(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Over the last few years, Latin American tenors have started to take the opera world by storm. Aside from major singers like Ramon Vargas, Marcelo Alvarez and Jose Cura, the world has seen the arrival of superstars such as Juan Diego Florez and Rolando Villazon among others. The latest major tenor that looks slated for superstardom is 38-year-old Javier Camarena. The Mexican tenor is only seven-years into his professional career but has already made major waves in Europe and most recently at the Metropolitan Opera for his performances in Bellini's "La Sonnambula." He will be returning to the Met in late April to sing a few performances of Rossini's "La Cenerentola." Camarena recently sat down with Latinos Post to talk about his career and expectations.
Camarena's performance as Elvino in the famed Bellini work has been met with tremendous plaudits. The New York Times' Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim stated "Camarena, as Elvino, had a triumphant evening, singing with a hearty, burnished tone that - unusual in a tenor - sounds like an extension of his speech voice, heightening the dramatic credibility of his every utterance. He's a singer capable of gladiatorial power but also subtle shadings, supple phrasing and a thoroughly convincing Italian flavor." This was only one of many positive reviews for the tenor who noted that the positive response from the audience has been truly uplifting.
"It is the reward. It motivates you a lot to know that the effort and the passion with which you are singing is finding a response," he stated. "What I am feeling with the applause is a reflection of what they were feeling with my performance."
This was only Camarena's second run of "La Sonnambula;" in fact he had not taken on the role in four years when he sang it at La Bastille with Natalie Dessay. The tenor noted that the gap in years had allowed his voice to develop and the result was that he was far more comfortable with Bellini's vocal lines.
"In the four years between performing it I have taken on different repertoire, in addition to Rossini, and have worked very hard. I think that that has helped my voice develop consistently. I feel very comfortable with my vocal technique; I think that it is very consolidated and allows me to take on this role the way that I think that it is supposed to be sung," he explained. "Bellini is the greatest exponent of Belcanto and if you look at the music it is more than just singing high notes. The high notes exist but they have musical nuances such as piannissimi. I feel more comfortable taking on those challenges because of my vocal development."
He also elaborated on his interpretation of the role by noting that he is very faithful to the score.
"I am very respectful of the music. I do not like to change many things," he noted before explaining the one thing he will overlook. "The only thing that I changed in this production, that I think I will continue to do, is to cut the repetition of the cabaletta. I do not think it really adds much dramatically. You can add variations, but it does not add to the dramatic moment. It is the strongest encounter between Amino and Elvino."
For the run of "La Sonnambula," Camarena was paired with superstar soprano Diana Damrau, an opportunity he relished greatly.
"She is a great colleague. I have had tremendous luck to be able to work with great colleagues filled with rich energy. They are happy people that are amazing to work with," he elaborated. "Diana is a great professional and there is a strong respect between us. We feel comfortable to push one another. A lot of my friends who have seen the performances always say that we have palpable chemistry. For me that is a true luxury."
Next up for the tenor is Rossini's "La Cenerentola" in Salzburg with another colleague that he admires greatly - Cecilia Bartoli. Camarena stated that he met Bartoli while he was singing a production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" in Zurich and then got a chance to work with her on a recording of "La Sonnambula" in which he played the minor role of the notary. It was during this time that she asked him to work with her on future projects.
"Imagine someone like her telling me that at the start of my career. It was a dream come true," he enthused.
Since then they have worked on a number of projects together including Rossini's "Otello" and "Le Comte Ory;" both opera productions are slated for home video release.
"Le Comte Ory is extremely difficult, especially for the tenor, but it was a fun production," said Camarena about the experience. "The directors were extremely intelligent. The production was very respectful of the music and libretto. It was fun to work with Cecilia. She is a true professional that is always open to new ideas. She is one of the most humble and grateful colleagues I have ever worked with. "
Camarena did reveal that he had his doubts about singing the role again however.
"I don't know if I will ever do Comte Ory. Again. It is really difficult, especially in the first act. The duo with Isolier is one of the most difficult things I have ever sung. The high notes were not the most comfortable to sing, at least not for my voice."
Despite the continued success, the tenor revealed that his rise in the opera world almost did not happen.
