He's Juan in a million
Peter Conrad, The Observer, 3 August 2003

The brilliant young tenor Juan Diego Flórez is driving audiences wild with
his dazzling and erotic vocal acrobatics. So why is he worried about

If you passed Juan Diego Flórez in a London street, you wouldn't notice him:
a slight, shy young man in jeans with a mop of gelled curls, he could be
just another Latin tourist. But in his native Peru, strangers accost him
whenever he ventures out. 'Everywhere,' he said to me, both grimacing and
beaming at the thought, 'they want to hug me. They are so proud of me, even
if they never heard me perform. They stop me and they say, "You are the

And so he is. Still only 30 and about to be consecrated by The South Bank
Show, he is the sappy embodiment of tenorial virility, whose high notes are
fired out as exhilaratingly as champagne corks. He is already an established
favourite at Covent Garden, and his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New
York last year provoked riots of rejoicing when he riskily insisted on
resurrecting Almaviva's rondo finale in Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia -
long considered unsingable - and dispatched its flurries and roulades and
fizzy vocal cascades with astonishing aplomb and force.

'When I first wanted to include the rondo at La Scala, they refused to let
me. They said it was no good, and they did not believe I could do it. Now I
write it into the contract that I must sing it. You know, when this opera
was premiered, it was called Almaviva: for Rossini, the tenor part was the
title role, not Figaro the barber, who is the baritone. Ah, I was so happy
when I read that!' The ego - boyishly bumptious in Flórez's case - must
sprout to keep up with the dizzy voice.

Mostly, however, he relies on ingratiating charm rather than bullying
decibels. He had just arrived from San Francisco, on his way to the Rossini
festival at Pesaro near his current home in Italy, and was still grumbling
about the $400 the airline had asked him to pay for excess baggage.
'Incredible,' he said. 'I told them, is it my fault that the fans give me so
many presents I must carry with me? Someone sent me a case of wine after a
performance!' He must have resolved the dispute by serenading the check-in
clerk. 'Finally,' he said with a sweet grin of triumph, 'they forgave me the

Operatic tenors live dangerously. At a concert in Lisbon a while ago, Flórez
coolly emitted nine successive high Cs in an aria from Donizetti's Fille du
régiment . Then, to pacify the yelping audience, he encored the piece, with
another fusillade of nine Cs. 'It is not so difficult,' he said when I
mentioned this daredevil feat. 'You just think of a high place, compress
your body, and out the notes come. Sometimes, for me, they do not sound so
good, but the public loves them.' To be a tenor is to be in a high place,
with altitude problems. 'It is an extreme and difficult sound,' Flórez
admitted. 'That is the thrill. It is all about the climax moments.'

Barbra Streisand's record producer, astonished by her keening, once said
that the upper register consisted of 'money notes': sounds that are
expensive, arduous, astonishing because they lie beyond the reach of our
normal capacity. Flórez precisely calculates his raids on the stratosphere
and can tell you exactly what effort each of them costs him. Nine high Cs in
Fille are a doddle, but a single C in the aria from Rossini's La Cenerentola
is exhausting, especially because he knows he's expected to hold on to it
indefinitely. D flats come naturally, too, though he shudders at the E
naturals in Donizetti's Marino Faliero. 'People do not want to see me
suffer. And,' he added with a smirk, 'I want to give them something nice to

'Nice' is a coy euphemism. He knows perfectly well that his vocal explosions
are a kind of erotic release. Singers have their money notes, and porn stars
have their money shots: effervescent ejaculations that must be filmed taking
place outside the body. The South Bank Show makes the connection when it
cuts from a Flórez cadenza to a fountain squirting bright jets of water in a
Lima plaza, and Flórez himself enforced it when he described singing Fenton
in Verdi's Falstaff for the notoriously strict and frigidly disciplined
conductor Riccardo Muti. 'Fortunately, Muti loves my aria. Whenever I sing
it, I have my orgasm and he just melts!' Flórez rolled his eyes to signal
bliss; I tried to imagine a molten Muti, which involves picturing the
Matterhorn liquefying.

Though he may be the emblematic tenor of the day, Flórez is still surprised
by the voice he discovered inside himself less than a decade ago. 'I did not
want to be an opera singer when I went to the conservatory in Lima. Paul
McCartney was my hero then - he still is. I had a rock band, and we did
songs by the Stones and Led Zeppelin. We were terrible! I also did recitals
in a piano bar with my guitar, which was more civilised. But gradually, I
learned about classical music by singing in a chorus and then, when I got a
scholarship and began to audition in New York, I realised I was good.' He
suppressed a smile at his own understatement. Acknowledging his
responsibility to his gift, he has acquired a rare scholarly expertise about
his exposed vocal type. He knows about the freakishly talented tenors for
whom the 'bel canto' composers wrote - Nourrit with his falsettoish head
resonance, Rubini who began the fad of sobbing and could also vault upwards
to the pinnacle of F, or the trumpet-toned Duprez - and has a connoisseur's
judgment about more recent singers.

His model is the late Alfredo Kraus, a dandified patrician whose habit of
raising his eyes heavenwards and nodding to acknowledge and prolong applause
at the end of arias Flórez exactly imitated while eating his lunch. He has
his own problems with crowd control. 'Once in Vienna, there was applause
lasting 14 minutes after my aria in Italiana in Algeri . That is too long if
you are just standing there! Even one minute is forever. We are not supposed
to acknowledge applause, but in Pesaro I have done it in Cenerentola -
though only after it had gone on for five, maybe six minutes. Otherwise they
will never stop shouting. I must somehow restore order!'

Because his style of singing relies on athletic bravura, Flórez has an acute
physiological self-knowledge and offers a discreet guided tour of the body
which produces those extravagant sounds. 'Singing is not a natural activity.
Everything must be so tense: see here, the diaphragm is hard like a fist,
and all the veins in the neck bulge. The chest, too, must be so tight. I
read of a tenor once who broke his collar bone while singing a high note!
You are forcing this column of air up and over your vocal cords and out
through the mouth. You use every muscle.'

Did this - I wonder - include the anal sphincter, which the great Rossinian
mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne always said that she clasped shut before singing
a florid passage? 'Sometimes I use that one,' giggled Flórez. 'But only when
I have exhausted all the others!'

Despite such febrile work-outs, it pleases him, as he looks ahead, to see
that tenors age well. 'Pavarotti, for instance, he still looks good, though
sure, I know, he wears a toupee and dyes his eyebrows. I wish only that I
had skin like my father. His complexion is greasy; if you have so much oil,
you do not wrinkle.' He sadly dabbed his dry pores. The vanity of the young
is pardonable, because they do not yet realise how helpless it is against
the incursions of time.

Aware that he is the latest instalment of a long vocal history, Flórez still
pays pious homage to the previous generation. During our lunch, he made
repeated, unsuccessful efforts to reach the elder statesman of tenors on his
mobile phone.

'Excuse me one second, I must call Domingo,' he said, and looked downcast
when a go-between answered and offered to take a message. Later, his phone
rang, cha-chaing rather than attempting a simulated C. 'Ah,' gasped Flórez,
'that will be Plácido,' though it was not. When he went to the lavatory, he
took the phone with him, in the hope that the call might finally come
through; Domingo, rehearsing at Covent Garden, remained disconnected.

Grey and weary, Domingo makes a brief appearance in The South Bank Show,
advising Flórez to ration those ebullient high Cs. It is a touching moment,
as the past addresses a cautious, regretful admonition to the future. But,
for the time being, Flórez has no need to worry. The well seems
inexhaustible and whenever he opens his mouth he transforms resonant air
into dazzling gold.


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