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Opera star who still has pop and Peruvian folk in his blood

One of the world's greatest bel canto tenors, Juan Diego Florez, comes to Birmingham's Symphony Hall for the first time this month

Barry Batchelor/PA Wire Peruvian-born opera singer Juan Diego Florez performed with Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins in 2007
Peruvian-born opera singer Juan Diego Florez performed with Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins in 2007

Juan Diego Florez, one of the world’s greatest bel canto tenors currently performing on the operatic stage, makes his only UK appearance outside London this year when he makes his Birmingham debut in recital at Symphony Hall on February 21.

His technique is remarkable, his acting technique is charismatic, and his courtesy is charm itself, right from the moment I thanked him for agreeing to this interview.

“It’s my pleasure!” came his relaxed reply.

Peruvian-born, Florez began life singing pop music and the folk music of his native country. He came upon classical music later, and explains how he decided which career path to take.

“It was not really a struggle to choose… I didn’t grow up with classical music, but when I discovered it in the conservatoire at the age of 17, I fell in love with it and I decided that this was what I wished to do. During my first year at the conservatoire, I still was not sure, I still wanted to be a pop singer but study classical music at the same time. As my voice developed and my love for opera grew, I decided to be a tenor and pursue a career.

“I still have pop and Peruvian folk music in my blood because I grew up with it and I luckily manage to grab a guitar in my concerts and sing some encores of Peruvian or popular Latin-American songs. I have discovered that the audience loves it and keep that memory for a long time.”

My first encounter with the amazingly flexible voice of Juan Diego Florez was at the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer’s Pesaro birthplace, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Juan Diego enthuses about the place.

“The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro is like a second home for me. It is where I was born as an artist, where I made my debut in Matilde di Shabran at the age of 23.

‘‘Performing there is always like going back to the beginning, to a new beginning, to a new recharge of batteries. Even though I don’t sing there every year, it symbolizes something that is a departure point again, so I can always measure my temperature there.

‘‘I like the the ambience there during the festival: the fact that Pesaro is by the sea and that I have my summer house there makes me feel more at home. The public is always great, they are very much into belcanto, into Rossini and it is a feast that celebrates this virtuoso music. It really sets the performance guidelines for Rossini in the world.”

I wonder what kind of exercises does Juan Diego have to do daily in order to preserve his coloratura?

“I don’t do any exercises for the coloratura. I sing a lot during the whole year so, for me, to sing during concerts, opera performances and rehearsals is more than enough.

‘‘Even in between performances I don’t sing. My study is in rehearsal times and on the day of a performance. That’s when I study well and practise.”

Juan Diego Florez is deeply involved in charitable music educational work, similar to Gustavo Dudamel’s El Sistema in Venezuela. Does the singer think this is a South American characteristic?

“I’m involved in a charitable foundation which is Sinfonía por el Perú. When I visited El Sistema in Venezuela in 2009, I became deeply aware of the idea that music is a very powerful tool for social change.

“I founded ‘Sinfonía por el Perú’ in 2011 and after six years we are very proud to say that the project is benefiting more than 5,000 children nationwide. Also, I feel very proud of the main national youth orchestra that is playing very well and soon will be doing a tour in Europe.

“The fact that these are mainly poor children makes this project work wonders. These children attach to music; they feel better because they have this opportunity to play in an orchestra. In a way, being poor is being forgotten, and the orchestra reminds them that they are not. They start thinking differently and they start seeing themselves in society in a different way.”

We end with an anticipation of Juan Diego Florez’s forthcoming Birmingham debut.

“This will be my first time performing in Birmingham, and I am very much looking forward to it. I will be back in the UK after the Last Night of the Proms in September, where I felt very good and had a lot of fun. I will also be back at the Royal Albert Hall on June 2. Birmingham is the only city in the UK apart from London where I will be performing this year, I am very glad to be singing there.”

* Juan Diego Florez is in recital at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on February 21, 7.30pm (details on 0121 780 3333).

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