"I always wanted to study music but I wanted to be a pianist or guitarist. I wanted to sing Christian music," he revealed before noting why he started to study singing. "I started to study singing because it allowed me to get into the school with greater facility. I did not really have any idea what the point of studying voice was. I thought they were going to make me sound better and improve my pitch.
"My ambition at the time was to finish school and to be in the school choir and teach classes."
But his time at the Universidad Veracruzana had much more in store for him. Under teacher Cecilia Perfecto he honed his skills and technique and slowly developed his voice.
"My teacher did not let me sing an aria for my first four years. Only vocal technique. And it worked out," he revealed. "With her I learned how to breathe. My vocal technique was not great, it was very nasal. But I fixed it as time passed on and I got another teacher."
His first exposure to opera also took place during these formative years, but the experience was did not take place in an opera house.
"One of my teachers said that we needed to see how Italian opera was sung, so he took us to an audiovisual theater and played 'Turandot' from the Met with Placido Domingo and Eva Marton," he stated. "That was the greatest discovery of my life up to that point. Prior to that I had never seen any opera. I had heard a few recordings here and there, but just arias. I had no idea what it was like to experience an entire work. At that point I entered a stage in which I could not get enough."
But it was far from easy. The tenor noted that while he does not believe in obstacles, he believes in tests that must be surpassed. And his biggest test during his student years was very close to home.
"I never liked my voice and there were some people who told me that I didn't sing well," he revealed. "Some people from my community said I had an ugly voice."
But the issue transcended whether his voice was good enough.
"There was also the cultural conflict. My mother told me that she expected me to sweep the streets for the rest of my life," he added. "I was studying engineering prior to becoming a musician. So obviously the reaction to my change was not great. As time passed they started to support me, but it took a while."
Camarena also noted that some academic difficulties.
"I failed my voice class," he revealed. "My teacher left the faculty and I was not a big fan of the replacement. I stopped going to class and only went to take tests. I studied on my own and took classes with other professors and learned a lot more that way. But she failed me because I didn't show up."
After school, Camarena faced a few other major hurdles to overcome. He participated in Mexico's national voice competition a whopping four times before being crowned the winner.
"The first time they wrote me off. No one remembers," Camarena explained. "The second time I got a scholarship and the third time I got a prize for Bellas Artes which allowed me to sing as a soloist. I sang the Stabat Mater by Rossini. And finally on the fourth try I won."
Camarena also elaborated on how he better prepared himself for each subsequent try.
"I would do a rigorous analysis of how to improve for each time. I would look at what worked the previous time and what I needed to improve and would demand a tremendous amount of improvement from myself," said Camarena. "For me it was always a stepping stone."
"This is how I view things. There is a ladder. And every step you take allows you to see more and more. And the point is to keep on climbing."
While the tenor knows that his own effort and determination has brought him this far, he also credits his family for the support they have shown him.
"That has also been another test for me," he elaborated. "It hasn't been easy for any of us, but they support me. That is one of the reasons that I feel determined to succeed. They support me."
Camarena is a father of two children, including a four-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. He noted that the two kids love their attention and both have some inclinations toward music.
"My daughter is taking piano lessons and guitar. And she likes to sing, but she gets nervous and a bit timid when she does it," he said about his daughter. "I don't know if that is what she wants to do eventually but she likes it."
He added that his son seemed more interested in music overall.
"The little one is really into it. He likes to sing and make noise all time," he stated. "Kind of like me at his age."
He noted that the two love to see their father perform, but barely get through an entire performance.
"They fall asleep but they like it," said Camarena before revealing that a performance is the only time he is allowed to sing for the family. "It is the only place where my son lets me sing. At home he always tries to quiet me down."
The biggest challenge for Camarena is the constant travel that keeps him away from home, but he notes that it is essential to be a bit crazy to do the kind of work he does.
"There are a lot of people that think it is great to travel and to be able to see new cities and cultures. It is wonderful. But you have to learn to live with loneliness. And for that you need to be a bit crazy," said Camarena. "Who actually likes to be lonely? I've learned to enjoy it, but you cannot live like that."
So what does Camarena do to keep himself busy when he is embracing loneliness on the road?
"I like to read. I don't have a favorite author or genre. I read everything. I enjoy reading a thriller as much as I enjoy reading 'Old Man and the Sea' for the hundredth time," he said. "I also like video games, but each time I find myself less and less enchanted by it. I find most games these days to be rather violent."
