The flowering of Juan Diego Florez
The Economist, 4 April 2002

TWO hundred years after Peru became the first New World country to
produce its own operatic culture, South America is throwing up a fresh
generation of impressive young tenors. Jose Cura and Marcelo Alvarez of
Argentina, and a Mexican singer, Ramon Vargas, are among the best. But
it is Juan Diego Florez, a 29-year-old Peruvian, who is regarded as the
world's foremost young interpreter of the bel canto repertory of
Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

When Mr Florez first sang the role of Ramiro in "La Cenerentola" at the
Pesaro Rossini festival in 1998, Giorgio Gualerzi, a critic at Opera
magazine, hailed him as "the Rossini tenor of the new century". His
first solo CD, of Rossini arias, is out this month on Decca. Mr Florez's
voice is smaller than that of Roberto Alagna, another tenor who came to
opera through popular music. But it is more flexible and has an easier
top. There is also a brightness and a fluidity easily matched by
sprightly charm and good looks. Less flamboyant than some, his rendition
of the main aria, with its nine top notes, from Donizetti's "La Fille du
Régiment" has made him the king of high Cs. "I have the note, so it's no
problem," he says. "There are plenty of things much more difficult than

Mr Florez was born in Lima in 1973, the son of a well-known interpreter
of Peruvian folksong, Ruben Florez. At the age of 13, he began composing
songs. At 15 he was singing in piano-bars, accompanying himself on the
guitar. "I had to sell all the tickets myself." With just two classical
arias, Schubert's "Ave Maria" and "Questa o quella" from Verdi's
"Rigoletto", he auditioned for the national choir. "My mother was always
worrying-how was I to make a living?" It wasn't until he gained a
scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, that a career in
opera seemed possible. Within two months Mr Florez was on stage in
Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi", but he was still far from being a

Every singer has to find his own voice. The natural instrument, a strong
technique, even experience singing on stage or in the concert hall; none
of these is enough to unlock the real personality of the voice that is
the goal of every opera singer. Mr Florez says that it was only when his
teacher, Ernesto Palacio, another Peruvian and an exponent of
19th-century works, told him that he must aim for clarity rather than
fullness, that he began to achieve what he calls "tournament quality".

Mr Florez's interest in how that is achieved still continues. Almaviva,
in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville", was the role of his Metropolitan
Opera debut earlier this year, and he sings it again at La Scala this
summer. "Manuel Garcia, the tenor who created this part, had an almost
baritone quality to his voice. You can tell that by studying the score.
He never goes higher than a B-flat. Giovanni Rubini, who came later,
must have had a much higher, brighter sound." It is generally supposed
that early 19th-century tenors sang all the high notes softly, or in a
falsetto voice. Mr Florez isn't so sure. Audiences then were still used
to the art of the castrati: "Artifice was everything, that's what
Italian audiences loved in those days. They probably didn't mind so much
then about the distinction between two different kinds of sound coming
from one voice."

Mr Florez made his international debut in 1996 at the Pesaro Rossini
festival and sang his first role in an opera house at La Scala the same
year. Riccardo Muti told him: "Remember you started here, in Gluck's
'Armide'." In 1997 he was in London with the Royal Opera in a concert
performace of Donizetti's "Elisabetta", a hitherto unknown work
discovered in the Covent Garden archives. He has since returned several
times, in Rossini's "Otello" and "La Cenerentola", and most recently in
Bellini's "La Sonnambula".

Is there a danger that he might over-reach and go for things that are
too heavy? Mr Florez is modest as well as talented. "I think I know my
limitations. I have been offered Mozart's Mitridate. I looked at the
part, but it's all just a little low, and he's just a bit too angry all
the time. It's not for me."

Mr Florez is keen to continue rediscovering 19th-century Peruvian songs
too, but meanwhile there is a full schedule of engagements. Later this
year he will sing in Rossini's "La Donna del Lago", the first time it
will be put on at the Salzburg festival. "I think it is only correct
that a Mozart festival should have Rossini; the two belong together."
Then comes a greater challenge, the role of Arturo in Bellini's "I
Puritani", which Rubini made famous. More evenings to look forward to.


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