Best of BWW Interviews: Tenor Javier Camarena - High Cs and 'High Fives' at the Met
The tenor's showstopping performance of Don Ramiro, the prince in LA CENERENTOLA, a take on the Cinderella story, was canceled because of coronavirus concerns.
The Met's first cancellation due to virus concerns was the revival of Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, perhaps the most popular of the opera retellings of the Cinderella story. It was to star mezzo Tara Erraught in the title role and one of its biggest tenor stars, Javier Camarena as Don Ramiro, her prince.
The opera holds a particular place in Camarena's history at the Met: It made him an overnight sensation when he was tapped to replace Juan Diego Florez and blew the roof off--a real-life Cinderella story. Camarena was recently named one of this year's winner of the "Opera News" Awards. In light of that, here's an interview I did with him at the end of 2018, in between performances of Bizet's LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (THE PEARL FISHERS) and Donizetti's LA FILLE DU REGIMENT (DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT).
Tenor Javier Camarena--who completes his run as Nadir, the love-struck tenor lead in Bizet's LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (THE PEARL FISHERS) this Saturday--isn't finished wow-ing Met audiences for the season. Not by a long shot. He's back in February to throw off those nine High Cs in "Ah, mes amis!" the show-stopping aria--that toast to love and camaraderie--in Donizetti's LA FILLE DU REGIMENT (DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT) that Luciano Pavarotti made famous for modern opera audiences.
Does he find that aria a challenge? "Not really," Camarena tells me. "That's the least of my worries in that opera. My biggest one is the second aria, later in the opera, 'Pour me rapprocher de Marie,'" when Tonio has to tell the guardian of his beloved about the depth of his love and that he can't live without Marie. He explains, "It's quite the hardest part of the opera, because this musical line is always moving in the passaggio region of the voice"--the transition area between the vocal registers that is a challenge even for the best singers, like him.
Camarena is used to taking on seemingly daunting tests of his considerable skills as a singer and turning them into personal triumphs. He first made his mark at the Met in Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA--the composer's take on the Cinderella story, which starred Joyce DiDonato in the title role. But it was Camarena himself who was the "Cinderella" of the opening, as Don Ramiro--stepping in when Juan Diego Florez couldn't do the first performances of the opera and turning it into a wildly successful engagement: In fact, he became only the third singer in Met history to give an encore of an aria because of the explosive audience reaction.
It doesn't take long in talking to him to realize that while he is an utterly charming, modest person and family man, he also knows what he wants from his career. I ask him: How do these two roles that he's doing at the Met this season--one drama (PERLES), the other comedy (FILLE)--fit into his plans?
"Nowadays, the closest to my heart--the things I'd like to express through music--would be the dramatic roles. I just did Arturo in PURITANI in Barcelona [also with soprano Pretty Yende, his costar in both Met productions this year] and, recently, I added Edgardo in LUCIA at the Real in Madrid, which I really enjoyed, not only because of the opera, but the way I was able to bring out new colors in my voice.
"Don't misunderstand--I love doing comedy. Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier"--the French-Swiss duo who have worked frequently at the Zurich Opera, where Camarena was a principal artist for seven years--"taught me a great deal about comedy. For example, I learned that you don't have to be funny to make comedy," he continues. "In fact, you want to play the situation as seriously as possible--and make people laugh because the character doesn't know he's involved in something funny.
"I remember the kind of joy and excitement I had the first time I sang Tonio in FILLE," he explains. "It's a nice role, a gratifying role for the voice, so when I sing it I really, really enjoy it. But I don't think I will sing a lot of it in the future," he continues. "Not because of any vocal challenges it presents but the personality. There are other things I really want to do, to keep developing as an artist."
When the Mexican tenor talks like this, he isn't just paying lip service. He gave up his calling card role--Almaviva in Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA--when he could still sing the pants off it (I was there and can testify to it). It was his debut role at the Met--and in many other of the world's best opera houses and became one that everyone asked him to do.
"It's a wonderful role--very healthy for the voice--but it began to be routine. I had done 80-90 performances of BARBIERE in eight years, in almost a dozen productions, and I stopped feeling that I could do better or give something special. It was enough for me," he admits, though he still loves the role and, in fact, was studying Almaviva's music just before our meeting.
Do you feel your voice changing? I inquire.
"Yes. That's why I was singing BARBIERE now, because I think my voice has gained a little bit of weight, become a little bit darker in the center," he explains. "The good thing is that, despite all this weight and improving the medium and low registers, the top of my voice isn't becoming thinner. This has allowed me to think about different roles." Among the roles he's thinking about: Rodolfo in BOHEME, Romeo in ROMEO ET JULIETTE, Alfredo in TRAVIATA and perhaps a fresh look at the Duke in RIGOLETTO.
Does Nadir in PEARL FISHERS fall into that category? I ask. "Not necessarily--because it can be sung in different ways," he explains. "Nadir can be a light role, but mostly at the beginning, where I sing [the big tenor aria] "Je crois entendre encore." All the rest--the duets with Zurga and with Leila--the finale of the second act or the finale of the opera (there are two versions, one with a trio that is even more dramatic than the one we do here), they are demanding in emotion, and you must have enough muscle in the voice for those parts.
