He's got no strings
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 14 March 2002

Juan Diego Florez set out to be a rock guitarist and ended up a great
classical tenor. Tim Ashley asks what went right

When the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez talks, he is down to earth,
calm, matter of fact. His body language, however, tells a different
story. We are sitting in a room in the Royal Opera House, where he is
rehearsing for a new production of Bellini's La Sonnambula. Someone has
brought him tea, and throughout our conversation he attacks a teabag
with a wooden stirrer. At one point he jabs the teabag with such
vehemence that the stirrer snaps, and he spends the rest of our
interview breaking it into pieces and rearranging them on the table.
Beneath the charm - and with his boyish good looks, curly dark hair and
engaging smile, he is unquestionably charming - lurks a driven, nervous

"Little by little, when I was doing auditions in New York, I discovered
I was good," he recalls. "People there were enthusiastic." That was when
Florez was in his early 20s, fresh from three years' study at the
conservatory in Lima, and looking towards the US for his next move. Now
29, he is very much a star and a bit of a heart-throb; he drives
audiences into a frenzy wherever he goes and is acclaimed as one of the
greatest bel canto tenors who ever lived. He has recently signed a
recording contract with Decca and released an album of Rossini arias.
Listening to it, all you can do is gawp as his voice swirls through
Rossini's almost impossible vocal writing, negotiating stratospheric
coloratura with a combination of lithe agility and a well-nigh indecent
perfection of line and tone.

British audiences have been lucky enough to experience the Florez
phenomenon almost from the beginning. He made his debut with the Royal
Opera in 1997, in a performance at London's Festival Hall. The opera was
Donizetti's Elisabetta, and it was the work, rather than the tenor, that
was expected to make news. The score, long believed lost, had turned up
in one of the Opera House's cavernous cellars, and this was its first UK
outing. By the end of the evening it was clear that Elisabetta - an
overlong, picaresque sprawl of an opera - was no rediscovered
masterpiece; yet everyone was convinced that a great tenor had arrived.
Florez looked a little nervous on the platform, but the audience cheered
him on as aria followed aria with staggering ease. The reviews were

Florez's UK debut took place at obscenely short notice when another
tenor pulled out. "I was on vacation in Hamburg," he says. "They called
me six days before. I had five days to learn the part." Florez had made
similar waves the previous year at the Rossini festival in Pesaro,
Italy, after stepping in to replace another great bel canto tenor, Bruce
Ford, in Matilde di Shabran. "I learned it in a fortnight. Maybe I have
a good memory."

He got such an enthusiastic reception that Riccardo Muti, music director
of La Scala in Milan, promptly cast him in a new production of Gluck's
Armide. Offers of work began to pour in. "In a few months, my agenda was
full for the next few years." This schedule included Rossini's Otello
and La Cenerentola at Covent Garden and a recital at St John's, Smith
Square in London, during which he sang the aria Ah, Mes Amis from
Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment. It contains an infamous nine top Cs,
which Florez flung out with ease.

Otello, meanwhile, paired him with Ford. Ford was the Moor, and Florez
Rodrigo - Rossini's operatic equivalent of Shakespeare's Cassio. The
opera became a vertiginous vocal duel, though Florez deflects any
suggestion of professional enmity: Ford, he says repeatedly, is "a
wonderful singer". The recent reappraisal of bel canto opera is largely
due to the pair of them. Twenty years ago, Rossini, Bellini and
Donizetti were primarily synonymous with spectacular female vocalists,
but Florez, Ford and a number of other singers such as Kenneth Tarver
have restored the bel canto tenor to his position of centrality. The
appeal of La Sonnambula will lie as much in Florez as in his leading
lady, the Greek soprano Elena Kellisidi.

In the opera Florez plays Elvino, a Swiss landowner, whose fiancee Amina
sleepwalks into another man's bedroom on the night of their betrothal.
Marco Arturo Marelli's production has already earned itself notoriety by
transposing the opera to an Alpine sanatorium. Florez insists, however,
that the "pure beauty" of Bellini's vocal writing, hypnotic and
infinitely tender, is the essence of the opera's meaning. "It's not so
much about what's happening. It's about beautiful melodies and nice

Nice singing was part of Florez's life from the beginning. He was born
in Lima in January 1973. "I grew up listening to popular music. My
father was a Peruvian folk singer. He played the guitar at home. He sang
songs with a waltzing rhythm, yet you can still hear the Spanish
influences. I accompanied him to his performances." Florez still
includes Peruvian folk songs in his recitals, and is currently
orchestrating a batch of them.

He was initially drawn to pop. "I played the guitar. When I was 14, I
composed songs - Paul McCartney-style things. I had a rock band - we'd
compete in festivals." Pop, however, wasn't quite enough, and he entered
the conservatory at 17. "It was there that I started to take voice
lessons. It wasn't me who wanted to be an opera singer. I was led. I
wanted to travel, to have a high level of music education."

When he graduated, he went to the US, discovered he was good, and wound
up at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Among his teachers was
another Peruvian émigré, Ernesto Palacio, a noted Rossini tenor. "He put
me on the right track. He made me sing not so round and dark, but clear
and communicative. 'If you have a round voice, you sing round; you want
to sing clear,' he said," which explains Florez's extraordinary openness
of tone.

The bel canto repertoire appealed almost at once. "This is the
repertoire I always liked the most. My teacher used to play me Mozart,
Rossini, bel canto. At Curtis we did opera on stage." Florez was soon
appearing in student productions of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi
and Rossini's Barber of Seville and Il Viaggio a Reims. Pesaro was his
first professional engagement. Palacio, whom he regards as a mentor, was
on hand to help him learn Matilde di Shabran when Ford cancelled. Florez
also decided to make Italy his home. "In Europe, you're going to find a
job, if you're good and young and if you sing bel canto." He now lives
in Bergamo, where Donizetti was born and died.

Away from the bel canto repertoire, Florez sings little. Fenton, the
dreamy student in Falstaff, is his only major Verdi role, though at the
Wexford festival in 1996 he appeared in Meyerbeer's L'Etoile du Nord,
and thinks that one day he might tackle more French music. "It's
heavier. The orchestra is louder. Maybe with age - but I don't want to
lose that flexibility. I don't want to move from that. I wouldn't be me
if my repertoire wasn't bel canto." And bel canto, nowadays, wouldn't be
bel canto if it weren't for him.

La Sonnambula opens at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304
4000), on March 16. Florez's album of Rossini arias is out on Decca

This page was last updated on: August 26, 2002