Camarena is also avid fan of cinema and he listed Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen among his favorite directors. However, he has a special place for fellow Mexican Alfonso Cuaron, the recent Academy Award winner for best director for his work on "Gravity." Camarena revealed that he actually watched "Gravity" five times in theaters.
"I saw 'Gravity' three times in 3D Imax. And then I saw it another two times in just 3D," he revealed. "I haven't seen it with my kids yet, but I will. It is a wonderful film. It is full of so many symbols and ideas about life that really make you reflect on your own experiences."
He noted that watching "Gravity" also gave him a new appreciation for the acting of Sandra Bullock, who was nominated for best actress for her role in the movie.
"I am not a huge fan of Sandra Bullock. I hadn't seen her in anything that I liked," he said. "But she surprised me in this film. I was deeply moved by her work in 'Gravity.'"
Even though Camarena has had tremendous success in Europe, one of his main artistic goals is to share his music with his compatriots back in Mexico.
"The first few years I was in Europe it was hard to return to Mexico. All year long I was studying. I went to Mexico in the summer to visit my family and relax. As things have gotten more relaxed the last few years, I have tried to make my presence felt in my country," he said. "I know that a lot of people in Mexico can't come to the Met or Switzerland to hear me but I want to sing to them. They are my people. My roots. My culture. For me it is a privilege to sing in Mexico."
He noted that he will be releasing a few albums in coming months based on recitals that he sang in Mexico. They will be distributed through a Mexican company called Urtext.
"One of them is coming out in early April and the other will come out in September. The first album is called 'Recitales' and it has music from Bellas Artes in 2011 and the Festival Internacional Salmantino in 2011. And it has some extras from two recitals from the 2013 recital. It has songs from Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and even Mexican songs," he stated. "The September album has music from the most recent recitals called Serenata. It includes music by Tata Nacho, Armando Manzanero and Alberto Cantoral. It is beautiful CD with rich variety of repertoire. This is for the people that grew up with that music."
Camarena does lament that the culture does not get more exposure to the arts and that development in that sector has been rather slow.
"It is really tough. It is not only difficult in Mexico but in the rest of the world. But I do not understand why," he said. "The more we progress, the more we decay spiritually. In NY I have found a lot of young Mexicans in Mannes and other singers trying to get into AVA and Chicago. There is a lot of talent in Mexico and it is growing. Look at what singers such as Ramon Vargas and Rolando Villazon have accomplished. And there are more coming...It is sad to know that you have to leave your country to get these opportunities. It is so sad that you are so recognized in a number of countries and continents, but your country doesn't.
"I try to be positive because I cannot think any other way. Mexico is a developing country and it has a lot of other priorities. I disagree with culture being overlooked however. What is the point of growing economically if you do not have spiritual development? If you only care about money, then you will not think twice about who you might harm in order to get it. But that doesn't last," he added. "If you don't have the sensibility, which you can only get from the arts and culture, to nourish your soul and spirit, then you will be hollow. And I think that it is essential and necessary that it be a major part of our education. Basic education should obligate students to have the arts as part of the curriculum. But looking at it from a darker perspective, who knows which interests would be harmed if people stopped being ignorant?"
For Camarena, the priorities may be a bit misplaced, particularly when it comes to Mexico and its obsession with soccer.
"It's not that I don't appreciate the work that the soccer players do. But if they pay you as much as they pay soccer players, then there should be better results. They should demand more of themselves. Why haven't they won any World Cups in Mexico if they invest so much money into it?" questioned Camarena. "There have been very few Mexican players that have done important things outside of Mexico. I can only think of Hugo Sanchez, who really made a name for himself internationally.
"But in the opera world, there are a plethora of singers that are making major careers for themselves in Europe. Francisco Araiza did it in his time. In modern times we have Ramon Vargas, Rolando Villazon, Arturo Chacon, David Lomeli and there are a ton more on top of that," he asserted. "And those are only tenors. We haven't even talked about sopranos. There are so many singers making major careers in the important theaters of the world and they are not given the credit in their country."
He also noted that the arts elevate people's behavior in a way that sports often fail to do.
"You will never see anyone fighting after an opera performance. The people always want to create rivalries between singers, but for me it's not about that. Art is about collaboration, not conflict. It's about spiritual and moral enrichment."
