Juan Diego Flórez shares his passion for Peruvian music and culture

Though he’s best known as one of the leading operatic tenors of his generation, Juan Diego Flórez also serves as an ambassador for his country and its culture.

Along with starring in operas presented by the world’s most prestigious theaters, Flórez has dedicated himself to promoting the music of Peru and helping its younger citizens to thrive. In 2011, he established Sinfonía por el Perú, which he calls “my most beloved activity and project.” The non-profit group seeks to transform the lives of thousands of underprivileged Peruvian children through musical education.

To benefit Sinfonía por el Perú, Flórez recently turned to one of his longtime passions, música criolla, a folkloric genre with African, European and Latin roots. Released last April, his album “Trialogando” features the songs and voice of Chabuca Granda (1920-1983), one of the most important figures in Peruvian music. Assisted by technology, Flórez and guitarist Sergio Salas perform along with Granda, using the tracks of her 1968 album “Dialogando” (which also showcased Óscar Avilés, known as “The First Guitar of Peru”). Recorded in the same studio as Granda's original album, “Trialogando” ends with “La flor de la Canela,” a Latin music standard and unofficial anthem of Lima, where Flórez was born.

Ahead of his current recital tour, which stops Jan. 31 at Symphony Center, Flórez discussed his non-profit work, his artistic evolution, his pop-music roots — and why turning 50 doesn’t faze him.

Your program is an intriguing mix of bel canto arias (your specialty) and concert rarities such as selections from Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse. How did it come together? 

I usually design my program with a first part that contains bel canto repertoire. So in this case, I begin with old arias, Baroque arias. Then from there, I go to Rossini songs [from Péchés de vieillesse, a collection of 150 vocal, chamber and solo piano pieces], which are very beautiful, but also very Rossini-like — that is, difficult. Then I go to arias by Rossini, which is my specialty. And then we go to Donizetti for two beautiful arias, “Linda si ritirò,” from Linda di Chamounix and “Angelo casto e bel” from Il Duca d’Alba.

The second part of the program represents more of what I’m singing nowadays, Verdi and especially also romantic French repertoire. And Puccini, I just sang La bohème for the second time at the Royal Opera House. The first time was at Zurich Opera. So I begin with Verdi, two arias, and then I go to arias by French composers. And then I finish with Puccini. So this is more or less the design of the program, which expands through different styles, different composers, different styles of singing.

You have toured with this program for the last year or so; has it evolved over time?

This program I have sung at La Scala and in Vienna, not exactly the same but it has evolved; it improves in expression, in nuances. You find things to add, and it becomes more yours, of course. What’s most important, I always have fun singing recitals or concerts with orchestra, because I connect to the public, to the audience in a different way. And I like to change roles in a fast way, because of course, if you sing an aria from an opera, you have to enter the opera, you have to enter the role, and then after that, there’s another aria and you have to change again.

Could you talk about your collaborator on this program, Vincenzo Scalera?

Vincenzo has been my pianist, my companion in recital for many years. I began doing recitals in 1997 and with him in 1999. Since then, I have always been with him, and he knows me very well. He knows how I breathe, what I need, so we really don’t have to rehearse that much. He’s very experienced, because he has worked with many greats, like [Montserrat] Caballé, [Carlo] Bergonzi and many others.

You turned 50 on Jan. 13. But your voice sounds as youthful as ever. What’s your secret? 

This month, I turned 50. And I don’t know  ... the secret. I’ve always chosen my repertoire very carefully, what I’m going to sing now, what I’m going to sing next, what new operas to do. And I always rested my voice. I think this was very important, through the 26 years of my career. So between performances, I always took care to have two days at least to rest and not sing on those two days. For that, you need a very solid technique and to be sure that it’s going be fine when you’re going to sing the next performance. So I think those three things: choose the right repertoire, have a solid technique and to practice. And the third, have the right amount of rest in between performances. 

Are there roles you’ve retired from your repertoire? Or ones you’re hoping to add? 

Some roles, let’s say I don't sing anymore, or not as much. I don’t know if I’m going to sing them again. I thought I had retired Le Comte Ory, but I did it last year in August. I was happy that it was still easy and exciting to sing. But I don’t sing too many Rossini operas anymore, like La Cenerentola or L’Italiana in Algeri.

I do sing different roles now. I have already added to my repertoire Werther, Faust, Manon, La bohème, Tales of Hoffmann, etc. And I will be adding some others, like Verdi’s Luisa Miller. It is exciting to be able to sing new stuff, but also to be able to sing what I was known for in the past. Recently I sang La fille du régiment [one of his early signature roles] in Vienna. This was great, and I’m planning to sing it again in the future. So I’m very happy about that.

