Last night -- after a cancelled opening night of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia that was supposed to happen on July 9 -- Juan Diego Flórez stepped onto la Scala stage’s as Count Almaviva in the four-decade old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Rossini’s opera buffa. OC had prized tickets to Flórez’s opening night, which was later sunk by a strike from labor unions to protest the new law, just passed by Italy’s parliament to regulate opera houses budgets and hiring practices.
We hadn’t seen the Peruvian tenor in Milan since his January 2008 recital (post #1, post #2). This time, Opera Chic met Juan Diego Flórez for an interview at a cafe steps away from Teatro alla Scala where he showed-up looking like he just exited from a fashion photo shoot: faded blue jeans, a crisp Ermenegildo Zegna long-sleeved white shirt, while carrying all accessories in Zegna's gorgeous black leather -- not surprising after featuring him as one of OC's five best-dressed opera singers for W Magazine's Editors' Blog.
The half-prince, half-lamby king of the high Cs shared so much with Opera Chic, but you’ll have to click the link below to find out what he said in the interview!
Opera Chic: A couple weeks ago at La Scala, Philip Gossett gave a lecture about Il Barbiere di Siviglia, where he explained that through the ages, Rossini’s repetition within the libretto (Rosina’s music lesson for l'Inutil Precauzione) had been cut by those who didn’t understand Rossini’s sense of humor and instead found it boring and repetitive. Gossett said that you were the first singer in modern times who absolutely insisted on keeping the libretto and recitatives intact and you’ve since set the new standard for not only Il Barbiere, but many other of Rossini’s operas (L’Italiana in Algeri). It’s obviously important to you, but how does it make you feel knowing that you’ve changed the way that modern audiences listen to Rossini’s operas?
Juan Diego Flórez: Rossini has gone through more evolution over the years than any other famous Italian composer – for instance, Verdi. I’ve observed this evolution musically, but also in the way the opera has been performed. Speaking about the execution and the performance of the opera, I consider Rossini my fach and because it’s something I can do well, it’s something that I want to sing complete. But I feel more like I’m part of a chain. I’m someone who has learned by observing singers and I’ve learned a lot from others.
Earlier I was speaking with the Sovrintendente of the Rossini Opera Festival [Ed: Pesaro, Italy's annual Rossini opera festival is supervised by Gianfranco Mariotti, the father of conductor Michele Mariotti who was called-in last minute by Teatro alla Scala to conduct Florez’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia run for the dismissed-by-the-orchestra French conductor, Jean-Christophe Spinosi] because La Scala was hosting a press conference for the new critical edition [Ed: the new edition is by Alberto Zedda, which was presented on July 5 in La Scala's Ridotto Toscanini]. Gianfranco Mariotti told me that he came to La Scala in 1969 to see this new Il Barbiere production for the first time [Ed: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia production which premiered 40-ish years ago at La Scala, is being revived for the current July 2010 run with Flórez at La Scala] and it changed the previous way of doing Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was a new edition with Claudio Abbado, Luigi Alva, and Teresa Berganza, but before that, he had always heard Rossini done in a bad way with heavy orchestration -- lots of trombones -- with singers who were exaggerating everything. With this new edition some order was made -- the orchestra sounded more Mozart-like and the orchestration was lighter. The singers were contained and everything sounded better. From that moment forward, everything started to change with Rossini, little by little, especially in the 70s and the 80s. Between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s – maybe even a bit before -- there was a renaissance: you have these wonderful American tenors and you had Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey -- and before that you, of course, Ernesto Palacio [Ed: Flórez’s long-time manager who had a long career singing bel canto before he started his own management company]. So if you compare how it was done in the 50s to how it was done in the 80s, there’s a big difference, and this is something that especially happened with Rossini -- this evolution of the performance method. It happened very fast and very recently.
