Twenty-two years ago, Juan Diego Flórez arrived like a meteorite across the opera firmament. A couple of weeks before his career launching performance, I'd met the young tenor in Milan. He'd flown over from Peru with a work visa just for a handful of days, and was heading to Pesaro to make his Italian debut. A fellow tenor said, “This one… he's got all those high notes!” Another tenor that evening — there were only five of us, but three tenors — was a fellow Peruvian and fellow Rossinian, who would later become Flórez's very able manager, Ernesto Palacio, who was key in getting him the Pesaro contract .
Flórez's role in Pesaro was Ernesto in Rossini's Ricciardo e Zoraide. However, the tenor in Matilde di Shabran, Bruce Ford, fell ill and Flórez stepped in – and yes, he had all those high notes.
His career was launched, and he was in demand the world over almost instantly. Those high notes are rare. But he never entered on stage to perform in Ricciardo e Zoraide. Well now, back in Pesaro, the town where he now has a beautiful villa, he is to sing not Ernesto, but the title role, Ricciardo.
“In 1996 I was invited to sing Ernesto, and to cover the main role of Ricciardo. It was a great opportunity to be heard. But then then everything changed when I debuted in Matilde. So Ricciardo e Zoraide I'm doing now, 22 years later, for the first time.
It's a tough role, it tests you continually, it's a marathon of virtuosity. But I'm pleased that I can arrive at all the notes, with the agility to allow me to do variations.
In the meantime, life has changed… my repertoire and my voice have changed. Now I want to increase my roles to have new experiences and challenges. Rossini will always be my first love. He's like the thermometer to test what I can do. If you manage to be in control of Rossini's music, then you can do everything. To still feel those notes within my voice is something I love, it gives me joy and energises me.
Belcanto is at the centre of my career, but I'd like to confront other composers too, and confront myself. So soon I will be singing Massenet's Manon, Gounod's Faust and then La traviata at the Met. I like to know that in the future there will be fresh challenges.
Pesaro was my artistic birthplace and a town where I can rediscover myself. I've returned so many times to sing at this festival since 1996 and when I'm here I feel truly at home, so much so that my work seems just a hobby.
I've never worried about whether my voice will be up to it or not — I like to throw myself into an experience. I go on stage and feel the adrenalin rush. Some colleagues suffer and even must take pills to deal with stage fright.
Nowadays, singers are almost all athletic and in form physically. Those extra pounds are largely something from the past. You go onstage to act. The director's vision and that of the whole production is more precise than in the past. Our work has changed vastly, as the world has changed too. Before there were only Italians here in Pesaro, but in Ricciardo there's just one… we're Russians, South Africans, South Americans…
Our world is far smaller than that of cinema or theatre. We all know each other, and honestly, I have never heard of any #MeToo problems.
My wife [Julia Trappe] was studying singing when we met and had managed to win a place at Julliard. I wanted her to continue, and encouraged her, but she said that she wanted to stay with me. In fifteen years, we've never been apart. I'm a lucky man.“
Juan Diego Flórez was speaking to Il Messagero
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.