By Paul Goulder —
History was made last weekend at the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, London and the simultaneous Proms in the (Hyde) Park, as Peruvian Juan Diego Flórez — the “world’s greatest tenor and heir to Pavarotti” — sang Rule Britannia dressed as Manco Capac, the first Inca.
The 11/9/16 Daily Telegraph, normally the epitome of bourgeois restraint, published an upbeat piece under the headline “Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez steals the show at Last Night of the Proms as he delights fans with Inca costume.”
Interpret this as you will*: a plea for musical inclusion, a serious statement of identity, tableaux-esque, operatic, a bit of fun, a toot for Peru, Juan Diego’s fans on social media have gone ballistic and adore him for this, and for his new affaire with Paddington Bear which we will come to shortly.
The battle of the flags
But what Juan Diego is looking at from the stage is a joyous mass of enthusiasts in the arena, the stalls, the circle and so on, many waving flags and joining in with the great Peruvian tenor for the choruses.
Nothing new there! The Last Night is quite used to a variety of flags, not just British but Japanese, German, Canadian etc. This time it was different. Supporters of Britain remaining in the European Union had distributed free hundreds, perhaps thousands of EU flags —stars against a blue background — in order to create a sea of blue EU propaganda for the TV cameras. It was not one hundred percent successful (and simply “not done” in normal circumstances!) but it was enough to prompt another article headed “Last Night of the Proms becomes battlefield as Remainers seek to turn event into show of support for EU.”
Let your spectacled eyes live forever
At some point Paddington Bear, who of course also comes from Peru, had jumped up onto the stage. Juan Diego picked him up and serenaded him with words from Piel Canela — “. . . But let your dark eyes live forever, and your cinnamon skin never change . . . ”
The original model for Paddington Bear, one supposes, is the Andean spectacled bear who much prefers the dry tropical forests of Northern Peru to the then smoky atmosphere of Paddington Station.
The media commented that JDF also “took the chance to serenade a cuddly Paddington Bear with a Latin American song while he cradled the bear in his arms, prompting an outpouring of love for the 43-year-old on social media.
The real bear, the real battle and the real rule of Britannia
If such a surreal turn of events would have struck you as unlikely, for historians irony is “such stuff as dreams are made on” to misquote Shakespeare’s Prospero and can spice up an otherwise dryish narrative.
The image of the Inca facing down or across to the Euro-flags is perhaps too complex for immediate appreciation but the Inca singing “Britain rules the waves” was particularly ironic given the historic memory in Peru of 29 May 1877, when the Peruvian armored turret ship Huascar ruled the waves, at least for a while. When challenged in the Bay of Pacocha by two British warships it came out on top.
It had been taken by rebel leader Nicolas de Piérola, an Arequipenian, from its Peruvian naval base in Callao and this challenge transformed him from traitor, even terrorist, to national hero and set him on the path to the Presidency. The Huascar, amongst its many other honors, could also claim to be the first vessel to have been shot at in anger by a torpedo. It survived this first use of the then brand-new technology.
By attaching his own prestige to the symbolism of the Inca, Juan Diego Flórez has raised by more than several notches the image of Peru in the world and with it the self-esteem of millions of Peruvians, not least those in the youth orchestras he is promoting. It could have backfired, but it didn’t.
One Peruvian, long resident in London, commented that when JDF let it be known that he was planning some surprise it was thought that he might appear dressed in the traditional costume of the marinera dance. Now Juan Diego has gone the whole mile and brought the image of the Inca from simple indigenista pastiche and tourist allegory to a proper place in the intellectual and cultural pantheon of the próceres, the heroes. Over the top? Perhaps, but then the Last Night of the Proms always is.
* El Comercio reports that in an interview with Lima’s RPP Radio, Juan Diego said he discussed the possible costume with Miguel Molinari, the executive director of his foundation Symphony for Peru, when he found out he was expected to dress up for the performance of Rule Britannia.
Paul Goulder, an academic and specialist on Latin America and Peru, is a frequent contributor to Peruvian Times. His most recent academic posts have been at ENSCP-Paris; King’s College, University of London; UNSA, Arequipa, Peru. He also dedicates not-for-profit work in ecology, development and education in UK and Peru.