Noel Goodwin, Opera, May 1987
All the signs are that José Carreras is at the peak of a career which is taking him more and more into the lirico spinto repertory of tenors at a time when he has just passed the milestone of his 40th birthday last December. He is to sing Calaf at Covent Garden this month opposite Eva Marton's Turandot, a role that is new for him in London but which he first sang at the Vienna State Opera four years ago, also with Marton. Then he was thought to be still somewhat light of voice for Calaf, although he confounded those who had been pessimistic in advance, and he has since successfully added to his repertory Manrico, Alvaro and Andrea Chénier, among other roles.
His return to the Royal Opera will be his second engagement with the company this season. He joined them in Tokyo last October, when I heard him renew his much admired partnership with Agnes Baltsa in Carmen, a partnership that has since topped 100 performances in that opera but which neither singer has allowed to become routine or entirely predictable. In this fact lies much of the singer's consistency over the decade and a half of his international achievements, and it has perhaps given him the semblance of reaching just a shade beyond his vocal capacity at any one time in his intelligent and steady acquisition of new roles.
Carreras speaks warmly of his links with London, where Montserrat Caballé one of his first champions, brought him to make his debut as Leicester in Maria Stuarda with her in 1971. This was one of the memorable concert-operas presented by Denny Dayviss, who invited him back to sing in subsequent concert performances of Mefistofele, Caterina Cornaro and Adriana Lecouvreur. So he had already built a considerable following among discriminating audiences in London by the time he was engaged to follow Placido Domingo into John Copley's revival of La traviata for his Covent Garden debut in 1974, singing with Ileana Cotrubas and Victor Braun, and with John Pritchard conducting.
'He made a personable and ardent young Alfredo,' noted Harold Rosenthal in these pages (May 1974, p.451), who also thought 'his fresh and often beautiful voice promises well', though he found the tenor at that time still rather undisciplined in relation to both Verdi and the conductor. Not that they were ideal circumstances for a debut, when the curtain was abruptly brought down in Act 2 and the house emptied as a result of a bomb-scare. It happily proved to be false, but Carreras is unlikely to forget the occasion. He says he wondered for a moment what he could have done when the performance stopped and John Tooley came on stage to make his curtain-announcement. The same thing happened again ten days later, but then his concern was for Cotrubas: 'She had to sing "Sempre libera" twice!'
Since then he has sung at least one and sometimes two series of performances every season with the Royal Opera, and has been very happy to do so. 'For me it is like a family,' he told me, 'they care about you from the top management to the stage staff, and with that support behind you and the response of the audience in front, some of the performances I have most enjoyed have been on that stage.' They have brought, besides the roles already mentioned, another dozen or more, from Pinkerton, Rodolfo and Cavaradossi, to another Rodolfo (Luisa Miller), Don Carlo, Nemorino and Werther.
This last he sang more recently with Agnes Baltsa's first Charlotte last December at the Vienna State Opera, where the Massenet work had not been staged for half a century although it was originally premiered in the city (the Volksoper had a production around 1970). Quite a lot of his professional time has been spent in Vienna and Salzburg, and his association there has brought him the Austrian title of Kammersänger as another mark of distinction. Herbert von Karajan tempted him to record Radames in Vienna as long ago as 1979, saying he wanted a cast unfamiliar with the roles in Aida, and the recording, recently reissued, shows Carreras to notable vocal advantage.
With his regular commitments on both sides of the Atlantic, his schedule is planned with increasing care. He counts himself lucky that he has the facility to sleep on long flights, and to recover quickly after a night's rest at his destination. 'Opera singers do take care of themselves, more than you might think,' he says. 'We discipline ourselves like sportsmen, and I have a marvellous doctor whose advice I always try to follow. My diet has the benefit of health-foods, and I take a good deal of exercise. I play tennis a lot, and when I am back in Spain I play our national sport of pelota.
Although he manages to get back there for only four or five weeks a year, his home is still in the Catalan provincial capital of Barcelona, where he was born the second of three children (he now has a half-brother half his age, from his father's second marriage after his mother died). The young José Maria, to give him his baptismal names, was fortunate to have every encouragement in his musical interests as a child. He started piano studies early, and later continued these and general musical studies at the Barcelona Conservatory, but his one and only voice teacher from the age of 17 was a non-professional, Jaime Francisco Puig.
According to another interview a few years ago, the tenor has continued to seek this teacher's advice about his voice and what he should do in developing it all through his career, and if he is perhaps the only leading tenor of the moment who has not been 'professionally' taught his singing technique, he maintains that he has never thought of consulting anybody else about it. Asked if he listened to records of past tenors he replied: 'Of course. Why not? I have records of all of them.' He mentioned, in particular, Caruso and Fertile, Di Stefano and Bjoerling. 'From some you learn what not to do. From others you learn without trying to copy. How can you copy Bjoerling? '
It was the film of The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza that first fired his singing ambition as quite a young boy, and for some time after that he would dress up when his parents were out and pretend to be an opera star. In fact, his voice was still unbroken when he first sang on stage, and at Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, no less, one of the biggest in E'urope. He was 'El trujaman', the boy-singer who tells the story of the puppet-show in Falla's EI retablo de Maese Pedro. José Iturbi conducted, Jest the singer was aged 11, and he was paid his first professional fee for his appearances.