I was somebody who listened to those recordings -- of course, since I was younger when this all happened and I wasn’t able to experience it live – but I listened to different tenors to learn how they performed and I thought that I wanted to do something to continue this evolution. I’m happy to be part of the recent evolution, but I never thought like, “Okay, now I’m going to take Rossini to the next level,” or, “Now I’m going to do it like this!” No way! There was no agenda. My whole wish was only to sing Rossini so I could give justice to his music. And not only giving justice to the coloratura lines which obviously had to be very virtuosic – but rather the lines and the expression. That was always my wish: not to only concentrate on the flow but also on the beauty of the lines, the words, and to express what you are singing. So for that I’m glad I contributed to doing Rossini’s complete operas. But I also did it because I thought that I could sing the parts complete and the challenge that I could sing the whole arias two times because I wanted to show that I could do it the second time with Rossini’s variations.
In 1999 I sang Il Barbiere di Siviglia here at La Scala, and they didn’t want me to do that last aria because it wasn’t tradition and they said it was too boring [Ed: Almaviva's final aria, "Cessa di più resistere," has been habitually cut since it was regarded as a detour to the final ensemble]. I wasn’t very happy about it. Now in 2010 if I *don’t* sing the last aria, they would get angry at me! So you can see how much Il Barbiere di Siviglia has changed since 1999. Rockwell Blake was another tenor that was also big on imposing the last aria, just like I imposed it at La Scala. But I think it’s a wonderful aria because it’s the part when the Count finally gets to sing to Rosina -- and he sings this middle line which he never did before. He was never able to tell her how much he cared for her in such a romantic way and if you look at it in the context of when Rossini wrote the opera, it highlights the style. Also, it was written for García [Ed: 19th century Spanish tenor Manuel García who sang Count Almaviva at Il Barbiere’s premiere in 1816] so I really wanted to do it complete. I also started doing the same thing for works like L’Italiana in Algeri and La Sonnambula [Ed: Vincenzo Bellini’s opera], especially to sing Rossini’s original arias – because the other one isn’t Rossini [Ed: Lindoro's Act II L’italiana in Algeri cavatina, "Oh, come il cor di giubilo" isn’t attributed to Rossini]. You know, to sing a Rossini aria in an actual Rossini opera makes sense. So, I think you start doing things to follow that aesthetic and the rest just follows. I’m happy with how Rossini sounds in 2010 without such exaggerated caricatures.
Opera Chic: Many prominent opera singers seem to be experiencing repertory problems and voice problems: you are the one instead who, after a tryout in Lima and one in Dresden, chose not to pursue the Duke of Mantua role for the time-being to save your voice. How do you resist the obvious pressure that must be around you to do the bigger, more popular roles, like, say, Alfredo or Rodolfo?
Juan Diego Flórez: I don’t know how it is with other singers, but I’ve been lucky that there’s been no pressure to sing those roles. It was my idea to sing the Duke of Mantua, it but I never had pressure. Part of this reason is because my repertoire started to be defined very early in my career. Everybody saw me as this Rossini/Bellini/Donizetti tenor and I was already very much that. No one has really asked me to do anything else. I have artistic direction, but it’s never been in a way that’s demanding. I think also because I’ve always have had Ernesto [Ed: Florez’s manager] to filter these things. So you know, maybe he got the offers and he didn’t actually tell me! [Laughs]
I think in the beginning Ernesto knew much more than I did about what I should be singing. Ernesto has been valuable because he’s someone with a good pair of ears, and someone with a good pair of ears hears you much better than you’re able to hear yourself. Of course, it’s hard to understand yourself how your voice is perceived. For singers, we have an ear that hears ourselves outside and inside. For instance, when you have a cold and your ears are blocked, you hear yourself more on the inside. So it’s a constant balance of the ear’s inner and outer parts, and singers tend to think of their voices in a different way. So it’s good to have somebody who you can trust and who understands your voice. I think now, I have a very good idea of how I sound and what my voice is like and this is a very good thing. As far as popularity, I think Rossini’s works are gaining more popularity in the market and it’s a repertoire that I like very much.
Opera Chic: You are on the record as a great admirer of Fritz Wunderlich. Jonas Kauffman recently told me in an interview that as a tenor one “should look into Wunderlich first because he’s always honest with all his passion and soul. And to look into him for everything he puts into his music and his words, as words are very important to him” – how does a master like Wunderlich inspire you? And how much can you learn by a man who is long gone?
