A Heroic Tenor Returns
Nancy Malitz, Ovation, August 1989
In the leukemia wing of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, a brave and idealistic Catalonian struggled for his life. He refused general anesthesia to protect vocal cords so fine they are rarer than one in a million. He was often dizzy, nauseous and in great pain. But the celebrated patient found solace in the visits, cards and letters of friends and fans, and in a steady stream of music emanating from his Walkman.
Curiously for an opera singer, it was a single symphonic work, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, that most profoundly stirred him. Gripped by the music's wistfulness and melancholia, José Carreras listened to it daily.
"The piece became kind of a Talmud for me," says the renowned tenor, slender but vigorous once more. He is making a startling come-back at the age of 42. "Why that Rachmaninoff concerto touched me so deeply, I do not know. But I do know that music helped me like it would have helped any other person, because it has this spiritual side."
José Carreras' illness was diagnosed on July 15, 1987, as acute lymphocytic leukemia. He was at the height of his career, possessed of an instantly recognizable, warm and lustrous voice that, he commanded 'with ravishing delicacy and musical intelligence. Although somewhat run-down for months, Carreras hadn't paid much attention, blaming his fatigue first on overwork and. finally on antibiotics he had been taking for a dental problem. He had had the typical busy spring of a superstar, performing Pagliacci at Milan's La Scala in April, and in May recording' both Manon Lescaut for London' Decca and the soundtrack for an Erato film of La Bohème.
In early July, when Carreras finished the last recording session for Misa Criolla, an Argentinian folk-style mass by Ariel Ramirez, he was still not feeling good, He made it past a series of recitals and landed on the Paris film set for his first La Bohème shoot July 6. Five days before his diagnosis, he was still on the set.
Within the week, he would cancel everything. The Bohème project carries Carreras' voice on the soundtrack, but a 26-year-old Italian tenor, Luca Canonici, came in to play the film part of Rodolfo. A recording of Massenet's La Juive, for Philips, also lay incomplete. In Barcelona, a world premiere of Leonardo Balada's Christopher Columbus, intended for fall 1987, was put on ice. All over the world, opera companies and concert presenters removed Carreras' name from star-studded opening night galas and important new productions.
Accustomed to the care of the world's finest stage directors and conductors, Carreras suddenly found himself in very different hands.
First, he underwent three bouts of chemotherapy in Barcelona to shock his disease into remission. Then he flew to the Seattle cancer treatment center, where over a period of eight weeks his own bone marrow was removed, chemically manipulated and reinserted, in conjunction with full-bolt radiation therapy. The man who invented the process 16 years ago, Dr. E.D. Thomas, supervised.
Carreras' wavy brown hair was cropped short to spare him the anxiety of watching it thin and fall out. A needle was repeatedly inserted into the broad flat bones of his pelvis to extract a full liter and a half of the diseased marrow, a process Carreras says caused him tremendous pain. Radiation made him dizzy and severely nauseous. He lost 40 pounds, became susceptible to other infections, and during his worst periods was not able to eat or even talk.
But the treatment worked. The ever-optimistic Carreras was released in early 1988. Officially, he has been in remission since August 12, 1987, when his initial chemotherapy treatments ended. Doctors say it's still too soon to talk of a cure, but the rate of non-recurrence is good for this particular type of cancer. The longer a patient goes without mishap, the better the odds in favor of survival, which after two years can reach 95 percent; five years without a setback is considered a cure. Since he returned home to his native Barcelona 17 months ago to recuperate, the tenacious singer has grown back his hair, beefed up his frame, increased his endurance and systematically picked up the pieces of his career.
"I started slowly, with vocalizing, as soon as I began to feel better," Carreras remembers. "Then I did what I used to do as a student. I'd put a record on, even somebody else's, and sing over it so that it gave me some kind of support.
"One day I decided to begin working with a pianist. We worked for about three monthsthrough March, April and May. The day that finally I was able to go from the first bar of 'Celeste Aida' to the end without interruption, I knew that I could sing again. Because if a tenor can sing this aria," he interrupts himself with laughter, "then he is OK."
Last summer, gaunt but clearly delighted to be back on stage, Carreras launched his professional return at a highly emotional outdoor concert in Barcelona, awash in the affection of 150,000 fans. Other concerts followed in London, Vienna, Milan and half a dozen cities in Spain and Germany. English newspapers whispered that the WEA record company, anticipating widespread Carreras fever, paid him a whopping advance of a half million British pounds to record Andrew Lloyd Webber's greatest hit songs in time for the christmas '89 market. In the process, Carreras allocated nearly $1 million in performance fees and royalties to his newly formed international leukemia research foundation.
