The Specialist – Javier Camarena’s Passion For Bel Canto & Continued Development of His Voice [Exclusive]

By David Salazar

For Javier Camarena, the start of 2017 has been a blending of the past, present and future.

His year started with an operatic goodbye and the month of February he will slide into comfortable repertoire that he feels will be his meat and potatoes in the immediate future. And in March, he ventures into unknown terrain that might just prove to chart a new direction for him.

How does the tenor feel about this whirlwind career he is undergoing?

“I’m just enjoying the ride. It’s wonderful to be doing what I’m doing,” the Mexican tenor told OperaWire in an exclusive interview.

Goodbye to An Ally

In early January, the tenor said goodbye to a role that has served him for 10 years – the Count Almaviva in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.”

The tenor made his debut in the role in 2007 in Zurich and it was one of his operatic warhorses. But by his own admission, it was never an easy marriage between the music that Rossini wrote and his lyric tenor voice.

“I have learned to love the role, but it has never been one of the most comfortable for me,” Camarena explained. “I learned to adapt my voice to make it work for the Rossini coloratura and melody, but I am more at ease with ‘Cenerentola.’ It gives me more flexibility in that role than as Almaviva or even Lindoro in “Italiana in Algeri.”

The tenor made a number of high-profile debuts in the role, most prominently at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011, a run of performances that he credits with strengthening his affinity with the role.

“I think that I really found it here at the Met when I worked with Maestro Benini. Musically, it grew as I learned more about the Bel Canto style. I put more detail into the dynamics and finding Rossini’s music in the score,” he noted before adding that the Bartlett Sher production remains his favorite. “It has a lot of color and very well-timed comedy.”

But after 10 productions of “Barber” over a decade, there weren’t many surprises left and Camarena felt that it was time to move on.

Saying goodbye undeniably comes with nostalgia and memories of joy, none more so than his experience at the Vienna State Opera.

As Camarena described it, the tenor was doing wardrobe testing and got to test out the company’s costumes for the role. Since this was not a new production, the tenor was using clothing that had gone through generations of use, the names of other artists etched onto different parts of the garments.

“The jacket always has the names of all the actors that have worn it. [Rockwell] Blake, [Geoffrey] Kunde, [Juan Diego] Flórez. Everyone was there,” he explained. “I remember being excited to see [Francisco] Araiza, my teacher, on the jacket. Same as the pants, they also had Araiza’s name on them.”

But there was one piece of clothing that got him even more pumped up.

“I looked at the cape and it said ‘Wunderlich,’ he revealed. “It was surreal to be wearing my favorite singer’s cape. “

Feeling At Home in a Harder Place

Camarena has been slowly planning the move away from Rossini’s lighter fare, ending his association with “L’Italiana in Algeri” in 2015 and prepping this goodbye to “Barber” for a whopping four years.

“La Cenerentola” remains in his rep, for now, but that opera will also get a send-off in the near future so that he could turn his attention to what really gives him vocal comfort – lyric bel canto.

He takes on “I Puritani” for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera on Feb. 10 in a production that also features frequent collaborator Diana Damrau. The tenor first sang the role last year in Mexico City before taking his interpretation to Madrid. The Met will be the third stop for his Arturo.

For Camarena, singing Bellini’s music is a lot easier than Rossini’s, but he does note that this particular role is by far the most difficult in the repertoire.

“’A te o cara’ was the culmination of his bel canto writing,” he explained.  “The vocal line, the phrasing, the entrance into the upper range makes it so hard. But I want to be clear on one thing. It is perfectly written for the voice in terms of getting to the high notes. Every high note is easily accessible through the way he writes the phrases, but you need complete vocal control to really offer the tenderness and subtlety that the piece requires.

“I think it is really easy to sing this full voice with everything you have,” he added. “But to do it with the different colors that it demands, like singing a high note piano or to add a diminuendo on a long note or all these factors that make it Bel Canto, that’s what makes it so difficult. And I respect that part of the music because it brings the music and the character to life.”

But vocal challenges are only one part of the experience. Dramatic involvement can be far more complex, particularly in an opera with an overly melodramatic plot that includes a woman going crazy because her betrothed has been exiled over a political plot.

Camarena does not seem particularly bothered by the questioning of the plot, taking the drama for what it is and living in the moment. It also helps to share the stage with Damrau, one of the most “committed actresses alive.”

“It’s nice when you find people that are really involved with the character. I know that Diana will be completely engaged at all times,” he enthused. “We are both engaged fully with the characters. There are few people that I feel that comfortable with on stage. Cecilia Bartoli is another and even now Pretty Yende in ‘Barber.’

“It’s all about the emotional and dramatic involvement. We react to one another and when I feel completely immersed in the emotions of the other person, it drives me forward, energizes me.”

The Unknown

After “Puritani,” Camarena enters the unknown, which ironically is quite familiar to him – the Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto.”

For many lyric tenors accustomed to the Rossini repertoire and lighter bel canto, singing Verdi presents a massive step into a new world. Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez took on the Verdi’s Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto” a few years back, retreated from it and then waited some time before re-engaging the composer.

Camarena is well-aware that Verdi is no joke and presents some of the greatest vocal challenges that any singer can ask for. But he feels more than prepared to take this step.

“I have been singing the Duke since I was in school. I performed the quartet and arias in different concerts or performances, but I still need to put the entire thing together. I think this is one of the characters I have studied longer than any other in my entire career.“

In learning the role, he has discovered facets of the vocal part that he feels will make his interpretation unique and vibrant.

“I don’t know if it will be a ‘Bel Canto’ Duca, but I will respect the score as much as possible,” he revealed. “Obviously there will be changes brought on by the music director and stage director or whatever I find along the way. But I am planning to stick to the score. I don’t know if I’d say that it’s going to be Mozartean, but I know that I want to take a different approach to it. I don’t want to abandon the natural qualities of the character. He is a jerk from start to finish. I am not ignoring that, but musically I want to find a different approach.

“For example, ‘Ella Mi Fu Rapita.’ If you approach it as a bel canto aria, you can find new colors and beauty in it.”
Yet Camarena remains wary of some sections of the score, including one famous number.

“The quartet is not comfortable to sing for me,” he elaborated. “It’s always hanging around the passaggio. And what makes it more difficult is that I want to do it exactly with all the diminuendos and crescendos that are written but that isn’t always easy to do with where Verdi places the vocal line.”

Camarena doesn’t know if this Verdi experiment will work out or where it will lead, but he is open to new ideas regarding his future.

“I still have the dream of doing Rodolfo from ‘La Bohème,” but who knows with Verdi,” he acknowledged. “I still have so much to learn about his music, but maybe in four or five years I might try ‘Traviata.’ Who knows, maybe if my voice develops I might find other ones I could consider.”

But the tenor is certain about other things in his future. For one, he wants to move deeper into Donizetti’s repertoire and sing such works as “La Favorita” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

And despite saying goodbye to many of his Rossini warhorses in coming months, there is still room for the maestro from Pesaro.

“I would like to try out some serio operas by Rossini like ‘Semiramide’ or ‘Guillaume Tell,’” he admitted. “It’s difficult, but I see my voice having more flexibility in that repertoire.”

If and when that happens, the past, present and future will have found themselves in Camarena’s life at the same time.


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