Legendary tenor José Carreras on his compelling music, ‘singing from the
soul,’ and why he never just wished he were a bus driver…
Whether you openly weep every time Mimi dies in La Bohème,
or the closest you come to classical music is Bohemian Rhapsody
(the one by Queen), or you only sing opera in the shower, you’ll
be interested to know that one of the world’s greatest opera stars
actually performed in Bohemia in mid-December.
And he sings in the shower, too.
José Carreras celebrated his 62nd birthday this month, just 10
days before his concert at the Congress Center in Prague. And, as he
tells Lifestyles Magazine®, “I hope that I can also celebrate the 40th
anniversary of my professional debut on stage.” Just exactly when
that is may be open to interpretation: 40 years after his 1970 debut
in Barcelona, in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia? or maybe after his 1971
Italian debut, in La Bohème; his 1972 American debut, in Puccini’s
Madama Butterfly; or possibly his 1974-75 debuts at the New York
Metropolitan Opera and at La Scala in Milan.
But he continues, “My highest goal, though, is that leukemia
should be curable one day for everyone.” Mr Carreras was diagnosed
with the blood disease in 1987, when it had already reached the
acute stage. Although some critics presumed that this would
signal the end of his brilliant career, the opera star not only
survived; he also created the Josep Carreras International
Leukemia Foundation. In fact, the first appearance of the famous
“Three Tenors” was a fundraising concert by Mr Carreras and his
friends Plácido Domingo and the late Luciano Pavarotti. To date, his
foundation has raised millions of Euros in support of programs to find a cure for the disease.
Making legends as he goes
The slim Catalan with large, dark eyes was born in Barcelona in
1946, christened with the name Josep (José in Castilian Spanish), and
before he was a teenager he was already singing and creating the
legends that people still love to tell about him. For example, after the
family lived in Argentina briefly, Josep, age 5, serenaded passengers
on the ship back to Spain. He learned every aria in the film The GreatCaruso
and sang them at any given moment – solicited or not. In fact, even when his family
requested a reprieve (as in that old joke, to please sing “Far, far away”), young Josep
simply locked himself in the bathroom, and kept right on singing.
At age 11, he made his operatic debut, performing a difficult
part usually reserved for adult mezzo-sopranos. And at 12, after only
two years of voice lessons, he sang “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s
Rigoletto on Spanish National Radio.
As a professional, adult singer, he has performed in traditional
opera houses, sports stadiums, museums, at Olympics ceremonies,
and on stages around the globe. So we wonder – aside from the
bathroom – what he considers his most unusual place to sing. “First
of all,” he replies, “I would like to say that I enjoy performing a lot –
wherever it is. Some people ask me if I like stadiums or concert halls
better, and I always say that there is a difference. In concert halls
it is more intimate, a closer communication with the audience. In
a stadium there is this great feeling that thousands of people are
sharing such an event together.
“But back to your question: Not only as a child – I still sing very
often in bathrooms or toilets! Even to warm up for performances –
because the acoustics are normally very good in bathrooms.”
‘What I mean [by ‘singing from the soul’] is
passion. Expression. To give the very best you
can give in an evening. Yes, I am singing from
the soul, and I’m not calculating it.’
‘Singing from the soul’
Aside from the unusual venues, Mr Carreras received his training
in the traditional way, studying with teachers Francisco Puig and with
Juan Ruax; then legendary soprano Montserrat Caballé took him
under her wing and the young tenor sang opposite her in LucreziaBorgia,
a part that launched his career and is often considered his
By the time he was 28 he had already sung 24 different
roles in the leading international opera houses.
Yet, despite the glamour, accolades, and success, it’s clear that
people of all stripes love not only Carreras, the voice, but also Josep
Carreras, the man – even if seen only from the back rows as a small
figure on some of the largest stages in the world. We ask him to
speak more about this phenomenon, which he has defined as his
ability to “sing from the soul.”
“That means not only producing the correct notes and tones,”
he explains, “as the only important factors. What I mean is passion.
Expression. To give the very best you can give in an evening. Yes, I am
singing from the soul, and I’m not calculating it.”
