The Vocal Odyssey of José Carreras
Theodore W. Libbey Jr., The New York Times, 22 November 1981
Josť Carreras and Grace Bumbry in La Forza del Destino, New York Met, 1983
When Jose Carreras, the young Spanish tenor, sang in Franco Zeffirelli's ''La Boheme'' with the La Scala opera company in Washington five years ago, he was Rodolfo. He had the soft, sensitive, boyish-looking face one always felt Puccini's young poet should have. He moved with hesitance at times, as if he were unsure of what to do next. He held Mimi's hand as if he were truly afraid he might crush it, and when he sang ''Che gelida manina'' to her, he seemed to be expressing the sudden discovery of a fragile truth. His singing was natural, unaffected, disarmingly lyrical. His voice had a lustrous sheen in the upper register, with flashes of fire that set it somehow, indefinably, apart. One sensed immediately what a rarity he was.

A repertory conductor for a small European house once described the Carreras phenomenon in these terms: ''He's young, he's handsome, he's intelligent, he can sing and he's a tenor!''

It has been three years since New York has seen Mr. Carreras in an operatic production. This season he returns to the Metropolitan Opera for four performances of ''Tosca'' and ten in a new production by Mr. Zeffirelli of ''La Boheme,'' which opens Dec. 14. Also in December, he sings a solo recital at Carnegie Hall and a joint concert with Montserrat Caballe in Fisher Hall.

A lot has happened since his last American engagements. The most notable change has been Mr. Carreras's metamorphosis from a tenor whose timbre and vocal flexibility were ideally suited to lyric roles such as Rodolfo and Cavaradossi, into one whose recent efforts have been directed more toward dramatic parts - among them Radames in ''Aida,'' and the title role in ''Don Carlos.'' It will be interesting to see how he now handles the two roles in ''Boheme'' and ''Tosca,'' for which he was highly praised in earlier appearances here.

The tenor voice, perhaps more than any other, changes with time. Some lyric tenors never move into the dramatic roles because their voices, regardless of age, are simply not capable of handling them. But it is a common occurrence for others to take on the heavier parts gradually, as their voices darken, which usually happens between the ages of 30 and 45.

Mr. Carreras, who turns 35 on Dec. 5, is aware of the change in his voice.''When you heard me in 1976 in 'La Boheme,' '' he confided recently, ''I was, in my opinion, essentially a lyric voice. But since then, I have sung several spinto (dramatic, or strictly speaking, ''impulsive'') roles: Alvaro in 'La Forza del Destino,' Radames in 'Aida,' Eleazar in 'La Juive,' and Enzo in 'La Gioconda.' I think that my voice is still a lyric voice, but that it is coming more to the lyrico-spinto.

''It is not a voice with a very big sound, but I have for a tenor a dark sound. If I had to describe it, I would say that the color of the voice is more to the spinto, but that the weight is not. It is the color that permits me to sing this repertory.''Singers refer to voices in terms such as ''dark'' and ''light'' in an effort to describe the qualities of intensity and resonance which combine to make ''color.'' For example, Luciano Pavarotti's voice is generally considered to be ''bright,'' with extreme intensity in the upper notes. It is often described as sounding ''metallic'' or having a ''steely brilliance.'' A ''dark'' voice tends to sound better in dramatic parts because it can be ''pushed'' without sounding thin.

Sometimes a singer's native language also plays a part in determining the quality of tone his voice may have. Spanish tenors seem to be particularly blessed with a beautifully burnished sound. Among the Met's leading tenors of recent years who have had this quality have been the Spaniards, Placido Domingo and Alfredo Kraus. Mr. Carreras believes that his own timbre is darker than that of many Italian tenors who sing the same roles because of where the Spanish speaking voice lies.

''I think it is due to the language, especially to our phonetic structure,'' he explained. ''Spanish tenors have always been like that. They tend to have a darker voice than the Italians. The Italians have more facility, they are more brilliant, but whiter. Not only now, but always. Our phonetics lie very low in the larynx, while the Italians sound higher, even when they talk.''

There has been growing speculation, however, that Mr. Carreras's voice is responding to influences other than physiological, specifically to the urgings of Herbert von Karajan that he move into heavier roles, requiring more of the ''spinto'' quality. For while an outstanding lyric tenor is a rarity, an outstanding dramatic tenor is an absolute treasure. The roles requiring the spinto sound are thrilling and theatrically impressive, and they have a way of turning up in the works that are also the great conductor's operas.

One veteran of the European opera scene described Mr. Carreras as sounding ''like a young di Stefano'' when he sang the Verdi Requiem under Mr. Karajan's direction at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1975, adding that the lyrical beauty of his singing seemed nearly angelic. Giuseppe di Stefano, a great Italian tenor whose career reached its peak in the 1950's, when he himself was in his thirties, was known for the beauty of his lyric singing.

Mr. Carreras's move toward dramatic Verdi roles began the following summer at the Salzburg Festival, when Mr. Karajan gave him the title role in Verdi's ''Don Carlos,'' a production that was repeated in 1977. In a February 1978 interview in The Times, Mr. Carreras said:

''There are roles that a singer should not approach until he is, say, 40. A role such as Otello is one I could not do now. I'm simply not mature enough for it. So, at this point, I seek out those roles that are not only suitable to my vocal capacities but also to my psychological capacities. Rodolfo or Nemorino -these are roles that suit me perfectly. I'm just like those characters. But were I to sing Radames I'd be very scared and uncomfortable. Heroic roles are very, very taxing. One must work on them for years!''

