The next Pavarotti, moi?

Juan Diego Florez is touted as the tenor to watch. After his triumphant Royal Opera run, he tells Michael Church he is shocked - but rather chuffed - at being compared to 'last century's greatest voice'

With its protracted parade of paternal avarice and ugly-sister arrogance, Rossini's
La Cenerentola takes a very long time to get to the point. Cinderella sings her pathetic little song, the royal tutor comes on disguised as a beggar and Prince Charming's knights herald his arrival. All nice stuff, but you just hope it's going to be worth the wait - and so we did at the premiere in Covent Garden three years ago. The young Peruvian in the role of the Prince had good reviews for performances with the Royal Opera in exile and he'd starred in Rossini's
Otello, but this was his real London debut.

With its protracted parade of paternal avarice and ugly-sister arrogance, Rossini's La Cenerentola takes a very long time to get to the point. Cinderella sings her pathetic little song, the royal tutor comes on disguised as a beggar and Prince Charming's knights herald his arrival. All nice stuff, but you just hope it's going to be worth the wait - and so we did at the premiere in Covent Garden three years ago. The young Peruvian in the role of the Prince had good reviews for performances with the Royal Opera in exile and he'd starred in Rossini's Otello, but this was his real London debut.

Even in valet attire - with peaked cap, braided suit and leggings - Juan Diego Florez immediately cut a noble figure, but when he opened his mouth you sensed the auditorium suddenly holding its breath: over tentative strings, plus Sonia Ganassi's silky mezzo, Florez blazed into the heavens. His delivery of Rossini's fiendishly difficult (and fiendishly high) lines was flawless, effortless and wonderfully sweet; rarely does talent declare itself so unequivocally. Given the immediate accolade of a full South Bank Show, and hailed by the popular press as "the second Pavarotti" and "opera's Tom Cruise", he's now basking in the limelight: having just starred in Donizetti's Don Pasquale at Covent Garden and bringing out a new CD - Juan Diego Florez: Great Tenor Arias - he's on the crest of a wave.

Florez was initially irritated by that "second Pavarotti" tag: "I want to be regarded as the first Juan Diego Florez" was his gentle put-down with one interviewer. But when I ask whether he's still irritated, the reply is different. "I'm not," he says, "because I admire Pavarotti as the greatest voice of the last century, and also because this year, when somebody asked him who was going to be the next divo, he said 'Juan Diego Florez'. I was shocked. Then he asked me to sing with him for his birthday celebrations at the Waldorf-Astoria - I was the only other singer he wanted there. It felt a great honour, because he is my idol. He knows my repertoire is different from his - I'm not going to sing Boheme and Tosca. No, he means somebody with a nice voice who can make a good career - not a clone."

One of the most telling moments in that South Bank Show came when Plácido Domingo was asked his opinion of this meteor. "He has a beautiful legato and extraordinary high notes," he replies, then adds: "But he must not overdo it, as that could damage his voice." What is Florez's comment on that? "A nice piece of paternal advice. But perhaps that is the difference between us - he finds the high Cs tiring, but I don't. On the other hand, when I sing an opera with a low tessitura [pitch-range], that's when I get tired."

As his onstage persona would lead you to expect, Florez has an easy grace of manner and he seems to regard the breaks which have propelled him famewards as his rightful due. The first of those came in 1996 at the Rossini festival in Pesaro, where the leading tenor, Bruce Ford, fell ill and Florez was begged to step in. So great was his success that contracts "practically rained" on him - and that rain has not abated. The next break came when Ricardo Muti invited him to sing in the second cast of Rossini's Armida in Milan, and then - on the strength of his rehearsals - put Florez on for the opening night. "Coming from another world, as I did - not as a real student of opera - I didn't know how important it all was," he says afterwards. "Not knowing some things makes you more relaxed."

