Bel Canto Beauty Flórez Called ‘Little Luciano’

On a gray afternoon on Feb. 4, Juan Diego Flórez, the 29-year-old

Peruvian tenor who’s just debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Almaviva in

Gioacchino Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia ,

arrived at Il Violino running and panting, 15 minutes late. He pushed the

restaurant’s doors with both hands and a shake of the head and apologized

profusely.

“It’s the traffic; I came from midtown,” he said with emotion. “I

took the bus-it got stuck in traffic.”

Mr. Flórez’s speaking voice is a mixture of Italian and Spanish

inflections, but his singing voice is another matter. It’s beautiful and high,

and he has now taken it-a coloratura best suited for Italian bel canto-to the

big five opera houses of Milan, Berlin, London, Vienna and New York. He has a

recording contract with Decca-the company that signed Luciano Pavarotti,

Cecelia Bartoli and Renée Fleming-and has released his first solo album of

Rossini arias.

The artistic and marketing line on Mr. Flórez is direct,

effective and based on potential: He is, for Decca, the heir to Pavarotti. His

voice is distinctive enough to earn comparisons with great singers past, from

tenors to sopranos, thanks to its elegant, supple sound and dexterity. And he is,

in the tradition of Mario Lanza and Domingo, a matinee idol. 

What definitely shattered the image of the marketed matinee idol,

however, was the look on Mr. Flórez’s face when he was shown the glossy

brochure Decca had prepared for the release of his CD. He hardly knew what to

make of it. His eyes went from one picture to the next, almost in disbelief,

before he managed a smile. “I hadn’t seen it yet,” he said with a

half-convincing laugh. “It’s nice, no? What do you think?”

There was a photograph of him on a Vespa, wearing suede shoes.

Not quite used to the business, he said he never rides Vespas and that the

suede shoes weren’t his. As for that comment quoted on one of the pages-that

Peru might have found the heir to Pavarotti-he laughed and said, “I don’t think

I’m the next Pavarotti, simply because he has another kind of voice and he’s

another kind of tenor. Pavarotti sings a repertoire that’s more appealing to

people, like Verdi and all that, and I sing a kind of repertoire that’s liked

by less people.”

At 29, Mr. Flórez has spent the last six years building up his

career, ever since his performance in a 1996 production of Matilde di Shabran in Pesaro’s Rossini summer festival. To many of

his colleagues, he’s still very much a kid. Maybe it’s the long eyelashes, or

the air of humility with which he bows down, very deep, at the end of the

performance during the applause, or the sheer, childish joy he takes springing

and bouncing his way onstage in his comic scenes, attracting all the laughs.

“My colleagues, like Simone Alaino-I sang with him in 1995-or Bruno Praticò or

Michele Pertusi, people that have seen me from when I was 23, especially

Italian colleagues, they see me as a baby, they treat me the same,” he said at

one point with a laugh. “‘ Ai bambino,

bambino viene, fillio mio !’ But they defend

me, always. They’re leale ; they’re

loyal.” Riccardo Muti, director of Milan’s La Scala, where Mr. Flórez made his

first real theater debut, said to him, “Don’t forget you were born here, you

grew up here.”

“He’s always saying to everybody,” Mr. Flórez said, shaking his

index finger, “This is a son of ours; this is a son of La Scala.'”

There comes a turning point in a young opera singer’s life when

talent is no longer judged by personal progress, or how you might stand

compared to your contemporaries, as much by the place you could hold in opera

history-where you would rank within the entire pantheon of singers who’ve sung

that role before you. It’s the sign that you’ve arrived in the big league.

But despite Mr. Flórez’s ambition, the years of practice and

studying it took to achieve his voice, and the calm resolution with which he

tackles each new role, he seems to be squirming under the weight of

comparisons. After catapulting to fame, at the age of 23, in Pesaro he

proceeded to make made a name for himself thanks to his looks, his comic

talents and, most of all, his incredibly agile, high-toned tenor, which can cut

right through an orchestra.

Mr. Flórez is aware of these qualities. He’s not overly anxious

when he takes the stage; he says he relies on a pretty systematic practice.

It’s the lineage that makes him nervous.

“They’re always talking about the next great tenor, like Domingo

or Pavarotti, a full lyric voice,” he said. “They’re thinking like in boxing-heavyweight

this, heavyweight that. They’re like, ‘ Lightweight -what’s

that ?'” Then he added, “You know,

people are always saying things, comparing, like ‘He’s not the real thing; he

doesn’t have this voice.’ They say, ‘Di Stefano would have been a better Barbiere .’ They’re comparing me with Di

Stefano! That’s like comparing water with-with, with steak !”

Mr. Flórez is a son of Peru. His father was a Peruvian folkloric

singer who divorced his mother when Mr. Flórez was 2. Mr. Flórez grew up

singing rock songs by Led Zeppelin and the Beatles with his band, before

heading to the conservatory to learn orchestration and arrangements. He planned

to become a pop singer, but he discovered he had a voice-a real voice-and took it to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.

