The way he tells it, the Peruvian opera singer Juan Diego Flórez, who performs on Monday, March 23,at Emirates Palace, was once on his way to becoming South America’s answer to Enrique Iglesias.
Brought up in a family where classical music was never heard, the 42-year-old tenor says he only started studying music to fulfil his dream of becoming a pop star.
Today, he is one of the world’s most famous opera singers, he has a foundation to help poor children in his native Peru and plans to open a singing school in Vienna. He also says he would be delighted if he could open a similar school in the Middle East. Yet, things could have been very different.
“My parents never really wanted me to be a musician at all, because in Peru you don’t earn any money that way,” says Flórez. “But when they realised it was genuinely what I wanted to do, they supported me always.
“Still, I actually entered the conservatoire to know music to write my pop songs, so I could learn to read and write music. It was only there that I started my classical voice lessons and realised: wow, I like this.”
It’s easy to imagine Flórez being successful. Besides his phenomenal voice, the Abu Dhabi Festival headliner has the sort of clean-cut Latin good looks that could grace a million posters.
But pop music’s loss was opera’s gain – Flórez has forged a dazzling career thanks to one of the most agile, delightful male voices in all of classical music.
When we catch up with him in the run-up to the gala opera evening at the Abu Dhabi Festival, where he’ll be accompanied by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Flórez still sounds slightly in awe about how fast his career has grown.
“When I first visited La Scala in Milan [where he made his debut at the age of 23 in 1996], I promised myself: ‘In 10 years time you’ll be singing here’. But I was wrong – I started singing there only a few months later. It was very emotional and just to get such applause from the public felt like a huge achievement.”
Following that early triumph, the world’s greatest opera stages opened up to him, his success made possible by a voice that is both acrobatic and beautifully clear in tone.
His popularity has also allowed him to bend a few rules. Returning to La Scala in 2007, Flórez sang the first encore seen at the opera house in 75 years – scandalising some traditionalist critics but delighting the audience.
Breaking taboos on encores has become something of a habit – and I note that the aria he chose, Donizetti's Ah! mes amis, is given final billing for his Abu Dhabi gala.
Flórez is most famous for singing bel canto (see sidebar) roles that best showcase his talents, though recently he has been moving towards a more romantic repertoire that requires a slightly heavier vocal delivery.
“My voice changed in the last few years, which is normal when you reach 40, so you have to adjust certain things,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to sing new roles, but for me, I always want to continue singing Rossini because I love it so much and enjoy it.
“I don’t push my voice; I try to keep a good technique, a natural way of singing, to sing from the breath, which is the main thing.”
While Flórez is very popular with opera lovers around the world, back home in Peru, he is a bona fide superstar. His wedding in Lima, in2008, to Julia Trappe was a televised media sensation, with most of Peru’s great and good in attendance.
Flórez now lives in Vienna with his wife and two children, but he’s still able to turn the huge amount of attention he gets back home for a worthy cause.
“I can use my fame there to help socially, so that’s very good,” he says. “I created a foundation for poor children called Sinfonia por el Peru, where they play in orchestras and choirs, learn values and get away from the bad life, become better citizens in every aspect.
“I created the programme three years ago – it now has 2,500 children taking part.
“I’ve used that public image of mine to attract financial help, so I’m pleased I have it.
“I now have plans to create a school for singers in Vienna and I would love to found one in the Middle East, too, if possible”
• A Night at The Opera featuring Juan Diego Flórez is at Emirates Palace on Monday, March 23, at 8pm. Tickets, from Dh125, are available at www.timeouttickets.com