Juan Diego Flórez: I think Wunderlich was a great singer. The main feature is his beautiful voice. Of course, he’s considered a German tenor -- although he’s Austrian -- and his repertoire and what meets that repertoire is all there. Wunderlich is unique for a few reasons: A German tenor usually sings Lieder – words -- and has a certain type of voice, but sounds distinctly German. So with the German tenors, you find that they put a lot of importance into the words, certain sounds, and certain shadings which has a great facility for dynamics. Whereas with an Italian tenor – or with a singer that sounds distinctly Italian -- you’ll find there’s more difficulty in getting those “piano-pianos” that the German tenors can do so well, and the Italian singers have a certain shine to their voice -- more brightness. So someone who has a more German-sounding voice will not sound so great singing Italian repertoire, and someone who sounds more Italianate won’t sound so great singing in German. Wunderlich, however, was a bit different: although he has that German sound in his voice, he had something else inside, so it was a good mix. And I think it’s also that same mix that Jonas has. I’ve always admired him. So when Jonas or Wunderlich sings Italian repertory, they’ve really got artistic shading.
I’m a fan of all music, I’ve always loved everything. I LOVE Lieder. I love Schumann, Schubert, and Strauss, and I love the way Jonas sings it. I love the way he expresses everything. But I’m conscious for myself that it would be very difficult to sing Lieder well. Because even though I have the right idea, I don’t have the right sound or the right words -- because in Lieder, language is so important. I don’t think I have the right color that would work with certain notes, and this is a little bit of a challenge for me because you always have to go with what the public is used to. But really, who says that in the time of Verdi or Rossini -- or whatever -- tenors or sopranos sounded like we think they do? Or sound now like we think they should sound? We just don’t know. But now the public believes that someone who sings La Boheme or someone who sings Wagner should sound more or less a certain way. And this also limits singers’ span of repertoire. But singers have to be like this because in the end, it’s the people who are coming to see us, and we have to respect that. It’s a bit restricting, but that’s how it goes.
Opera Chic: I remember seeing many Peruvian flags waving at la Scala during one of your recitals there – how strongly do you feel your sense of belonging to Peru and your role as national hero, even bigger than Luigi Alva was in Peru? Even your wedding seemed like a national holiday, the Peruvian President was there.
Juan Diego Flórez: Yes, I love my country very much, although I can’t go so often. But I’m so happy that the love is reciprocated. I’m happy to have contributed everything I planned out in classical music and opera. And now I’ve introduced El Sistema in Peru, which is something I’m really excited about and I think we can achieve a very fertile ground for future musicians. [Ed: El Sistema is Venezuela's government-financed music education program started by José Abreu in the mid-70s]
Opera Chic: One role you’d like to try in the future?
Juan Diego Flórez: I want to sing one new role a year, no more than that. There’s not one particular role that I’m dying to sing, but the roles in future will make me happy. Les pêcheurs de perles is one. I also want to go back to operas that I haven’t sung in a while like Rossini's opera, Le Comte Ory [Ed: which Flórez recorded live from a 2003 Pesaro performance and will sing next season at The Metropolitan Opera]. It’s a great opera and it’ll be nice to do again.
Opera Chic: Placido Domingo is still singing at 70. Do you see yourself doing something similar to that?
Juan Diego Flórez: I don’t think so! [Laughs] I’m somebody who likes to be home. I like to enjoy my private moments. Of course I enjoy singing very much and I’m so fortune to be doing something that I love also as work, but I also like to have my time off and not to spend all my time traveling. I’m not someone who likes to fill their time constantly. For me, I’ll be doing even less when I retire although I understand all my responsibilities now.
Opera Chic: No!!! Will you change your mind please and keep working until you’re 70?!!!
Juan Diego Flórez: No! It’s too much! [Laughs]
Opera Chic: So you won’t be like Leo Nucci singing Rigoletto at 68?
Juan Diego Flórez: Listen, I don’t think my voice will change so much since its pretty much the same as it was since I’ve started. The sound is more or less the same, which is good, I think.
