In our jobs, when we're told to redo something, it usually means we've made a mistake. That's not the case for Javier Camarena. Earlier this month at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the tenor had the chance to retake an aria during a performance of Donizetti's Don Pasquale because the audience went bonkers after the first time he sang it.
For many decades, the Met followed a strict no-encores policy. Camarena, who turned 40 on Saturday, has sung three encores at the Met so far. He joins fellow tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Flórez as the only singers since 1942 to break the rule by repeating an aria during a complete performance. At the audio link on this page, Camarena speaks with NPR's Renee Montagne about his career and his latest encore.
"It doesn't happen often," he says. "But it's something that the public makes possible. It's about the reaction of the public when they are receiving your work. They measure this with applause, and actually they are asking for more."
In this case they asked for a repeat of the aria "E se fia che ad altro oggetto," which sports a stratospheric high D-flat at the end. Camarena places the note with a ringing sound and surprising ease. It's the kind of supple yet strong singing that has brought the Mexican tenor to the world's top opera houses.
But how can you tell when to sing an encore, right in the middle of an opera? Camarena says it's a gut feeling.
"We did five performances, and right from the first one you could actually see what was happening with the public," he says. "And as we say in the theater, 'What the public demands, you give.' "
Camarena grew up in the Gulf Coast town of Veracruz, Mexico, with few signs of opera in his family.
"My father, now he's retired, was some kind of Homer Simpson, you know," Camarena says, chuckling. "He was working in a nuclear plant. ... My mother is a chef, and now she teaches cooking. We loved music at home. We could hear every kind of music but classical, and that's something that came with me."
Camarena had a voice. As a teenager he sang in a cover band and as a wedding singer. At the late age of 19, he wanted to study music. It was too late to become a pianist. "My best chances were with singing," he says.
In college, Camarena studied electrical engineering, but he eventually dropped it for music. He didn't tell his parents. After he finally admitted the switch, he says, "they were very, very angry." In one conversation with his mother, he recalls, she told him that he could end up sweeping streets if he pursued music. "Maybe I will," he told her. "But I will be happy." In the end, they acknowledged his passion.
After three years of study with an Italian teacher, Camarena finally saw his very first opera — on video. "It was Plácido Domingo and Éva Marton at the Met singing Turandot from Puccini," Camarena says. "And I was so, so in love then. And everything became clear. I knew I wanted to do this."
Camarena is billed as a bel canto tenor. Meaning "beautiful singing," it is a style born in Italy, best heard in music by composers such as Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, and requires voices with agility and a dynamic high register. "The main purpose," Camarena says, "is that you can show the possibilities and the beauty of the melodies in the voice."
It is the beauty, and those thrilling high notes, that forces audiences to leap to their feet. And every once in a great while, at least at the Met, an encore gets triggered by that thunderous applause.
"It feels like a tsunami sound coming to you," Camarena says. "It's covering every single space in the theater. My stomach is shaking. But it's not only about the applause, it's the atmosphere. You can cut it with a knife. It's really magical and joyful. And I can actually feel that."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And let's listen to a beautiful voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON PASQUALE")
JAVIER CAMARENA: (As Ernesto, singing in Italian).
MONTAGNE: That's tenor and emerging opera star, Javier Camarena, who experienced something extraordinary a couple of weeks ago at New York's Metropolitan Opera. He brought a full opera to a halt forced by thunderous applause to sing an encore. The Met has long frowned on show-stopping encores, so much so that with this, Camarena's third encore, he joins legends Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez as the only singers since 1942 to break the rules. Javier Camarena joined us in our D.C. studio. Good morning.
CAMARENA: Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here with you.
MONTAGNE: We actually are lucky in one sense. We can play now an excerpt of your encore because it was broadcast live on radio. But just before we hear, tell us just briefly what we're going to hear, what piece of music.
