Camarena Gold
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Camarena Gold

JAVIER CAMARENA had a career-making hit during his last engagement at the Met, in 2014. This season, the tenor phenom returns to New York as Ernesto in Don Pasquale.
by Scott Barnes.

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Camarena in concert at the Isauro Martínez Theater, Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico
© Jonathan Muró
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© Jonathan Muró
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As Rossini’s Almaviva, his Met debut role in 2011
© Beth Bergman

IN A LITTLE MORE THAN TEN YEARS—his first professional performance, as Tonio in La Fille du Régimentwas at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2004—tenor Javier Camarena has risen to the exclusive ranks of professionals who sing the florid, rangy, dramatically challenging roles of bel canto leading men on the world’s foremost opera stages. What has gotten him there, primarily, is the ravishing sound of his voice. Yes, he has the requisite skills—articulate, rhythmically precise coloratura and ringing high notes—but many times those attributes accompany voices that are smallish in size, a bit thin or nasal-sounding and weak in declamation. Other bel cantists can do all the tricks, but they’re not pleasing to listen to. Camarena is the complete artist. His good-sized voice is of uncommon beauty from bottom to top; the middle of the voice in particular is virile and darkish in color, but with a burnished glow that opens into a secure top. There is no white-knuckling when Camarena sings. We feel so safe with him that we can really settle down to enjoy the musical elements that he obviously pays attention to—recitatives, subito pianos, long diminuendos on high notes, tasteful rubatos, cadenzas and variations that are born out of the drama, rather than just to show off—though he can show off very well. Camarena is also an organic actor. His comedy is not just shtick by the numbers; he is always a flesh-and-blood character with a goal in mind. A layman might call him “natural,” but there is certainly nothing natural about the theatrical tightrope-walking he does so well. “Truthful” is a better term.

THIS MARCH, CAMARENA RETURNS to the Metropolitan Opera in a revival of Otto Schenk’s production of Don Pasquale, costarring Ambrogio Maestri and Eleonora Buratto, in her company debut; Maurizio Benini conducts. The tenor has been familiar to Met audiences since 2011, when he gave a thrilling performance of the often-excised aria “Cessa di più resistere” in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The peak of his Met career so far came on April 25, 2014, when he joined a very exclusive club: he became the third singer since 1942 (all tenors) to perform an encore of an aria at a regularly scheduled performance at the Met, filling in for superstar Juan Diego Flórez. The opera was La Cenerentola, and the aria was Don Ramiro’s “Si, ritrovarla io giuro.” 

“At the first performance,” he says during a Skype interview in September, “I just remember hearing this tsunami of applause and people screaming, so I just came back out. I just couldn’t stop laughing. It really, really took me by surprise, but a beautiful surprise. After a couple of days, I went to see [Met general manager] Peter Gelb, just to thank him for thinking about me to do the performances when Juan Diego canceled. When I arrived to his office, I took my first CD with me. He saw the CD and said, ‘Listen, what do you think about singing a bis of the aria?’ And I said that as long as Maestro Luisi agrees, and most of all as long as the public has the same reaction they had the first performance, then I would love to. Those were my conditions. The third performance was amazing, completely overwhelming. I felt so blessed. There was a real bond between what I was doing and the public. I was so filled with thankfulness that I bent my knee to the floor and thanked God. It was one of the best moments of my life. The first time we performed the encore, Maestro Luisi cued it. I thought he would wait for the applause more. But the second time, it was just pure joy. I was just enjoying the moment, the singing, the public.” 


CAMARENA WAS BORN IN VERACRUZ , Mexico. His father was a nuclear technician who loved pop music. Nothing in Camarena’s background pointed him toward a career in opera: he paid for much of his schooling by singing in a cover band. “My voice was at first very nasal, which I worked hard to change. I had no technique, or idea that it could be improved. I learned how to breathe and little by little developed a technique to connect the low voice with the high. When I began to work, C, D, E were not there. Just a little part of the voice. The top high notes came only four or five years after I began to study. At the beginning, I worked with mezzo-soprano Cecilia Perfecto, maybe for about three years, and only on exercises. No opera at all. And at that time there were people who found my voice ugly! Since then I have several teachers. You have to think about the yin and the yang of your singing—to find the balance. If you are only thinking about the high notes or the richness, it’s not enough. You have to make your voice complete from the bottom to the top. And I like when I sing the low notes! I have had many beautiful nights singing Rossini, but there is a wonderful freedom to my voice when I sing Donizetti and Bellini. I don’t know if I have a right to say this—but I think you can hear my real voice!

“My dream role would be Cavaradossi in Tosca. I don’t think that I will ever sing it, though. More realistically, I will be singing Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Arturo in I Puritani, also Duca di Mantua in Rigoletto. I would love to sing Roberto Devereux, and Alfredo in La Traviata. Maybe Rodolfo in La Bohème.” At the moment, Camarena considers that the greatest living example of how an artist can mature with solid technique is American tenor Gregory Kunde, who has had three decades of a successful career as a bel canto specialist and is now, at age sixty-one, alternating the Otellos of Rossini and Verdi. Kunde sings a very busy schedule, mostly in Europe, and without dropping Pollione and Roberto Devereux has added Manrico, Radamès, Turiddu and Canio. “He knows what he is capable of,” says Camarena, “and most importantly he sings always with his own voice, in his own way. He is an amazing example of how you can really work on your technique and repertoire if you want a long career. It’s the most important thing, to respect the voice.