I’m not into a big race to do as much as I can.
Opera Chic: But do you ever think to yourself that you’ve already attained more than your wildest dreams so now you can slow down? I mean, you’re already so famous as an international opera star, so maybe it’s enough for you?
Juan Diego Flórez: No I don’t think like that at all. I think that for singers, our career is in the theater and in the concert venues. This is what we do. The rest is only more: you can do benefit concerts or go on television or put out a lot of CDs, but the spirit is really here, at the theater. An opera singer, in a way, doesn’t need to be super-famous outside of the opera circuit. You don’t need that kind of exposure. Maybe it’s good to sell CDs, okay, great, and if you sell more CDs, then more people will come to see you sing and it all follows from there. But there are also really good singers who don’t have this kind of exposure. And even for the big singers, the people who come to see us are about 2000 in number, which isn’t a huge stadium. It’s a really small percentage of the population who likes opera. So for my personality, singing opera is a great career because I wouldn’t like to be like a Hollywood celebrity. Like, I’d hate to be sitting here [Ed: at Trussardi Café] and have people snapping photos.
Opera Chic: And putting them up on Twitter, like, “OMG I just saw Juan Diego Flórez sipping juice at Trussardi Café”!
Juan Diego Flórez: That would be terrible! [Laughs]
Although I understand: we’re artists, and we like to be applauded and recognized, but it is okay just like this. I really think a lot of singers prefer it this way, too.
I think we have to be careful because our instrument is very fragile, and this is the main thing. It’s all about our instruments. We could be singing now and it could be officiated that our voice is good, but it could change. We depend on two tiny little tissues in our throats. That’s it! We have to take care of our voices. This is the key. We have to be healthy, sing well, have a good technique, not sing too much, and it’s important to take days off between performances [Ed: Flórez always takes off two days between performances]. And I stress again that this is the main thing. I believe if you exaggerate on your exposure, it goes against this entire career. It goes against everything that this career is about. The exposure might take you very, very high – at least visibility-wise – and everyone’s talking about you. But what if something changes? What if you sing a night and you are not good? You sing badly? Or you sing an entire run badly? Or everyone’s expecting so much for you to sing this new role and you get sick and have to cancel? The downward fall down is so much greater when you’re at those great heights. I feel that pressure because it happens to me, too. When I began my career, I could cancel if I got sick. Now at this point in my career, if I cancel, it’s a big deal. So we should take care of just how high we are exposed. Because if you fall from up high, it’s that much of a worse fall. That’s why it’s important to have the technique always to fall back on. Because if you sing well and you’re sure of the repertory you do, that’s your insurance. Then if you’re overexposed -- especially since nothing is guaranteed in this career -- you’re very sure that if you fall from a great height, at least you’ll always have your a solid technique.
Opera Chic: So what else are you into aside from opera?
Juan Diego Flórez: I love opera, but I really love other things, so my mind is not only in this business, which is good. I like music composition. I like sports. I like football, and I play a lot of tennis. I take my tennis racquet lots of times to the performances and bring it in my dressing room. Because I’m able to practice a lot, but in a way it’s something that relaxes me. If I’m singing a role that has a lot of down-time like La Donna del Lago or I Puritani, I like to practice my backhand instead of just waiting around! But I’ve been known to hit things by accident when I’m swinging the racquet around! But more than practice, it’s also a reminder of my life outside of opera.
I consider myself very lucky that I’m able to travel with my wife. My wife is my family, and like this I can always have my family around with me, and to me it’s very important to have that private life with you wherever you go. It’s unusual for singers to have this -- because I’ve found that most singers are married to or dating other singers, so they are always apart. Or if they’re together, it’s only for work. It’s hard for most singers because they’re always in different cities and they can’t leave work to always be together.
When it’s time to make a family, we want our child to be as normal as possible. If we have a kid, I’d wish to diminish my schedule, only if it’s possible. Of course, you can’t really count on this in a time of economic crisis, since when we have a child, maybe I’ll have to actually work more! You never know where life will take you.