Since 1996, when he made a last-minute debut at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, when he was all of 23, Juan Diego Flórez has moved quickly into the front ranks of today’s opera stars. Now 34, the Peruvian-born tenor enjoys a career firmly planted in the bel canto repertoire of Donizetti, Bellini, and, especially, Rossini, thanks to his light, bright, agile voice, incisive phrasing, and dynamic acting style. Those qualities won a fresh round of praise from public and press alike when Flórez starred in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Siviglia” (”The Barber of Seville”). He spoke with GREAT PERFORMANCES by phone from Vienna, where he was enjoying yet another success, this one in Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment” (”The Daughter of the Regiment”) at the Vienna State Opera.
GREAT PERFORMANCES: The Met’s new “Barbieri” drew a lot of attention partly because it was directed not by an veteran of opera, but by someone from the Broadway world, Bartlett Sher, who recently directed “The Light in the Piazza.” What was it like working with him, and how did you enjoy his take on Rossini?
Juan Diego Flórez: I think it was great. The fact that he was not from opera meant that he brought some new ideas, a fresh approach. He created a “Barbiere” that is modern, and at the same time one that respects the libretto and the opera, never becoming completely outrageous and different from what the librettist and Rossini wanted.
GP: The set design by Michael Yeargan also generated plenty of comment.
JDF: All those doors. No scenery, really, just doors.
GP: And the cast walks out partly into the theater over the orchestra on a runway.
JDF: That was new and exciting, no? In Europe, I have done a lot of things like that, so it wasn’t really so new for me. But it is not so common for the Met. We [in the cast] were all young people, and we love things like that, things that are new and strange. Bring it on, you know?
GP: There were some complaints that the orchestra sounded a little muted because of that runway.
JDF: That’s good, then. (Laughter.) It’s better than the orchestra being too loud.
GP: When you perform in comic operas, you are known for doing a great deal of physical action onstage — running and jumping all over the place. Do you practice a regimen to keep in shape for all of that?
JDF: I haven’t been going to the gym for, like, three months. Before that, I went often for 40 minutes or something like that. I have always been pretty flexible. I could always jump and do all kinds of dangerous movements. In opera I like to do it because it’s fun, as long as it fits the role.
GP: Do the producers look worried when you start doing that?
JDF: They do get a little nervous. (Laughter.) But I will continue to do it. There will be a time when I can’t.
GP: What do you like about portraying the character of Count Almaviva in “Barbieri”?
JDF: I enjoy him very, very much., He’s a romantic. But he’s the funny guy in the opera, no? He is willing to do anything, put on a disguise and get in funny positions, even though he is an aristocrat, and I like that. He is an aristocrat in the beginning and the end, and in the middle he has to be funny. When he is disguised as the music teacher, the way I do it, he even gets a little bit feminine. This is fun.
GP: At the Met, you get to sing the final aria in “Barbieri,” a brilliant showpiece for tenor that almost never used to be included in performances.
JDF: I like it a lot. It fits. It is written, it’s part of the original version of the opera. I think it is cut often because the tenor isn’t comfortable singing it. In the beginning of my career, I wanted to do it in La Scala, but the conductor didn’t let met. Now, I do it everywhere. When I was going to sing the opera in Japan, they even wanted me to sign papers saying that I would do the final aria. Here in Vienna also, they asked me to do it, and they are not used to that aria here, so it means you have to rehearse the opera a little more.
GP: Speaking of Vienna, you’re doing one of your signature roles there, Tonio in “Daughter of the Regiment,” with the famous aria that has nine high Cs. Are all those high Cs no big deal, or do they make you a little nervous each time?
JDF: No, actually I’m pretty calm about them. I worry more about the last aria, which is more technically demanding. Of course, it is always difficult to sing high Cs, especially so many high Cs, but they don’t worry me. If you worry about them, you shouldn’t do this opera. Sometimes I have to sing the aria twice because the public demands it, so you have to have those notes right there.
GP: The Vienna production of “Daughter of the Regiment” has an almost legendary singer in the cameo role of the Duchess of Crakentorp, Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. What’s it like appearing onstage with her?
JDF: It’s really great. She’s my idol. She had such a wonderful voice, with those incredible pianissimos. And she is such a great woman, so down to earth — and so funny. She’s really a good comedian.
GP: Are there other singers you hold in especially high esteem?
JDF: My two idols were [Alfredo] Kraus and [Luciano] Pavarotti. I always listened to them. I liked their singing very, very much. Also [Plácido] Domingo, especially because of the Spanish songs he sang, the zarzuelas. I listened to them a lot when I was young.
GP: Not too young, though, right? You didn’t start out wanting to be an opera singer.
JDF: I didn’t grow up with classical music. My father was a folk music singer. I played guitar, and did a lot of singing and composing [of pop music]. And I had a rock band. I went to school to learn guitar, solfeggio, and harmony. I wanted to know more about music, how it works. I wanted to take voice lessons, too, and that’s when I discovered what I could do with my voice. At the beginning, I thought I would do classical and pop, but then I learned that I really liked the classical music. I decided that this is what I wanted to do.
GP: Singers are often encouraged to expand their repertoire, to do more and more things, usually heavier roles. Do you get that kind of pressure, and are you thinking of moving into different material, either post-bel canto or even pre-bel canto?
JDF: I’m lucky because my repertoire is so specific, and theaters are interested in me singing my repertoire, because it is not done so much. I’m pretty well settled in my repertoire. I like what I sing. My voice is high, and there is not much in baroque opera for higher tenor. But I am going to do Gluck’s “Orfeo” — the tenor version, which is high. I am also interested in doing a CD of late-baroque arias. And I think there will be a lot of Mozart in the future — not the near future, but the future. I will do my first “Cosi” in Madrid in 2010 or 2011. It will be good to take a rest from extreme repertoire. (Laughter).
GP: All the coloratura in that extreme repertoire doesn’t seem to give you the slightest pause, no matter how high or florid the music gets. Did your vocal agility come naturally, automatically to you when you started?
JDF: I think it is a little bit natural. When you discover you have it, you have to be careful. If you push too much in the center of the voice, you will lose the high notes. If you sing too much in the back of the throat, that will also make you lose high notes. Knowing these technical things helps you maintain the voice, keep[ing] it very high and very clear. And also knowing not to sing the wrong repertoire. Sometimes when the voice loses flexibility and high notes, singers change to heavier repertoire. I hope that doesn’t happen to me.
Interview by Tim Smith for GREAT PERFORMANCES Online conducted in May 2007.