“I did a recording last year of some of the arias from this repertoire. I recorded Roberto Devereux’s last scene and also Edgardo. I feel so free and a completely different sensation. I mean, I can handle the Rossini repertoire. I love it. I really, really enjoy it a lot. I have learned how to make the coloratura golden and to find the right emotions every time. But the voice feels more right in this other repertoire. Actually, it’s what I started with—Donizetti and Mozart. It’s nice coming back to that repertoire after all these years, with the knowledge I now have. I would love to do some of the more dramatic Mozart roles. I just love Mozart. Of course, Idomeneo would be a dream role. Maybe something like Tito—but I don’t know if I will be able to do it. Sometimes what happens is that a repertoire starts to feel not as good. I made my debut at the opera house in Zurich with Lindoro, and I tried it again, many years later, and it doesn’t feel the same. It really doesn’t. I know my voice is bigger and has grown in harmonics and richness, so going for this high passaggio and high coloratura is not so comfortable any more. I just decided to drop him. I will still say yes with Almaviva, and of course with Ramiro from Cenerentola. Ramiro, for me, is the dream Rossini role. It involves all these possibilities of expression. He is humble with Angelina and gets crazy mad with Magnifico. All these emotions!”

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Camarena in concert
© Jonathan Muró

CAMARENA'S FEST CONTRACT WITH  Zurich Opera began in April 2007 and ended in the 2013–14 season. His many successes there included Almaviva in Barbiere (both Rossini’s and Paisiello’s) and Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. “I had a very, very beautiful time in Zurich. I learned a lot of things. I had a chance to prepare a lot of roles and do a lot of premieres. I grew as a singer, as an artist, as a musician. And I liked being part of the ensemble. The only time I ever had to cancel because of my fest contract was the Met’s Armida. I was supposed to be one of the six tenors. Six tenors? La Donna del Lago has two, and it is more than enough! An Intendant is wise to let singers move and get a name, because then you have it in your house. That’s how people begin to follow you. But it was already necessary for me to fly, and it has worked out well, freelancing. The new administration has new ideas and repertoire to offer the audience. Not so much of the Italian repertoire. They also have a new artistic director who wants to support new people. This I understand. So if there’s no room for me, I look for some other room. It’s nice to come back as a guest. I live in Zurich. My family is here. It’s a beautiful place, very organized, safe. It’s a bit square sometimes! But it’s nice square. It allows you to live in an organized way and just relax, because you know everything is working as it should be. And Zurich is almost in the center of Europe, so you can get by plane everywhere in a couple of hours.”

Camarena and his wife, Marisol, have two children—Diana, eleven, and Braulio, six. Diana is fluent in Swiss German, very good in German and English and is beginning to learn French. At home, Spanish is spoken. And his son? “Well,” Camarena says, laughing, “he’s really good with Spanish—and he’s beginning to communicate with Swiss German and German.” The family tries to return to Mexico at least once a year to see both sets of grandparents and cousins. When that isn’t possible, they fly relatives to Zurich.

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© Jonathan Muró 

IT IS UNUSUAL FOR A TENOR WITH A  burgeoning international career to exhibit the natural balance that seems to be at Camarena’s core. In Mexico, the word sencillo, when describing a person, means “easy, modest, unaffected”—but in a very positive and almost noble way. Yiddish cuts to the chase with the word mensch. “Javier is a total mensch,” says mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, who performed with Camarena in the Met’s Mary Zimmerman staging of La Sonnambula—“Normal as rainwater, makes everybody comfortable to be around him. And then there’s the singing. I can only speak to the effect of his technique—remarkable. I never saw him worry. He was a joy to work with. A very generous colleague. In that show, my role [Teresa] was small, to say the least. I’ve been with enough people who will make you feel smaller, and that’s not Javier. He’s the kind of singer I wish more young singers could watch, and see how it can be done.”

“You have to be a littlebit crazy to do this career,” Camarena says. “You have to learn to embrace solitude. And how to deal with it. Right now, we’re in an amazing era, where we have the technology to be closer with just a click. I would have loved to have been in the time when you had a little bit more time between performances or between projects. You could have also enough time to relax and be with the family. My kids are in school now, so I try to have us be together when they have holidays. They’ve been amazingly supportive. My daughter is at the age when she wants to know why I always have to go. But she is proud of me, so she understands. In the old days, you’d go and work three months, and then you’d come back for three or four months with the family. Now everything goes faster, and you have to be in great shape for three performances per week. Then you finish—‘Thank you, everybody. Goodbye!’—and you jump into another project, meet new people—different rhythm. When you’re in love with the work you’re doing, with the career, it’s part of the business. You have to be in really good health, not only physical but emotional and psychological. To find the right balance is essential. And for me, family and friends does it. It feeds my soul.” spacer 

Scott Barnes is an audition and performance coach for professional singers. He often gives master classes in opera acting in the age of HD. 

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