Whenever Maria Teresa needed an eleventh-hour stand-in for the evening's entertainment at her tavern in Lima, she'd look to her son Juan Diego Florez to placate the jeering patrons.
Taking the stage, the sweet-voiced schoolboy would croon anything from swinging Beatles chart-busters to the familiar rustic stylings of his Peruvian hometown.
The son of Ruben Florez, a professional musician of note, the gifts of song and showcraft came naturally for Juan Diego. He didn’t yet know though how far beyond quieting down unruly customers they would take him.
Some years later, he would be called upon to fill in on short notice once more. This time, in Pesaro, Italy, for the opening night of Matilde di Shabran, the curtain-raiser of the Rossini Opera Festival of August 1996.
“I had auditioned and been selected for a smaller part,” Juan Diego recalled. “The tenor who was supposed to sing the lead had fallen sick.” With the premiere only days away, the organisers offered the difficult role to the unheralded 23 year old.
After mulling it – he got about two pages into the notes – over a lunch “I didn't touch because I was so excited”, he went over to the artistic director and accepted. After a day or two of frenzied rehearsals, Juan Diego stepped into the spotlight and delivered a performance that announced his arrival.
“That started my career. After that, everything moved very fast for me,” said Juan Diego, whose soft style of speech could not be more at odds with the grand stage personas he pulls off with utterly convincing ease.
So convincing that, in what has been a whirlwind decade-and-half since that starry summer night, Juan Diego has made thralls of audiences and critics alike at opera's most hallowed stages and received the acceptance of his craft's brightest lights. No longer a last-minute replacement, he is today one of the world's leading ‘bel canto’ tenors.
With impressive vocal range and fluid singing style, likened by some to a master pianist on a Steinway Grand, Juan Diego has made the celebrated operas of Italian composers Giaocchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini his own.
In addition to a repertoire that boasts over 40 operas – “44, but who's counting? Did you know Placido Domingo has over a 140. He likes to keep track !” – he has also composed pieces in the 'huayno' genre of folksy Andean music popular in Peru.
“I love it. I get that from my father. Growing up, Peruvian music was always in the background. I was inspired by The Beatles (especially Paul McCartney), The Rolling Stones, Elvis and Led Zepellin, but when I was singing pop and composing, it was mostly Latin American music.”
It was only in his late teens that Juan Diego, already a student of the guitar and music theory, came to appreciate classical music, and opera in particular. “Everything changed towards the end of high school, when I discovered zarzuela, a Spanish-style opera, after a teacher wanted to include some in the school.”
A serendipitous event (one of several) that convinced the 17 year old obsessed with football, tennis and composition to undertake a three-year course of study at the National conservatory in Lima in 1990.
“It was at the conservatory where I decided to be an opera singer.” It was also where he first heard the heavy Italian singing of Luciano Pavarotti – to whose status as operatic superstar Juan Diego has long been considered a contender (including by the late great master tenor himself).
“It meant a lot coming from him because I idolised Pavarotti. He was such an inspiration. I'm always listening to him and watching his videos. Just finding everything I can about him.
“I think he had the greatest voice. Yes, his voice was a little different and he did sing a different repertoire – mostly Puccini and Verdi – but he also sang many of the roles I sing. La Sonnambula comes to mind.”
It's hard to pin him down on whether he agrees with the comparison. “More or less,” he laughs the blunt question away. “But, he was a giant. And I'm just a little guy.”
Then, a diplomatic mollification. “I feel very fortunate to be able to perform music at the very highest level. That is something all musicians aspire to. I dreamt of being a good opera singer, but I never thought I’d be where I am in 20 years. Never thought it’d be this fast.”
A disarming two-step, but perhaps brushing aside such boorish comparisons is his way of being his own man – something that has proved harder to do for several of his less seasoned contemporaries who feel the “pressure to look as good as they sing”. A phenomenon derisively termed 'popera'.
“The world is like that now. Image, image, image – that's how it is. Would they have asked that of Pavarotti? I've never let it affect me (breathlessly doling out impeccable arias is pressure enough). I'm always just myself.”
That's probably easier to do if one's blessed with movie-star good looks. Pavarotti himself was the bearded, heavyset sort. “I'm actually pretty lazy when it comes to taking care of myself. I don't go to the gym, I eat and drink everything (except milk and meat products – but that's by choice).”
“I think when you worry too much about being careful, you'll start feeling the strain. And that’s no good.”
It was Juan Diego just being himself when in 2007 he, again counter-conventionally, famously gave the audience at Milan's famed La Scala theatre an encore – its first since 1933 – breaking a 75 year old taboo and catapulting himself onto newspaper headlines worldwide.
“I didn't know I'd done it. The public just went on clapping and I did it,” he laughed. “For a minute, everything was still and then they started to clap.”
“After that, everybody was talking about it. It was in the newspapers. A 'vita' had been broken.”
He puts this air of unflappability down to a “strong nerve” he developed to “survive the first few years”.
It’s likely his performance at the Royal Opera House Muscat on Wednesday night, a concert that mixed arias from outside his repertoire with zarzuela songs, will warrant an encore as well. It was only his first in the Middle East after all – and he's already all praises for the ROHM's “great accoustics”.
When he was asked, before the performance, whether he had any surprises in store for his Oman debut, he would only say, “There is some baroque music actually by (Georg Friedrich) Haendel in the programme. That should be interesting. “I'm singing French repertoire now – lots of French operas (one by Giuseppe Verdi last night) and arias over the next year.”
It’s out-of-repertoire stuff, but “sometimes, these concerts are an opportunity to try something new and get better at it”.
“And I'm still experimenting and trying to get better. I'm not completely static. I have a long way to go on my journey. I'm still changing and improving. Still trying to expand and perfect my repertoire.”
What heights that takes him to, one can only guess.