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'
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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

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