The first critical reports were encouraging. Carreras' voice sounded rested, they said. If anything, it was better. Some reviews implied a ripening of his artistry due to his physical trials. A Munich paper said he had developed "a sort o youthful style of maturity."
His Philips record producer, Erika Smith, observes, "It's possible the voice has gained a little in the gentle type of singing and lost a little bit of force. But mostly I am astonished at how similar the voice sounds. We started recording La Juive before Jose got sick. We finished it in February.
"There is so little difference that I am certain no one will be able to tell what was recorded when.'
Still, Carreras has waited a long time to return to the United States. It is May when he finally arrives, looking handsome and pronouncing his health "100 percent perfect." He is ready to prove 'not only that I am back, but back in the best places." He receives a hero's welcome at a Seattle concert to benefit the research center that had saved his life. The event is a triumph, winning rave reviews. Then, he assaults Washington D.C. and New York City. Sold-out concerts at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall are preceded by a whirl of meetings with the press.
It isn't easy. In the first 14 months after his return to the stage, Carreras logs more than 240 interviews and press conferences, plus TV appearances and record-signing sessions that can run to four-and-a-half hours. Now he talks to the press again, on the 31st floor in the St. Moritz Hotel overlooking New York City's Central Park. If a number of the questions are substantially the same as those he has just fielded in a private interview for Ovation and for a dozen interviews before that, he has grace not to let the tedium show.
Casually but impeccably dressed in a blue shirt, silk tie and brown suede jacket, Carreras sits gazing into the eyes of reporters assembled from the Spanish and American media. He even acquiesces to frequent requests that he repeat answers in Spanish, or in English.
The journalists want to know what every one else has wanted to know.
Did he ever ask himself, why me? Yes, he did. But when he saw the many little children similarly afflicted, he realized that moral punishment could not have anything to do with it.
Has the crisis made him more religious? Absolutely.
Does he think about his illness when he sings tragic songs? He can't, because if he did, he would make "a psychological disaster of the brain."
Does he worry about a recurrence? Realistically, it is a possibility. But he is optimistic.
"It is normal that every place I go, people will ask me these kinds of questions," he says. "Somehow after all this year of talking about the same thing, I see a lot of positive conclusions from attaching myself to this cause." He estimates his foundation will raise $4 million from a variety of private and public sources by the end of this year.
Earlier this day at the Regency Hotel, where Carreras has been lent a sprawling 18th-floor suite, he introduces two people who stood by with him through the worsta longtime friend, Jutta, and a secretary, Frits Krammer. Mild chaos reigns. The suite, they have just learned, has been promised to a paying guest tomorrow. While Carreras talks, Jutta and Frits sotto voce field incoming calls from the concert presenter, friends and business associates in a free-flowing river of German, French, Spanish and English. Meanwhile, equipment is set up for a photo shoot in the living room and options are assessed for the domestic move that must now occur.
Far from the convalescent's life of long naps and four-hour days, Carreras maintains the grueling pace of a media celebrity. "I am living the same kind of life I was living two years ago," he says emphatically, his eyes wide open in amazement. "It is a wonder, really. There is nothing I did then that I cannot do now." Dressed comfortably in a sweater and open shirt, he looks rested, and leans forward on the sofa when a question appeals. Even a recent bout with chicken pox and an ear infection, both the result of a still somewhat weakened immune system, have not stopped him, although both the Washington and New York concerts were postponed for a few days.
Different from now on, Carreras vows, will be his attitude and his work pace. "I no longer care who is number one or two or 10 or 60, or who is doing this premiere or that recording. I will sing because it is a great privilege to sing," says the tenor who several years ago angrily canceled all his Metropolitan Opera contracts when a prominent New York critic said he had no business singing Don José in Carmen. The new Carreras wants to sing a limited number of performances each season at the Met and in Spain, as well as at other major houses such as the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan and the Vienna State Opera.
"But only 30 or 40 performances a year, with maybe a month off twice a year," Carreras cautions. That is roughly half his former pace. His priorities have changed. Two years ago, he confesses, it was very hard for the tenor who was third in the world behind Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo to say no to "the 365 different offers that came from 365 different places.
