Stephanie von Buchau, Opera News, February 1978
José Carreras tells Stephanie von Buchau how he handles his rapid rise to fame.
José Carreras has a conspiratorial smile. With it he draws you into his world of private amusement. The smile, his boyish good looks, the soulful eyes and crinkly dark hair, the engaging diffidence with which he apologizes for his excellent English, as well as the extraordinary rocket he has ridden from the relative obscurity of his New York debut in 1972 to his current position as an internationally celebrated singer, might lead one to characterize Carreras as a mere lightweight charmer.
It is an impression instantly dispelled when the thirty-one-year old Catalonian tenor begins to talk about himself, his career and the music that makes it all possible. Carreras is a serious man engaged in a serious profession, and he knows exactly what he is doing. Asked about dealing with his sudden fame he says deprecatingly, "I think I am not famous. In Spain, nobody knows who José Carreras is. A real famous man is someone like Jimmy Connors."
"I agree that I came up fast -- not too fast, but fast enough -- with good, sensible steps. First my debut in Barcelona , then I won the Verdi contest in Parma, then my debut at the New York City Opera, then Covenant Garden, then Vienna, the Met, La Scala. I did not win the competition and go directly to the Met of La Scala, and my first recital album was not released until two years after my Met debut."
"We were very careful about this -- I and my managers and my record company -- we did not make the recital immediately. I think it is terrible when you sell a product before you know it is good. An opera singer is just like a film. When they announce months in advance that the coming film is the most fantastic, the most beautiful, the most wonderful, and it comes out only a normal film, people are disappointed because they are expecting the exceptional. This is a deception of the public. In my case, it did not happen because I have taken my time. Nobody said 'This is the new Caruso' before my Met debut; it would have been completely wrong."
Carreras was in San Francisco, preparing to sing in a new production of Un Ballo in Maschera. Riccardo [Gustav in the San Francisco's new Swedish settings] is Carreras' favorite role. Sprawled on the couch in his Nob Hill hotel, feet tucked under him, Carreras says, "Here is a real personality, very romantic, very noble, always inside him a fight between the love he feels for Amelia and his friendly relationship with her husband Renato. Romantic music, heroic music, lots of laughter, the role has everything. And 'Si, rivederti, Amelia' is one of the greatest things Verdi ever wrote." Maurizio, Carreras' broadcast role at the Met, is another favorite.
"Maurizio is not a very interesting character. He is young and heroic, a little like James Bond, but his music is so beautiful. If you ask my colleagues, Aragall, Domingo, I think they will tell you that is why they sing it. Maurizio is not important like Rodolfo or Werther, but he has wonderful music to sing and you must sing it with heart. Maybe this is not the kind of music for critics," he raises his eyebrows apologetically, "but it is for people, for audiences and singers."
Carreras sang his first Maurizio in Barcelona, his hometown, the opening night of the 1972-73 season with Monserrat Caballe as Adriana. "Fortunately, every time I sing it since, it is with Monserrat, and I'm proud of that. Also we make the recording for Phillips. I've done it with her in Barcelona [which he pronounces with the Castilian "th"] and Madrid, London, Nice and Tokyo. Always we have known we must do it together at the Met. For us this is a very important thing." Hearing Carreras talk of his Spanish colleague reminds one that Alfredo Kraus prophesied four years ago in Chicago that the young Carreras would be the next big tenor star. Is there a rivalry among today's seemingly endless supply of handsome Spanish tenors? Looking startles that anyone could even think such a thing, Carreras says quickly, "Absolutely not. Giacomo [Aragall] is a friend from ten years. In the beginning he was a great help to me. I think he has the most beautiful voice in the world today. Placido [Domingo] is also a friend. He is one of the most complete artists of our day. I admire tremendously Kraus' fabulous technique. I am proud to be included, to be the latest of them." What about the rivalry with Italian tenors? This question gets a big laugh. "I must tell you that Luciano [Pavarotti] is here in the same hotel now. He cooks for me, we play cards together, we go out together, sing together. He is like a brother."
