroneous comparisons with Maria
Callas - a dramatic soprano with a much larger voice than Bartoli's -
and she's become one of the world's most sought-after opera stars
despite her lack of decibels.
Bartoli and Florez both prove that small can be beautiful. They seem
destined to sing together, at least on record - both are contracted to
the same company - as a contemporary answer to the famous Decca
partnership of Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti between the late 1960s and
early 1990s. Much will depend on Bartoli's willingness to play an
operatic Margot Fonteyn to Florez's Rudolf Nureyev, but it's an operatic
dream team, waiting to be consummated in the opera house.
Juan Diego Florez is performing at the Royal Festival Hall in London
(tel: 020 7960 4242) next Saturday.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2002