The Fifteenth Annual OPERA NEWS Awards: Javier Camarena

March 26, 2020
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WHEN TENOR Javier Camarena appeared at the Metropolitan Opera last February, as Tonio in Laurent Pelly’s Fille du Régiment staging, he was met with rapturous cheers. When he hit eighteen thrilling high Cs in “Ah! mes amis,” those cheers exploded into roars. With equal parts breathtaking technique and radiant energy, Camarena doesn’t merely light up a house; he imbues it with warmth. His infectious smile, which can be seen wooing onstage lovers—and offstage fans and friends—is a defining element, conveying authenticity and joy that few artists can match.
Born in Xalapa, Veracruz, Camarena grew up listening to ABBA and the Bee Gees. He sang in church choirs, in rock bands, and at weddings. At nineteen, while studying to be an engineer in electrical mechanics, he changed his career path; his first interest was piano, but “My best chances were with singing,” he told NPR in 2016. His parents were not immediately supportive of the switch to music; his mother warned that he could end up sweeping streets. “Maybe I will,” replied the young Camarena, “but I will be happy.”
Now a celebrated bel cantist, Camarena dazzles audiences with his generous and confident stage presence. But the path wasn’t a straight shot: “It was a looong process in learning the technique, in discovering the sound of my voice,” he admitted in January, in an opera news cover story. It wasn’t until 2001, six years after beginning his studies, that he began to consider the true potential of his voice. Three years later, after taking first prize in Mexico’s Carlo Morelli competition, Camarena made his professional debut as Tonio in a 2004 Fille du Régiment at the Palacio de Bellas Artes; in 2007, he joined the ensemble at Zurich Opera. Since then, the tenor’s star has blazed ever brighter, his name inciting frenzied cries across opera’s biggest international stages, from Madrid, where he sang Lucia’s Edgardo in 2018, and Zurich, where he sang Don Ramiro to Cecilia Bartoli’s Angelina last December, to Paris, Salzburg, Munich, Los Angeles, San Francisco and more.
Listen to his Ernesto in the Met’s 2016 Don Pasquale, a role that earned him a rare encore at the house—his third. (Since 1942, only two others, Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Flórez, have earned the honor.) His lament, “Cercherò lontana terra,” pierces the heart; his emotion is without bounds, his voice growing stronger, more resolute, against the crescendo in the orchestra, yet always pristine at the top. “It feels like a tsunami of sound coming to you,” Camarena said when asked about his anomalous encores. “It’s covering every single space in the theater. My stomach is shaking. But it’s not only about the applause, but it’s also the atmosphere. You can cut it with a knife. It’s really magical and joyful.
It’s this atmosphere, stunningly still on the surface, bursting with life beneath, that sets a Camarena performance apart. And it’s an atmosphere nurtured to fruition only by an artist as thoughtful and as earnest as Camarena. There’s nothing about him that reads as false. Humble social media posts paying tribute to opera legends, animated behind-the-scenes video snapshots with smiling colleagues, and proud declarations of love for his family and closest friends all show Camarena to be an artist who not only cherishes what he does but gives back with his whole heart. “I really believe I am blessed by having the chance in this life of doing what I’m doing,” he told OPERA NEWS in January. “It’s a gift for sharing, and I love this, and I take it with the biggest responsibility that implies.” —Eloise Giegerich