Eleven years later, the same home theatre saw his adult debut in 1969 in the comprimario role of Flavio when Montserrat Caballé sang her first Norma. A colleague from London, Frank Granville Barker, went there to hear the soprano, and found his attention caught by the few bars Flavio has to sing, enough to put him in mind of the young Di Stefano. Next season, GranvilleBarker was in Barcelona again, and this time heard Carreras as Siebel in Faust, a role which, he maintains, is far more effective when sung by a tenor than by a woman. It was already pointing the tenor in the direction of the right repertory, next bringing him Ismaele in Nabucco at Barcelona.
Caballé's brother Carlos was instrumental in setting the young man's foot on the operatic ladder with these early engagements, as his sister then became when she asked for José to sing the leading tenor role of Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia for its production at Barcelona in the 1971-72 season. By this time he had also won the 1971 International Verdi Competition at Parma, but after that he had no more need of the competition treadmill to push along his career. Caballé was able to do that more fruitfully: 'She did everything possible to encourage me,' he says, stressing the debt he acknowledges to her and to her brother.
A recent extension to his repertory has come with his contributions to the 'crossover' trend in the much-discussed recording with Kiri Te Kanawa of West Side Story and, last year, South Pacific, as well as his solo records of ballads and love-songs. I am not personally convinced that the musicals are his métier on the evidence so far, but there is likely to be another of these in due course, and he reminded me that famous tenors of the past like Caruso, Schipa and Gigli were happy to sing the popular songs of their day, as indeed I faintly recall from the last round of Gigli's concerts in the 1950s.
Carreras maintains that to sing such a repertory is 'a big relaxation' from the demands of the opera house and the video recordings, although he insists 'I take as much care about it as I do for any performance, and I do it first of all because I love the music. I would like perhaps to make one such record a year.' He has an abundance of the right personality for it, both on and off the stage, with the looks to project as romantic an image as he chooses, and this has already brought his debut as a bona fide film-star--in the biographical role of an opera singer.
In Last Romance he plays the life-story of a celebrated Spanish predecessor of a century ago, Julián Gayarre, 'the tenor with the voice of an angel', as he was called then. Gayarre's dates were 1844-90, and he was a regular visitor to Covent Garden from his debut there as Nemorino in 1877 into the next decade. He created the role of Enzo in La Gioconda at La Scala in 1876, and sang the first Duca d'Alba in Donizetti's rediscovered opera of that name at Rome the year before that. So Carreras had plenty of singing to do in the film, both arias and some ballads of the time, and it has been well received in Spain.
'Of course there were no records of Gayarre,' he explained,' and all we know is what others wrote about him. But he must have had a phenomenal voice as well as a versatile one, to go from Bellini to Tannhäuser and even Russian opera like A Life for the Tsar (which he also sang in London). I think only about half his roles are in my own repertory, so those are what I sing in the film. I was very happy to do it because, although a singer's life is very different now, we are still the same kind of person as artists. Had the offer been a different character, a cowboy or a politician, then I doubt I would have tried it. But to live another singer's life and suggest what that was like suited me well.'
The film was shot in Madrid, Barcelona and Valladolid, and in Milan and Vienna. 'It took about eight weeks as far as my part was concerned,' Carreras told me, 'and now I can say that I think making films is a very hard life for those involved, not at all as easy as it is sometimes thought. It's a very different technique from performing on stage for two or three thousand people in a live audience to perform just for the eye of the camera, with nobody around except others of the cast and the technical crew. The tensions are different, so much work for such a little bit of film, and such a lot of waiting around. But I was lucky to have a wonderful director, and I really think the result is good.
He has, of course, a number of operas on video-film to his credit, including La Bohéme in the Metropolitan Opera production, and others from La Scala and from the Salzburg Easter Festival with Karajan, including the Don Carlos there last year. Others are in prospect, so also is a studio film rather than a filmed performance of La Bohéme again, due to be made soon with Barbara Hendricks, Julia Migenes-Johnson, Gino Quilico and Samuel Ramey in the cast, and James Conlon conducting. Audio recordings in the pipeline include Fedora and Andrea Chénier, both with Marton; La forta del destino and Madama Butterfly conducted by Sinopoli; and a Manon Lescaut which, when we last talked, was scheduled to be a new role at Covent Garden in early 1989 with Mirella Freni.
Carreras admits that in the past he was often too ready to make the most of any opportunity that came his way, but now that he is well-established 'and, I hope, more mature', he is careful not to tie himself to a punishing schedule. 'With records and television to be allowed for, I think about 70 or 75 stage performances a year is best for me.' and this he is anxious not to go beyond. It still brings him enough new challenges, recently Canio in Pagliacci, Massenet's Le Cid, and Eléazar in La Juive, and now that he has reached his present age, the likelihood is that he will turn his attention to Otello, probably at Salzburg next year.
Which leaves the German repertory as the most obvious gap in his experience, and he has said on more than one occasion that he will not contemplate this until he has learned to speak and understand German: 'Before I sing in German I will have to learn German, and that takes time. I've no wish to utter words I don't understand.' But he does not rule out the possibility that we may yet Pear him as a Lohengrin or a Walther von Stolzing, roles that do appeal to him and which would be the first he might hope to tackle in this direction. And when all is said and sung, and the travelling is over for the moment, where does he go? His eyes light up: 'Home! That's the real holiday--absolutely!'
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