You’ve worked with or have been mentored by operatic greats such as tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Ernesto Palacio, as well as conductors Riccardo Muti and Riccardo Chailly. What has been their influence on you and your vocalism? 

The most important mentor is Ernesto Palacio, who taught me many things about the style of bel canto. I met him while I was a student at Curtis [Institute of Music]. I traveled to Italy, I was invited by him to do a CD. That was the first time I worked with him on technique and special interpretation. The advice he gave me on life as a singer was very important, what to do and not to do. He protected me in the first years of my career; he was very important in helping me to make the right decisions.

And yes, Luciano, I met him at his house in Pesaro. I had contact with him [until his death in 2007]. He wanted me to sing at a celebration in New York for his last opera appearances there at the Met. He called me and said, I want you to sing there, and I appreciate you very much. And he also made a lot of comments on TV and the press, positive comments about me. So I was always thankful, but we didn’t work on technique together. But he in a way explained the way I sang. And I was really surprised by how he understood my voice. He said I didn’t have a true passaggio [transition between vocal registers]. To demonstrate, I went up in a certain way, and he imitated it. So he was a real observer of technique. He was a great technician, of course.

Riccardo Muti, I did many operas with him in the beginning of my career, so of course I learned a lot from him because he's a great conductor. And Riccardo Chailly, I did my first recording with him, and this spring at La Scala, I will do again with him an opera after so many years, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Is this really your first time back in Chicago since 2005, when you sang Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola at Lyric Opera? 

Yes, it's the first time I'm back since then. I was supposed to do, I think it was Rigoletto [actually, Barber of Seville], but I was indisposed to sing. I was sick. So I didn’t come back since then. Sometimes you cannot really explain why [laughs] you were not there. But I’m happy to be back. I’m really happy to meet again with the wonderful public of Chicago. It’s such a beautiful city to visit.

You’ve been described as having “the soul of a rocker” — perhaps because in your early years, you gravitated more toward popular and folk music.

In my youth, I used to play the guitar, sing, compose my own ballads. It was all pop music, also Peruvian music and not really classical music. Classical music arrived later when I was 16, 17. I had a teacher in high school who wanted to do some zarzuela, Spanish operetta. He was teaching us how to sing that way, in a lyrical way, in an operatic way. Since I sang already pop music, he put me to sing in these shows, and he taught me in a rudimentary way to imitate an operatic voice. Then I took private lessons with him, but I couldn’t pay him because I didn't have money.

He advised me to go to the conservatory, which was free. Of course, I wanted to learn how to sing in an operatic way, because I thought it would help my pop voice. I went there and I made the examination, the audition, and I got in, and then I discovered in the conservatory the world of classical music, of opera, and I decided I wanted to do that. But the music I knew before I was 17 and played was pop music. I had also a rock band. We played classic rock covers. I still love, of course, popular music, and I still play it with a guitar in my concerts. 

Your father was an aficionado, as are you, of Peru’s música criolla. What's the significance of that genre, and the importance of some of the people associated with this style, such as Chabuca Granda?   

My father was a professional Peruvian music singer. He specialized in criolla music by Chabuca Granda, who was a wonderful composer, and others. And he had a wonderful way of singing, which was a little bit operatic, so very well [informed]. His teacher suggested that he become a tenor, but he didn't want to. So I grew up listening to this kind of singing, and I think in a way, it prepared me for maybe for the style of opera. Música criolla is a very distinctive music from the coast in Peru. It's often in the vals [waltz] style, and the songs are really beautiful.

Could you discuss your work with your charity, Sinfonía por el Perú? 

Sinfonía por el Perú is my most beloved activity and project. I founded Sinfonía por el Perú in 2011, so 11 years ago. And it’s benefitting at the moment close to 6,000 kids. In this year, it will be 7,000 kids, children and youth, and it’s based on music for educational development. The kids play in orchestra, singing choruses and improve their lives by doing this. They acquire values, they become better people. The kids who participate in Sinfonía por el Perú are disadvantaged, mostly poor. This is a great opportunity for them to believe in themselves, to acquire self-esteem.

The youth orchestra of Sinfonía por el Perú recently did a tour in Europe. The kids played at the Salzburg Festival, at the Menuhin Classical Music Festival in Gstaad and in the Lucerne Festival — so three of the most important festivals in Europe. And they did great. I also participated, I sang some arias with them. It was a huge success because not only is the project is a social project, but it also is a great musical project because excellence is a very important factor for Sinfonía por el Perú. Studies demonstrate how the kids improve in every sense, so they become better within their nuclear family and within their environment. They become better students. They become less aggressive, better at school. Girls especially benefit, for example, youth pregnancies are diminished by 75 percent. So it’s a great, great project, and I’m very proud of it.