Carreras has unreserved praise for today's younger conductors. "Abbado is great -- we recorded Simon Bocanegra together for Deutsche Grammophon. I adore Mutti, Levine. Colin Davis is wonderful. I particularly like the young Spanish conductor who does Adriana with us at the met, Jesus Lopez-Cobos. We are incredibly lucky to have so many good conductors today." Who does he think is the greatest of them? "Karajan is the greatest of our epoch, a man from another galaxy." A soprano once said that singing with Karajan is "like sleeping is a particularly comfortable bed. The orchestra supports you, so you have complete security." Carreras agrees. "I feel, and many of my colleagues think the same, that with Karajan its is like having your father there, conducting for you. You feel incredible as is 'He is following me the whole performance, I can do anything I want.' But the secret is -- and only a few conductors have the sensibility and intelligence to do this -- that you are really following him. Only his magnetism makes you think that he is following you." "Some conductors are always moving and waving and asking for more voice. You feel sometimes that you are at the office. With Karajan, he moves a single finger and you must give him everything you have inside." Carreras has sung the Verdi requiem and Don Carlo with Karajan in Salzburg and La Boheme for the conductor's triumphant return to the Vienna State Opera last spring. "The atmosphere for La Boheme was fantastic. I don't know if one note was better or not, and I won't say that Carreras gave his best performance, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling to be in that opera house."
Karajan has persuaded Carreras to sing Ramades at Salzburg in 1979. Is this a dangerous step for a singer who still considers himself a lyric tenor? "I think a tenor who can sing Don Carlo, Luisa Miller, Un Ballo in Maschera can sing Ramades, with his own voice in a lyric way. It is not a difficult tessitura. 'Celeste Aida' is a difficult aria, but it is essentially lyrical. The Nile scene is heroic but not dramatic -- the tenor who can sing the duet in Ballo can sing the Nile scene. The last act is lyric. The only place with a big orchestration and lower tessitura is the judgment scene."
"Also, it is only for Karajan that I will sing this role, for at least five years. We have discussed it, and he plans a very lyrical approach -- the proof is that Mirella Freni will be Aida. You can be sure that Karajan will insist on the soft dynamics for 'O terra addio.' The top line in the triumphal scene I will sing -- some tenors just mouth it -- but they will hear me less than Del Monaco or Corelli. "However," he adds with a touch of wry humor, "I don't really think people will come to hear this Aida for that moment not for other, more beautiful moments, no?"
Carreras also admires Karajan as a stage director, a somewhat unfashionable viewpoint. "Definitely, because he is a theater man and knows how that stage and the music must work together. He never makes you do anything against the music. Don Carlo was a beautiful experience. It takes an intelligent regisseur to know what material he has onstage to work with. I am not a good actor, but I would like to be better, so I try to learn everything I can."
Fortunately for me, opera is my hobby. Every time I have a free evening and am in San Francisco, London, Vienna, New York, I am going to the opera. This is the best way to learn the good things you should do, and also learn the bad things you must never do. Just watching how other do it. Of course, a great regisseur helps you a lot." Does Carreras think the all-powerful producer is pushing singers aside in today's opera world? The charming conspiratorial smile is followed by "Not at all, because we have a very good argument -- our voices."
Carreras has learned a lot about drama from his experience at the New York City Opera, where he made his debut as Pinkerton in 1972. "And not just drama but also about music. I think I am not now a provincial singer, because of City Opera. I came to them an incredible amateur, and they helped me a lot. It is wonderful for a young singer to have the opportunity to work with a good orchestra in good productions, not to have to make the first steps of his career in the provinces but in a serious company. At the City Opera I learned the right way to approach music, attention to the composer's wishes, taste, style."
"The City Opera was also an important part of my career because New York is a big window for the United States and the rest of the world. Even if the City Opera is not a major company like the Met or Paris or Vienna, a success in New York is still a success. If Mr. Schonberg, just to mention one name, comes to a performance and makes a good review, for a young singer that is terribly important."
"With the City Opera I had an opportunity to learn repertory. I did my first Butterfly, Lucia, Cavaradossi with them, sometimes without orchestral rehearsal. Now when I have five days of orchestra rehearsals I think, 'Too much.'" He sips his coffee reflectively, making sure I realize he is exaggerating. "The audience at the City Opera was wonderful. I did not do too many performances there, but I thing I still have the same public in New York when I sing at the Met. It is more expensive, but I see the same faces backstage. Maybe that means I have only a few fans" -- infectious chuckles -- "but they are very loyal!"