Part of the fun of singing of opera is the wealth of repertoire that singers have at their disposal. While Camarena focuses mainly on the roles that he is taking on at the present moment, he still dares to dream about what he wants to sing in the near and distant future.
He noted that there will be more Rossini in store, but he also revealed that his intention was never to do Rossini.
"I didn't expect to do Rossini. I did it because it gave me a good chance to debut in Zurich. I was in the opera studio of the Zurich Opera house. I did an audition and then they offered me to be the cover for 'Italiana in Algeria.' So I spent the next three months learning it; it was my first Rossini opera," he stated. "It went really well and the following offers were for Rossini.
"I like Rossini because of the flexibility and agility that the voice obtains. You are always fresh. But in my case, the voice has squillo and some weight," he added. "It makes it a bit more difficult for something like Rossini because I have to make my voice lighter. I like the repertoire and I can do it, but there are roles I prefer such as Almaviva [in 'Barbiere di Sivilgia'] or Ramiro [in 'Cenerentola']."
He added that he will likely move into some of Rossini's more dramatic works including "Gugliemo Tell" and "Semiramide."
"I think that is a role that will eventually come," said Camarena about playing Gugliemo Tell. "Same with Semiramide. I think that the opera seria of Rossini is something that will work for me."
Camarena sees himself also expanding his Belcanto repertoire, particularly in the works of Donizetti and Bellini.
"In the next four years I hope to move more into the lyrical-Belcanto tenor. I think Elvino is a lot more satisfying when the voice has a bit more weight to it. It adds more layers to the role," he said. "I am interested in Lucia di Lammermoor which I am starting to test out. You usually get more dramatic tenors taking on this role, but I think the role can also be sung by a brighter voice. More lyric instead of dramatic or spinto. He is a young man after all.
"I am doing Maria Stuarda in Barcelona a the end of the year," he added before noting that he will be singing another Donizetti role rather soon. "I debuted in Mexico with La Fille Du Regiment and I am doing it in Europe in Madrid for the first time in my career. It has been about 10 years since I've sung the role."
He also revealed that Arturo in Bellini's "I Puritani" is also on the way. While he does not have them on the docket just yet, the tenor noted that other Belcanto roles he wishes to try out are the title role in Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux" and Pollione in Bellini's "Norma." Camarena also mentioned that he had interest in trying out a few Verdi roles.
"I'm also excited about the idea of a Duca di Mantua [in 'Rigoletto'] or an Alfredo [in 'La Traviata].' I know I can do those. But I will wait to see," he said. "With something like Don Carlo, I will definitely wait to see how my voice develops."
Mozart has also been a major part of his repertoire and he mentioned that Don Ottavio in "Don Giovanni" would also be on the way. However, hearing Camarena sing "Die Zauberflote" might be a longer shot.
"I know that I could sing Tamino, but I always identify it with the voice of Fritz Wunderlich," he explained. "It is a meaty, round voice that has a punch for the role and I think I would be looking for that sound if I were to sing it. It would not be me."
The tenor is also interested in moving to the French repertoire, particularly the music of Massenet and Delibes.
"I would also like to move more into the French repertoire. Maybe Massenet such as Manon," he said before noting that the more iconic role of Werther was still a question mark for him. "I like Werther, the character and the music. It's dreamlike. I've sung the aria many times but singing the opera isn't just about the aria. The orchestra is dense and heavy. It might be a role I try in eight to 10 years. Maybe when Jonas Kaufmann is not singing it anymore."
Regarding Delibes he stated, "I want to sing 'Lakme.' It is not well-known but it is a beautiful role. There is a gorgeous cavatina and a wonderful duet."
What are his dream roles?
"Rodolfo and Cavaradossi are my dream roles. I would love to do Rodolfo but first I'd have to get through the Duca and a French role. If I can do those roles comfortably, then I will do Rodolfo. But only if I manage those tasks. If that doesn't work out then maybe I will do an experiment like Alfredo Kraus did. He sang it once, said that it wasn't for his voice and moved on," he stated. "In regards to Cavaradossi I am aware that I may never sing it in my life. I love the character. I love the music and 'Lucevan le Stelle' is one of the greatest arias ever written. It is one of those pieces that really gets to me. I love the idea of that intense love for your life. Maybe when I'm older, I'll sing the aria in a concert. But I don't know if that role will ever happen."