Abu Dhabi Festival 2023: Juan Diego Florez on celebrating South American heritage in song

Peruvian opera star on the richness of South American music

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez. EPA
Powered by automated translation

With music from Latin America popular in the global pop charts, now is an opportune time for one of opera's leading tenors to release a crossover album.

Peruvian opera star Juan Diego Florez has returned to the studio to record an extensive collection of South American songs, only his inspirations span back nearly a century.

In 2021 he released Trialogando, an ambitious new version of late Peruvian singer Chabuca Granda's 1968 masterpiece Dialogando.

The project had Florez, a tenor known for his expressive and acrobatic vocal range, singing a duet alongside Granda's original vocals, over new yet faithful arrangements.

The ambitious project came after 2018's Besame Mucho, another tender selection of classic songs by various Latin American artists from Peru, Colombia and Venezuela.

Tying these albums together is the memory of Florez’s father, the late singer Ruben Florez, who sang these songs on stage and at home.

Florez Jr tells The National that he is excited to present some of these works, as well as selections from classic operas Carmen and La Boheme, atAbu Dhabi Festival’s opening concert at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental on Wednesday.

"These are very special projects for me because of how personal they are," he says.

"These are songs that my father loved but also performed by artists that influenced my journey. Because of that I was very careful in doing it in a way that is deeply respectful."

Both albums are defined by their authenticity.

With Trialogando, Florez obtained the master recordings featuring Granda’s original vocals and recorded his contributions in the same studio in Peruvian capital Lima that she used.

"We even used the same microphones that she did, which made it even more special," he says.

"But at the same time, it was a challenge more for me than the sound technicians.

"While we managed to layer new guitars and percussion with her voice, I had to sing in a way that it felt like we were together in the studio."

With Besame Mucho, Florez wanted to show the variety and richness of music coming from South America.

The most popular is the 1940 title track, a global hit by Mexican singer Consuelo Velazquez.

Other gems include La Pollera Colora, a Colombian folk song popularised by singer Wilson Choperena in 1962, and La malaguena, a well-known traditional Mexican song attributed to songwriters Elpidio Ramirez and Pedro Galindo in 1947.

Despite their importance to the continent’s cultural heritage, Florez says their significance is not fully appreciated at present.

“Many of these songs are known in Latin America but not necessarily by the new generation, and that is understandable,” he says.

“Some of these songs go back to the 1930s, so this is a great opportunity to reintroduce these works again.

"And for those unfamiliar outside of the region, this is a great way to hear them for the first time.”

Such a perspective underlines the importance Florez gives to his solo career.

A star of the opera world, his recital performances are rare because of commitments to large opera productions that require months of preparation.

Florez is set to star in a new production of Gaetano Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor at Milan's La Scala theatre in April, followed by Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto in Italy's Arena di Verona in July.

"Operas are great but they demand so much of your time," he says.

"With recitals you can travel more and show people the best of your repertoire. It is a way to show the core of who you are as an artist."

As for his Abu Dhabi Festival return, Florez knows he will perform to a receptive crowd.

"The last time I was at the festival was in 2015 and I played two concerts," he recalls.

"It was such a great experience on stage and for me personally, because I felt like I was contributing to the development of the cultural scene over there through classical music.

“That is important to the festival and me, and I am glad the whole region is growing when it comes to classical music concerts and events.

"It just shows music is a universal language that everybody can understand."

Juan Diego Florez performs at Emirates Palace on Wednesday. Show starts 8pm with tickets from Dh75 at www.abudhabifestival.ae

Who is also performing at Abu Dhabi Festival?

March 10: De Scheherazade A Yo, Carmen at Emirates Palace

Choreographed by flamenco star Maria Pages, the arresting production pays tribute to formidable women of literature and the stage, ranging from the title character of Bizet’s 19th-century opera Carmen to Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights.

March 11: Gregory Porter at Emirates Palace

The two-time Grammy Award-winning jazz musician is set to perform original tracks from his albums Liquid Spirit (2014) and Take Me to the Alley (2017).

Porter’s smooth eclectic jazz style, which is rooted in gospel influences, has earned him a reputation for enigmatic and mesmerising live performances.

March 17: From West to East: A Classical Odyssey at Emirates Palace

Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun will conduct the Orchestra of Teatro Comunale di Modena Pavarotti-Freni and will be joined on stage by world-famous Chinese cellist Jian Wang.

Together they will take audiences on a musical journey encompassing classic repertoires of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, followed by the UAE premiere of his original Pipa Concerto.

All shows start at 8pm with tickets from Dh75 www.abudhabifestival.ae

Updated: February 27, 2023, 2:57 AM