During the course of his studies there, he met his mentor, Ernesto Palacio, a

Peruvian bel canto tenor who spotted the coloratura qualities.

“He told me I was wasting around,” Mr. Flórez explained. “I

studied with him and everything changed. I started to understand; I discovered

a way of making my sound. He’s very straight, and he told me singing is about

simplicity: ‘Do clear sounds. Sing vowels. Why sing an euh if its an ah ? Why

sing an ay if it’s an euh ?’ I was singing so laaaaaaaaa, and I thought that was so

good.”

Mr. Flórez followed in Mr. Palacio’s footsteps and started

practicing by recording himself to analyze his voice and sharpen his sounds.

Today, Mr. Palacio is his teacher and agent; he tours around the world with him

and is part of Mr. Flórez’s relatively small entourage, which sometimes

includes a younger Italian girlfriend (also a singer, a soprano) and sometimes

his mother, who spent last month with him in New York. Mr. Flórez’s father has

yet to travel with him.

“When you bring somebody,” Mr. Flórez said, “you bring your

mother-I see it like that.”

To Mr. Flórez, after his audience comes Mr. Palacio. “The first

year, I remember, in La Cenerentola ,

in Genova,” he said, “he came to my dressing room in the middle of the

performance and said, ‘Everything is shit.

Everything is shit . You have to sing better in the second act. Some people

would hear that and get totally down … but in the second act, I was incredible.

That gave me- strength .”

Saying the word “strength,” he pulled back his hands as if he

were holding back a horse. “I’m not afraid of seeing reality,” he added. “When

you fuck up, you fuck up. You assume the responsibility of that, and it gives

you strength to win at the end, in a way. If the first act doesn’t go well, in

the second one you have the opportunity to

win .”

To do that, it seems, Mr. Flórez must content his elders. So far,

it seems to have worked: Plácido Domingo comes to his performances and his

dressing room, and every once in a while they’re on the phone. Mr. Pavarotti’s

also heard him, in La Sonnambula at

La Scala-and according to Mr. Flórez, jokingly told Decca when they signed him,

“You finally put a good tenor on.” Yet Mr. Flórez is constantly upping the

ante, as in Barbiere .

“The vocal chords are muscles, they are not chords,” he said of

his singing in Barbiere . “They have

to be very”-he clenched his fists. “It’s like you’re in the Olympics or

something. You have to jump high, and there’s this tension: ‘Am I going to make

it? Huh? Am I?’ In opera, you have just one opportunity to make it right.”

In Lima, Mr. Flórez did high-jumping and ran the 100-meter race.

Competition is very much a part of him. In Pesaro, he filled in for a jittery

tenor and didn’t think twice about accepting the part, which he’d never even read.

Several years later, he did it for his Covent Garden debut in La Sonnambula , when he stepped in for a

tenor with two days’ notice and practiced on the plane ride over with the 250

pages of score he’d received by fax.

“Some people would think that’s crazy, some singers,” he said.

“But it saves you time; you can maybe do things you wouldn’t do and take

opportunities you might not get in normal circumstances.”

Now, it seems, Mr. Flórez wants the opportunity to sing that one

piece that will set him apart. Very conscious of history, he mentioned at one

point that Rossini wrote with castrati in mind, those singers who could really

take on the “tic-a-tic-a-tic” cadence of his arias. He pointed out that in the

last century, tenors would sing different parts of the same Rossini opera, such

was the physical challenge. Clearly, he’s setting the stage for his own

exploit, one that could make his name. So he brings up “Cessa di più

Resistere,” Barbiere ‘s purple patch,

which is rarely performed because of the sheer agility and physical stamina it

requires.

“It’s not the Barber

you’re used to seeing, with Figaro as the main thing. Here, with this aria, it

changes: The tenor has sung two arias already, and he sings the last one. After

that, it’s finished. And so he becomes the main character. I’m pretty sure that

was the purpose of Rossini; the opera was called Almaviva in the beginning.”

In Italy, where bel canto is

sung more often, Mr. Flórez said, it’s a little easier to get recognition. “At

La Scala,” he said, “people know .”

Here in New York, where operagoers want heavyweights for their money, a Rossini

performance holds no frisson. Yet on a recent Saturday afternoon, when Mr.

Flórez launched into the first notes of the last aria- ” Olà, t’accheta. Cessa di più resistere ” -his voice trilling higher and higher, bounding and leaping from

note to note in a way that no operagoer could remember hearing, it was as if he

had at last crawled out from under the weight of tradition. So what if he’ll

never bring the house down in Verdi? That afternoon, his “Cessa” was greeted with a small reflective

hush before the applause-and for a second it seemed that all you could see

onstage was Mr. Flórez, taller and stronger in his last costume, a military

getup of Almaviva’s. And no shadows came to steal the spotlight.