"There are so many things that interest you artistically, so you say yes to some of them. Then, because of cancellations or postponements, you find yourself having to fulfill obligations even when it is not the right moment, and this makes you sing and travel more than what you probably should do, but you feel you cannot help it. I don't want to do that anymore. I don't need to anymore."
Every choice, he insists, will have a reason. His first attempt at fully costumed and staged opera will be with friends, and in a new role, "so that I won't be comparing myself to myself." He has chosen Cherubini's Medea"not too heavy, not too long"which he decided to sing in Merida in July with the 56-year-old Catalonian soprano Montserrat Caballé, who gave him his first break 19 years ago and has been "like family" ever since. He'll sing with Caballé again in Barcelona next month, when he at last creates the title role of Balada's re-scheduled Christopher Columbus premiere.
After that, Carreras says he thinks he'll be ready for some of the lyric roles he has always sungNemorino in Elixir of Love, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rodolfo in Bohème, Alfredo in Traviata. "But I don't want to decide yet," he says, his dark eyes taking on a forbidding intensity that says, don't even try.
For Ramirez' Misa Criolla, "a piece in my heart that I enjoy so much," the Spaniard vows he will make time. The simple and affecting 1964 HispanoAmerican folk Mass, sung to a Castilian text, is written for tenor solo, chorus, keyboards and South American instruments. It has become widely popular in Latin countries. It has also caught on in West Germany, where a television special on Carreras' recording session sparked the sale of 40,000 records.
"The Misa Criolla is the last recording I made before getting sick," Carreras tells a colleague at the press gathering. "It is the kind of music I adore, and this is somehow a different aspect of my singing or my talent (than you see) from opera or recitals. Our (mutual) friend Jutta also told me from the very first time she heard it that it was going to be a huge success. I am happy that once again she was right."
Born in 1946, José Carreras grew up in a poor Barcelona household at a time when Spain was still caught in the ravages of World War II and the Spanish Civil War. The five-member family, led by his schoolteacher father and hairdresser mother, had no particular interest in music.
But Carreras remembers attending a Mario Lanza movie, The Great Caruso, when he was six or seven: "It was somehow a complete shock to my system as a young boy. This man appealed to me so much, not only the man, but also what he was singing. Well, after the next day, I started to sing those songs." He raises a cautionary hand, amused. "Not too orthodox of course, but the same music that I had heard on film. From this very moment I wanted to become an opera singer."
Carreras' parents enrolled him in the Barcelona Conservatory. In 1970, when he was 24, the great Caballé heard him and offered him the lead opposite her in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. She also guided his next steps. At 25, he made his Italian debut, in Parma, singing Rodolfo. Within a year, he was singing Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at the New York City Opera. Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Alfredo, Edgardo and the Duke in Rigoletto followed. He then bowed at Covent Garden, Buenos Aires, and Viennaall between 1973 and '74. Over the next two years came the Met and La Scala, and his fortune was made.
It has been a busy life lived almost entirely on the road. Carreras talks freely about his children, Alberto, who is 16, "a very normal boy with a good sense of humor and a love of sport, with whom I have a wonderful relation," and Julia, who is 10 "and does with me whatever she wants." Beyond that, the discussion of family life stops. His wife, Mercedes, lives in Barcelona. Carreras acknowledges that an international career does not make the marital relationship easy: "I try to live my life in the way that I think is right."
The Carreras career will come full circle in at least one sense next year, when the tenor begins work on a new film of the life of Caruso. He says he hasn't thought about it much yet, and he emphasizes that he is the actor, not the scriptwriter or director. But he clearly relishes the chance to once again impersonate his boyhood idol. "Of course his voice was much different from mineunfortunately!" Carreras says, glancing into the distance as if to conjure that transfixing sound. "Caruso had a very dark voice. The baritones of his period, such as Tito Ruffo and Ettore Bastianini, in the recordings they sound even lighter than he was. I think Caruso was a phenomenon. A baritone with a high C, somehow."
As for Carreras' own voice, the tenor agrees with the general consensus that, miraculously, it hasn't changed much at all. Although he wants to sing the lighter roles first, he says he is aiming down the road toward some heavier favorites that have won him acclaim: Andrea Chenier, Don Carlos and Carmen.
But he says he'll wait and see. "I want to enjoy life, to take time for my private life, being a father, having wonderful friends.
"Before, I would say to my own happiness, 'Next time, next time.' Now, no. Every time I go on stage it has to be a real joy for me, or I will not do it."
This page was last updated on: May 17, 2005