Yet, that same month, it was announced that Mr. Carreras would be singing Radames the following summer in Mr. Karajan's 1979 Salzburg production of ''Aida,'' which was repeated in 1980. He thus came, at the age of 32, to a role which Luciano Pavarotti, now 46, sang for the first time in his life earlier this month in San Francisco.

''If I must be very, very honest -and I think it's time to be honest,'' Mr. Carreras conceded when pressed on the subject, ''this Radames with Karajan - every tenor in the world was looking for it. And to be very modest, he (Mr. Karajan) asked me. If he had asked Pavarotti, he would have done it, I am certain.

''Maybe it was a little early for me, but he (Mr. Karajan) told me he wanted to try a new approach, a more lyrical one. The proof of that was that Mirela Freni was the Aida, rather than Price or Caballe. He said that in Radames we would try to show the man, not only the general. Now, I'm not going to sing 'Aida' with anybody else at least for the next five years. I had the chance to be the one in Salzburg, and I took it. For artistic reasons, how can you say 'no' to Herbert von Karajan?''

Mr. Carreras is not the first singer to find himself in this position, being ushered into roles that are heavier than he might be suited for, sooner than he might like to sing them. Such pressures have shortened the careers of other singers by putting strain on their voices, and recent reviews noting Mr. Carreras's forcing of high notes and the loss of his former lyrical grace suggest that something similar might be happening to him.

Yet the tenor asserts that he has been ''very lucky'' in his career up to this point, especially in his relations with conductors. ''I've never had any problem with any colleague,'' he said. ''In this matter, I'm a very lucky man. If I had any problem or concern at all, it was with myself. Maybe because I took a role that was too early for me, or did not achieve 100 percent of what I thought I should. But it was always with myself.''

In addition to singing under Mr. Karajan's baton, Mr. Carreras has sung frequently with Sir Colin Davis, the music director of Covent Garden. He has also sung with Claudio Abbado, who was appointed music director of La Scala in 1971 and served as its artistic director from 1977 to 1980; with Carlo Maria Giulini, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and with Zubin Mehta and James Levine.

''With Colin,'' Mr. Carreras said, referring to the Covent Garden director with whom he has collaborated on several recordings, ''it's a real special relationship. To make music with him is something extraordinary. He's a very flexible conductor, with a big personality. But he accepts suggestions from the singer. He likes voices, he likes singers, and I'm always very happy to sing with him. Giulini is another who is like that. And Karajan. For him, I have an incredible admiration.''

In the first five years after his debut in Italy in 1971, where he also won that year's Verdi competition, Mr. Carreras enjoyed a spectacular rise in his career, with debuts at the City Opera and the Vienna Staatsoper in 1972, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala during the 1974-75 season, a Carnegie Hall recital with Katia Ricciarelli in 1975, and a Chicago Lyric Opera debut in 1976. That was also the year in which Mr. Carreras sang in the ''old'' Zeffirelli production of ''La Boheme'' during La Scala's visit to Washington.

Prior to his scheduled appearance last night as Cavaradossi in the Met's sixth performance this season of ''Tosca'' - the same production in which Mr. Carreras made his debut here in 1974 - his last engagement with the company had been for six performances as Rodolfo in ''Luisa Miller,'' during November and December of 1978. Due to illness, though, he was able to sing only two of these performances. The tenor made his last extended visit to the Met during the 1977-78 season, when he sang Maurizio in ''Adriana Lecouvreur,'' Nemorino in ''L'Elisir d'Amore'' and Cavaradossi in ''Tosca'' over a period of three months.

Despite the lapse of time, there has apparently been no change in the tenor's affection for the Metropolitan and its audience. ''I have missed the Met for many reasons,'' he said. ''First of all, because it is a very prestigious theater. The atmosphere there, from the managment down to the last - how do you say? - stage hands, is very nice for the artist. The main thing is the audience, which is a fantastic audience for the singer.

''I must say of American audiences - normally those in New York, but generally throughout America - that they are very, very loyal. If an audience knows an artist, and this artist has given fantastic evenings to that audience in the past and has a bad night, they understand that you are not a machine and can have a night off.

''The only place similar is London. Vienna, La Scala, Hamburg - they are very dangerous. A singer can have a great night, but the next night, if one tone is not 100 percent, they boo.

''That does not mean the New York audience does not have tradition. I would say that its taste is the taste of education. After all, it has had the best artists of the last hundred years. As for the Met itself, it's a very well organized theater. They have respect for the artist; they do not treat the artist like some houses, where going to the opera is like going to the factory.''

Mr. Carreras said he is looking forward to appearing at the Met in ''Tosca,'' but admitted that the most exciting aspect of his return witll be to sing the role of Rodolfo in the new Zeffirelli production of ''La Boheme,'' which opens three weeks from tomorrow.

''The old production was one of the best opera productions of the last 20 years,'' he declared. ''It was fresh, interesting, fascinating to the eye. Now, everybody is wondering how Zeffirelli will be able to do better than that. He's a man who never works against the music, who never works against the singer, and who knows what material he has on his hands. Everybody's very excited about this new 'Boheme,' and I'm sure it's going to be a fantastic production.''

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