Indeed, opera was far from his mind when he made his first steps as a musician. Born in 1973, Florez grew up listening to and strumming along with his folk-singer father Ruben - whose light tenor and unaffected charm he's inherited - and also listening to those great exponents of Cuban nueva trova, Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés. "I wasn't interested in their revolutionary words," Florez says. "Their music was just nice to sing and play." Florez also loved what had been happening in Britain and America - The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin - and at 12 was writing his own songs. He began performing with his father in a piano bar in Lima and then put his own band together. "It wasn't very good," he admits, "but I started organising concerts and sold tickets to my friends. At that time, I wanted to be too many things - an arranger; a pianist; to lead a rock band as a pop soloist - but when I went to the Conservatory, everything came clear and I started to take voice lessons."

His first mentor described him as a little bear with a harsh voice. "It was a very nasal sound," says Florez, doing a quick imitation, "because that suited my style with the band. When I started singing classical, it stayed that way - sort of crossover, heavily miked, like Elvis Presley." He got rid of that sound and hawked himself round blue-chip American institutions the Juilliard, the Manhattan School and the Curtis Institute. "And that was when I realised I had talent," he says, "because they wanted me as a student. I settled for the Curtis."

But the real turning point came when he asked the Peruvian tenor Ernesto Palacio to audition him. "And he was like, 'Hmm, maybe' - [he was] not impressed, but he saw something he could develop," he says. "He didn't like the roundness of my voice, like a cave - he said you should sing clear. But at the Curtis, I'd been told to be round." More imitations, with the mouth changing shape as the sound loses its dome-like resonance, and acquires an open clarity. 'If I'd stayed singing round, I would not be doing what I am now. I'd be more like Pavarotti - with a lyric voice, right for Boheme and Lucia. But I am different. I am a light lyric."

And between "lyric" and "light lyric", there's a great divide: the tenore di grazia for whom Rossini wrote were expected to replicate the preternaturally rapid coloratura singing of the castrati, who were then dying out as a breed. Florez compares this kind of singing to driving a very fast car, and, at present, nobody else in the world can drive it like he does. Moreover, he enjoys the risks in improvisation, both musically within the score's permitted limits and dramatically in terms of how he will move on stage. "I am better if I am improvising," he says. "I never show in rehearsals what I'm going to do in the real thing, because I don't know. The adrenalin and the contact with the public - that is what fires me. My calendar is so full I have to arrive late in a production. Living dangerously suits me."

In Don Pasquale, he faced a slightly different challenge. "For Rossini's coloratura, physically you have to be fit as though you are going to run the 100 metres, but for Donizetti the demands are different. One has to be fit for 2,000 metres: the singing is stretched; very sustained; a very tough line." Will Florez ever sing Mozart? "Maybe, when I am older and my voice has lost some of its flexibility. But for now everybody wants to hear me do Donizetti and Rossini." In Italian bel canto, he explains, the orchestra is there as an accompaniment - "a cushion for the voice" - whereas Mozart is more an ensemble thing. "The soprano might shine, but not the tenor," he says And you want above all to shine? He laughs: "For now, well, why not?"

This is a man happy with his fame and with the fandom that goes with it. He's not keen to discuss the unauthorised website headed by a cheeky pic of him looking fetching in a Carmelite nun's coif, but he's enthusiastic about several others. There's a Decca record label one, "and one by a middle-aged woman called Jean, which is very good," he says. "There's also a very complete Japanese one. The fans are a great part of my career; they travel everywhere. And I have good luck with them, because they are nice people; very respectful."

So what's the longer-term goal? His answer surprises by its modesty: "To sing better. Verdi and Puccini are all about passion, and the polishing of every detail doesn't matter so much. But in Rossini's bel canto there are always things one could sing more beautifully and that has to be your goal. For the career, I'm just happy to come back to the four big theatres - Covent Garden, La Scala, the Metropolitan, and Vienna. If I'm invited back, if they are happy with me, that's the ultimate thing. An opera singer is meant to sing. That's all."

So, there we have it. A consummate artist, who has incidentally provoked a tectonic shift in the operatic world - but with no hidden depths. What you see is what you get.

'Juan Diego Florez: Great Tenor Arias' is out on the Decca label

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions