Twenty-five years ago, Gramilano met a young Peruvian tenor in Milan. He was on his way to sing a small role in ‘Ricciardo e Zoraide‘ at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro and was bright-eyed with excitement. A few days later in Pesaro, when the tenor singing the difficult tole of Corradino in ‘Matilde by Shabran’ dropped out, he took over, learning the role in just a few days. On the opening night on 13 August 1986, Juan Diego Flórez was hailed as a new opera star.
JDF: The opening was only a few days away and there was no replacement to be found because it was such a rarely performed opera. They asked me if I felt up to taking on such a difficult part. I told them to give me the score and that I’d go to lunch, leaf through it, and then give them my answer. I didn’t even open it. I knew I had an agile voice, easy high notes, and the ability to memorise quickly, and being the reckless person I was, I accepted. Even if it had gone wrong, I had nothing to lose.
Last Sunday, 22 August 2021, he sung in a Rossini Opera Festival Gala in front of the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella. Rossini’s music has been the cornerstone of his career.
Although I now touch on repertoire away from bel canto – I sing Massenet’s Werther, Traviata and Rigoletto, even Bohème – Rossini remains my point of reference. Since 1996 I have participated in the Rossini Opera Festival almost every year, and I am so attached to Pesaro that I have even bought a house there. After all, singing Rossini helps me get back in shape.
It is an ‘athletic’ style of writing that no other composer has. It requires that you come on stage with an elastic and well-exercised voice. That’s why every time I tackle his music, I must eat less and lose a couple of kilos of belly fat beforehand, otherwise it becomes difficult to control those muscular movements that allow for all the vocal pyrotechnics. Nowadays, there are Rossinian tenors everywhere, but in the 1980s there were only the Americans Rockwell Blake and Chris Merritt, and later Gregory Kunde, but now a new wave of talented youngsters is emerging, giving hope for the future. I say this for a reason, because when I prepare for a part, I listen to colleagues who have sung the role on Spotify or YouTube, as I don’t believe that you risk copying bad habits, as teachers always used to say, but it can help you enrich your interpretation.
More than other opera composers, Rossini is a continuous revelation; an enigma that is never solved. Each generation challenges the achievements of the previous one, pointing out new approaches to style, technique, tempi, variations, and ornamentation. Over the years, performances of Rossini have become increasingly fine-tuned and often it is the Rossini Opera Festival that shows the way for other theatres.
When I was studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, I didn’t know I had a special talent for [Rossini]. I sang everything, as I was one of the few tenors on the course. It was at this time that I met my compatriot Ernesto Palacio, a great tenor and now the artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival, with whom I made my first CDs. He suggested Rossini to me, introducing me to his music and letting me experiment with what was emerging from the new research into his works. So, at the age of 23, I arrived in Pesaro. The intendant of La Scala was there, and he cast me for the opening night of the 1996 season, which was Gluck’s Armide conducted by Riccardo Muti. Also, Luciano Pavarotti began to say nice things about my voice in interviews.
Yet until I was seventeen, music for me was my guitar and pop – I didn’t know anything about classical music. But for some time now, I have been going back to my roots by incorporating Latin American songs in my discs and concerts, sometimes as encores or occasionally for entire programmes, accompanying myself with my guitar or singing with a band. Songs such as Bésame mucho or Cucurrucucú paloma are from the traditional repertoire and yet they were composed for voices that are almost operatic.
So, ten years ago, I created the Sinfonía por el Peru foundation with the aim of providing something inspiring through music. It is for children and young people who have grown up amid poverty, social inequality, crime, drugs and prostitution. Playing in an orchestra and singing in a choir inspires new values in them and changes their way of thinking and living. To date, 35,000 children have benefited and according to a recent study, the percentage of Peruvian teenage girls who become pregnant decreases by 75% among those who participate in the project.
Juan Diego Flórez was talking to Gregorio Moppi for La Repubblica