Then, suddenly serious, he says intently, "Fans are the greatest thing in our lives. Sometimes when I am very tired after a performance, I am thinking, 'Oh I must talk to these people, because they are so nice, and I would prefer to go home and rest.' But then I think to myself, what would happen if they were not there, if they did not come to see me? It is one of the most beautiful things to know that you are onstage and you have given something of yourself. Those few people backstage are the representation form that audience that you have moved."
Carreras' career keeps him constantly on the go. "I am singing now seventy-eighty performances a year, making five or six recordings, learning new roles. I have not much free time. But when I do, I love to listen to music, not just opera. After Don Carlo was finishes in Salzburg last summer, I stayed over to hear Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic play the Mahler Sixth. It was fantastic! Also, I like to play tennis, to play pelota, our national sport. And when I am in Europe and have even twenty-four hours, I am going to Barcelona to see my son Alberto. He is almost five, a very normal child. It is too early yet to know if he will be musical. Fortunately, he can distinguish my voice from any other tenor, otherwise it would be terrible for me! Of course," laughing again, "if he should confuse me with Caruso, I would not mind."
Like most tenors, Carreras has an almost mystical appreciation of Caruso's art. "Caruso is a myth, like Greta Garbo. We really don't know from those records what he was like, but the quality of the voice is incredible. Of course styles change. Of historical singers, only one tenor would be modern enough to sing today, and that is Aureliano Pertile. He respected more the music, what the composer write. He used not so much portamanto, the cries, the sobs. A very honest interpretation always from Pertile, not seeking big applause."
"I think today our voices may not be so phenomenal as Caruso or Bjoerling, but our style is better, purer, more honest." When asked if he, for example, approves of the little extra laughs that Alessandro Bonci introduced into Riccardo's "E scherzo of e follia," he replies unequivocally, "I think it is terrible to put in those laughs. It is enough what Verdi wrote. He knew exactly what he was doing with the notes, the rests. Why should you go 'Ho ho ho'?" He launches into a devastating parody of a tenor drunk with laughter. Then thinking perhaps he has gone too far, he qualifies, "Well, I would have to respect a singer who insists on this interpretation, because it is not up to me to criticize my colleagues, but I don't like to do it myself."
The question of German opera arises. One would be fascinated to hear such a warm, Mediterranean voice sings Lohengrin. "I've never sung in German, not because I don't think I have the voice, but because I don't speak German. And I cannot understand how a singer performs in a language he does not speak. You must dominate that language before you can sing in it. But maybe one day I will learn German and if my voice becomes a little more spinto yes, I would like very much to do Lohengrin. I think perhaps I could also sing Tamino."
"In the opera world there are three geniuses and a lot of wonderful composers. The geniuses are Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. I don't know if Wagner wrote so well for the voice, but he is still a genius. I love Tristan, Siegfried. I am not able to sing Mozart onstage because the theaters ask only for your own repertory, but someday, with a great conductor, I would be very happy to record some Mozart Arias, perhaps "Il mio tesoro," which I sing because it is good vocalise."
"I did a recording of zarzuela romanzas in London, which I liked very much, but it is difficult music, harder to sing than opera, because our Spanish composers are not in the same class as Maestro Bellini or Maestro Verdi, who really knew how to write for the voice. With Un Ballo in Maschera, for instance, Riccardo is a physically tiring role, because it is so long and he is onstage and must sing in so many different ways. But the day after Ballo I can sing again, because it is well written for a lyric tenor voice such as mine."
Carreras is too young to be worrying about retirement, but he admits he doesn't think about it. "Before I became an opera singer, I was a very bad student at the University studying chemistry, but I don't think I would ever become a chemist now." This patently absurd vision delights him, and he wiggles his shoulder blades against the cushions of the couch. "I travel around the world for eight years, and if God makes me sing for another twenty years, then after thirty years of rushing around continents it would be wonderful to finally be at home. But I also think that at fifty a man is still young and must do something. I just haven't thought yet what it will be."
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