Peru's Peak Performer
At 33, Juan Diego Flórez Is at the Summit of Bel Canto Singing

Sunday, May 14, 2006

This weekend, tenor Juan Diego Flórez is to make his debut with the Washington National Opera. The 33-year-old singer fills the role of Lindoro in Gioacchino Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" ("The Italian Girl in Algiers"), a comic opera about the escape of a loving couple from the clutches of an iron-fisted if benighted dictator. Flórez is part of a cast that includes the Russian husband-wife duo of Olga Borodina as the heroine Isabella and Ildar Abdrazakov as Mustafa, the dictator. Since his much-heralded breakthrough performances in Italy a decade ago, Flórez has become one of the most sought-after bel canto singers in the world, highly regarded for his sweetly focused, quicksilver voice. Though now residing in Italy, the singer maintains close ties with Peru, where he was born and began his early musical studies. Decca recently released his third album, "Sentimiento Latino," a collection of Peruvian and Latin American popular songs, and the country also issued a national stamp in his honor.

Last Monday during rehearsals at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the singer sat for a backstage interview with Washington Post contributor Daniel Ginsberg.

Q Please talk about the role of Lindoro. Is he a very complicated figure? Is Rossini generous to the character musically?

AThis is a very generous role singing-wise. He has two great arias. . . . The second aria, "Concedi, concedi amor pietoso," is musically beautiful and very demanding, like the first. . . . Acting-wise, it's not so demanding. He's a simple guy and he doesn't have to do much. . . . It's maybe one of the Rossini operas that have more beautiful and difficult music for the tenor. . . . It's very high and airy -- very light.

How did you come to focus so much on the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini? What attracts you to the bel canto repertoire?

I think it's my voice. You have a voice that fits a certain repertoire, and my voice fits the bel canto repertoire, especially Rossini.

It's a light, lyric tenor voice that's very agile. It has a lot of flexibility so it can sing all that is demanded from Rossini, especially the coloratura -- the runs -- the high notes, the jumps and very long phrases. And also, it works not only in the virtuoso stuff, but also in the legato and the chiaroscuro, the shading of every phrase.

Do you hope to expand into the more dramatic roles of Verdi or Puccini?

I am happy with what I sing. The goal is to keep that repertoire.

I think you are born with a voice and you keep that voice. You might lose flexibility and that might move you to another repertoire because you cannot sing more high notes and other things that are lost with age. My purpose is to keep the characteristics of my voice that have made me, in a way, important in the world of opera. . . . You achieve that by sticking to your repertoire. You can add other operas, but you have to know that they are good to your voice.

Keeping a good technique helps. I am always trying to be better. . . . I am very perfectionistic and a strong critic of myself. I think that it helps me to be always updated . . . not only in technique but also in interpretation, in acting. . . . Keeping the voice fresh is very good.

How did your technique emerge? Did everything just click at some point?

In 1994 [while studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia] I met Peruvian tenor Ernesto Palacio, who is now my manager. Before, I was always improving, but little by little, very slowly. When I met him, he helped me with my technique. Suddenly, I started to sing much better, to find easier high notes, to find faster runs in Rossini, to have more volume.

Basically, I was singing very round and I had to sing more clear. By singing more clear, I found my high notes. I always had a high C, but not as easy. My whole range became more projected -- it had more volume. It was more clear and had more of an edge. At that point, I would go to a room by myself and work to try to find my voice.

In 1995, I met Marilyn Horne at the Santa Barbara Academy Summer School. She said, "Son, you are ready to do a career. You shouldn't be studying anymore. You should go out and sing." She was so eager to help me, and she went to auditions with me. I always keep in touch with her. She is a great Rossini singer. You learn from her just by listening to her recordings. Her breath control and phrasing are amazing.

What has your success meant for your home country of Peru?

It has meant a lot.

They are very proud. It is a country that has many problems with many poor people.

To have a person who, in a way, puts the name of the country in a high place is a source of pride. For them, it's incredible and they value it so much.

When I go to Peru, everyone recognizes me in the streets. The humble people know me. . . . Next year I will do a benefit concert for the poor, and I plan to do many more of them to help.

Your new album seems to be more of a crossover work. Was it a commercial decision to take that approach or was there something else that attracted you to the project?

I grew up with these songs. My father was a Peruvian-music singer, and many of the songs that I recorded are songs that I sang with my guitar back in Peru. It was so natural and enjoyable for me to make a CD like that.

Also, it's a kind of tradition since Caruso, for all tenors who have careers to record songs from their home countries. Caruso recorded Neapolitan songs. [Jussi] Bjorling and Domingo have recorded so much of that. It's something of the tenor, you know. You expect that -- sooner or later that has to come, especially if that is your heritage.

There seems to be a continual search underway to find the successor to Pavarotti and Domingo. Do you feel that this very open search creates undue burdens on promising artists?

Since 1999, people always ask me, "Are you the next Pavarotti?" Or they say, "You are the fourth tenor. What do you think about that?" Things like that. I say you flatter me because I love Pavarotti, but we have essentially different repertoires. He sings more Verdi and Puccini. I go to Rossini instead of going to Verdi. I was of course honored, but I didn't see much in the way of comparison.

Then Pavarotti said it. They asked him, "Who is your successor?" He said, "Well, I think it's Juan Diego Flórez." It's incredible that Pavarotti says something like that. When you hear these sacred singers -- Pavarotti or Domingo -- say that about you, it's the greatest prize.

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