"Of course, when I first sang the role in 2009, it was all very light because that's the way I was singing, from doing a lot of Rossini. "Then, 'Je crois...' was very easy to sing and the heavier parts were not exactly difficult but also not so comfortable. Now, it's the opposite." He laughs, saying, "I had to reprogram my head and my ear to the sound I make now for 'Je crois...' and all the rest of it was really very enjoyable for me."
Pretty heady concerns for a guy from Xalapa, Veracruz, in Mexico, who once was going to be an engineer and sang in a cover band specializing in pop music, like Ricky Martin songs. Of course, he also had a different voice back then, from working with a teacher who taught him a great deal but whose style was more about hitting the notes than technique.
"So if I was singing nasally"--he does a funny little vocal impression of his younger self, singing the Italian art song, 'Caro mio ben,' through his nose--"it was always about the notes, but it was artificial--closed like a cage here in the nose. Even I didn't like the sound of my voice," he admits, saying that this was the Javier Camarena who nobody believed would have a career. (If you want to hear what that version of the singer was like, there's a YouTube video of his student days, "Recuerdos de estudihambre"--loosely translated as "Memories of being a hungry student.")
"Some people are blessed with a natural gift of a complete, developed voice. There are many of us who do not have this. We have to work, study, practice and have discipline to reach our goals," he says. "I started studying seriously in 1995, but it wasn't until five years later that I remember thinking, 'Ah, my voice sounds nice.'"
I ask if he remembers when he decided that opera was going to be his future?
"It was in an Italian language class in university, when I started vocal studies. We had a very good teacher who said: You will study Italian because you will be singing in Italian and you have to learn how it sounds. So we went to the auditorium and saw a video: It was Placido Domingo and Eva Marton singing TURANDOT here at the Met.
"And then suddenly, everything I was doing--in singing lessons, and so on--made sense. And I had a goal to pursue, because I didn't know anything about opera even though I was already studying singing! That opened a window and I saw the horizon in panoramic vision and I thought: This is what I would like to do, the goal I want to achieve. From that moment on, my third year of singing lessons in university, everything became opera for me."
"It took a lot of discipline--to work and study, understand so many things involved in learning techniques to help me reach my goals. And I'm still studying and learning today, from every conductor, coach and colleague," he says.
And, of course, being an opera singer is not what it once was. It's not glamorous even for those at the top of the profession: You not only have the voice; you have to be ready to get on a plane and travel long distances--and to land on your feet, ready to sing.
"Yes," he agrees, "the demands on singers today are way bigger than they were 30-40 years ago--not only where we go to sing but what's expected of us on stage," he says. "We have to act! React to each other. Everything needs to seem more organic. Then you have to run jump from here to there and keep on singing! In that sense we have to be more prepared."
It also helps to have an understanding family--his wife and children, who live in Zurich. "At the beginning it was very hard, after my debut in Zurich in 2006, making other debuts, building a reputation and a name. and the demands don't stop."
"Happily, we live in a fortunate time where we have the technology to just take the phone and we can speak and look at each other at that moment. For me, wherever I am, I call home every day--sometimes more than once a day because I have to find a time to talk to my kids, talk to my wife. There are still many roles I want to do--so I'm very lucky to have a supportive family." (I ask him if he ever says, "I'm not going to sing between June and July"? and his answer is "definitely": "In 2019, I'm taking six weeks of vacation.")
Still, technology can't make everything easier. For example, being one of the featured performers at the Richard Tucker Foundation's gala concert, on last October 21, was definitely not an easy evening.
"We had the last performance of PURITANI in Barcelona on Friday, I had to fly on Saturday and then sing the two pieces at the Tucker on Sunday. After singing the first aria"--by Manuel Garcia, from Camarena's recently released CD, "Contrabandista," on Decca Classics, which was mentored by Cecilia Bartoli--"I was totally exhausted!" he recalls. He also didn't have much time to rehearse (there was also a duet with Angela Meade, "Amor..." from Rossini's ARMIDA), since he arrived so close to the concert.
Another problem for Camarena at that moment was more traumatic: Just before he left Barcelona, his rental apartment (near the Liceu opera house) was ransacked and most of his possessions were stolen, though he and his family were luckily not there for the break-in. When he arrived in New York and told the story to Barry Tucker, head of the Tucker Foundation, he mentioned that even his dress cufflinks had been taken.
At that point, Tucker offered the singer something special: Richard Tucker's own cufflinks and dress studs to wear for the evening. Camarena related the story to the audience before performing his first aria. "Everything in this life is about experience, and I wanted to share this one with the audience at Carnegie Hall not because it was a tragedy, but because out of it came something nice and emotional: being able to wear this jewelry from Richard Tucker on this night when we were celebrating him."
As mentioned earlier, Javier Camarena's final performance of the Met season's LES PECHEURS DE PERLES will take place on Saturday, December 8 at 8:30pm and he will be heard in LA FILLE DU REGIMENT, with his frequent co-star, soprano Pretty Yende, on February 7, 11 and 18 at 7:30 pm, and February 15, 23 and 26 at 8pm. The March 2 matinee at 1 pm NY time will be seen in cinemas around the world as part of the Met's "Live in HD" series. For more information, go to the Met's website. For more information about his appearances elsewhere, see Camarena's website.