CAMARENA: The cabaletta from an aria from this opera is "Don Pasquale" - this Italian Composer Gaetano Donizetti. And my role is Ernesto, and he's singing "E Se Fia Che Ad Altro Oggetto." That means that if she fell in love with somebody else.
MONTAGNE: So his heart has been broken?
CAMARENA: It's like a little bitter comedy. And in this case, Ernesto wants to marry Norina, but his uncle doesn't want to because he wants Ernesto get married with a wealthy woman. But then there's a friend of Ernesto and friend of Norina who are making a plot against Pasquale, which is the uncle from Ernesto. So he's whining a little bit about that. But then he's happy if Norina find happiness in another place. So that's the part he's singing now.
MONTAGNE: Whoa, I would've (laughter)...
CAMARENA: Yeah, I know it is kind of....
MONTAGNE: No, no I asked. I mean, this is opera. Well, let's play a little bit then.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON PASQUALE")
CAMARENA: (As Ernesto, singing in Italian).
MONTAGNE: I have to say, the New York Times critic called that a fearless high D flat.
CAMARENA: It is actually.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn the subject to you.
MONTAGNE: Tell us a little about yourself. You grew up in Veracruz, Mexico.
MONTAGNE: And nothing really says opera in your background. Although - well, tell us. You tell us.
CAMARENA: (Laughter) My father was, is - well, he was, now he's retired - some guy, like, Homer Simpson, you know? He was working on a nuclear plant and doing these kind of nuclear things. I really don't know what he was doing there. My mother is a chef, and now she's teaching cooking. We loved music at home. We could hear, like, every kind of music but classic.
MONTAGNE: Every kind except classic.
CAMARENA: (Laughter). Yeah.
MONTAGNE: And I also read just a little along the way that you sang in a cover band, made some money as a wedding singer(laughter).
CAMARENA: Yeah, kind of. (Laughter).
MONTAGNE: So when did you discover opera?
CAMARENA: Actually, I was already in my third year in singing lessons. I didn't know nothing about opera singing. And I had a Italian professor who made this, like, workshop for listening to operas. So I could see my first opera in video. And this is was Placido Domingo and Eva Marton at the Met singing, "Turandot" from Puccini. And I was so, so in love then. And everything became clear, and I back then knew that I wanted to do this as a tenor.
MONTAGNE: What does your family think?
CAMARENA: (Laughter). Yeah, the beginning was funny because I was supposed to be an engineer. I was studying electro-mechanics. So I dropped the university for being an engineer, and I went to music and my parents didn't know nothing about that.
MONTAGNE: Was your father angry?
CAMARENA: Yeah, they were very, very angry. But they saw, actually, I was really passionate and very dedicated. The last discussion I had with my mother, she said, many people thought back then what are you going to do, you're studying music? What's going to be of your life? Are you going to finish sweeping streets? And I said, yeah, maybe I will. But I will be happy. Life's too short for not being happy.
MONTAGNE: Is there some small thing that you could sing for us now...
MONTAGNE: ...Just to give us an encore, actually.
CAMARENA: An encore. (Laughter). No, actually from Italian composer, Tosti, is a song that it is called, "Ideale."
(Singing in Italian).
Yeah, something like that.
MONTAGNE: (Applause) Bravo. I can hear people clapping all over America.
MONTAGNE: Which brings us back to that thunderous applause at the Met filled with a rapturous audience. How does that feel?
CAMARENA: I mean, it's the Met, and it's around 3,000 people there. And it feels like a tsunami sound coming to you. And it's covering every single space in the theater. And I was so excited, like, my stomach was, like, shaking. It's really, really magical and special moment, and I think the best way to understand it is actually living it.
MONTAGNE: Thank you so much for joining us.
CAMARENA: Well, thank you very much for this time and for the interview.
MONTAGNE: Tenor Javier Camarena. He's earned a place in the history of the Met with his third encore. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I'm Rachel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON PASQUALE")
CAMARENA: (As Ernesto, singing in Italian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.