Patricia Wise, a former opera singer and now professor of voice
at Indiana University in the US, performed with Mr Carreras several
times earlier in their careers. She explains his “singing from the soul”
this way: “You can hear it in the tone quality – something innate
and spiritual which all really good singers have. But his tenor had a
During my first “Lucia” with him … I began to
sing a difficult sustained passage in our duet.
I was nervous, and he whispered, “Coraggio!”
special rich quality, and of course, he meant the words he sang while
he was singing them. The audience could tell this, even if they had
little knowledge about opera.”
But not all the communication goes from the stage out to the
audience – some of it happens right under the spotlights in front
of the orchestra pit. Says Miss Wise, “He was a delightful colleague,
always a gentleman, always upbeat … very supportive. During my
first ‘Lucia’ with him (the character Lucia di Lammermor, from the
opera by Donizetti), I began to sing a difficult sustained passage in
our duet. I was nervous, and he whispered, ‘Coraggio!’
“That meant a lot to me,” she says. (A clip from one of Miss Wise’s
stellar Lucia performances can be seen on YouTube.)
She adds, “He was certainly gorgeous to watch, even up
close.” And that brings up another aspect of Mr Carreras’ magnetic
personality – a talent for piquing the interest of female fans. As
one American woman confesses, “One of my friends from Indiana
University had a deep crush on Carreras, used to go to his recitals in
New York (1,000km away), and throw roses at him!”
“Yes,” Professor Wise concurs, “he certainly had a soulful, matinee
idol look.” She adds, “Also, that voice – which touches the heart
before you even see the singer.”
Touching the heart
Mr Carreras can count among his fans dedicated opera lovers
of all ages and lovers of all types of music. His repertoire includes
pieces from musicals such as West Side Story and popular music; his
Dec 15 Prague concert concluded with a very emotional rendition of
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” for example. He has appeared with
singers such as Sissel, and Sarah Brightman.
What does he suggest for teenagers and young adults who might
be “afraid” to listen to opera? “I became really addicted to classical
music after I saw the movie The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza. So
go to the internet, to television channels like Classica, or children’s
“For instance, in Vienna on top of the Staatsoper there’s a tent
where opera for kids is performed. And in schools. I am of the
opinion that it’s important that children get in contact with classical
music, because only then can they decide if they like it or not. If they
have never been in contact they think it has to be boring.” One can
imagine that the Kűhn Children’s Choir, which appeared with Mr
Carreras in Prague, was anything but bored.
But despite his many successes as a singer, it is still his work with
the leukemia foundation that touches his own heart, perhaps the
most, he tells us. “He is even more devoted to his good work than
he was to his great career,” Professor Wise confirms. The José Carreras
International Leukemia Foundation finances and supports research,
creates treatment facilities, founded a bone marrow donor registry,
and provides social services for patients and their families. What
message would Mr Carreras like to bring to the Czech audience
about the Foundation and its work?
“Thank you for this question,” he says. “After I recovered from
leukemia I had the feeling that I have to give something back. This
was the reason I started the foundation,” he explains. “So far we have
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been able to raise over 220 million Euros to build Carreras clinics,
invest in scientific research, and help families in this difficult period
of their lives.”
With all these activities and his hectic schedule, hasn’t he ever
just felt, “Oh, gee, I wish I were a bus driver like everybody else”?
“No, never!” he insists. “I always wanted to sing! I consider myself a
very fortunate person, as I can do what I like most: singing.”
And that reminds him, “I am very happy that I was invited to come
again to your wonderful city and to sing for this audience.”
His new program, “Mediterranean Passion,” included songs from Italy, Spain,
and Catalunya. “It’s a very passionate program!” he says.
Coming from the slender man with a large, tender heart
(andhalf-a-dozen encores), we find that easy to believe.
José Carreras has recorded 50 opera performances and 40
recitals on record, CD, DVD, etc., and some of his performances
are available on MP3, YouTube, and other electronic media.
Patricia Wise performed over 40 major operatic roles
in leading international opera houses, was soloist with the
world’s major orchestras, and has made numerous recordings.
She holds yearly master classes at Vienna Conservatory and is
Professor of Music/Voice at Indiana University in the US.
José All photos by Mauro Taliani unless otherwise notedCarreras has recorded 50 opera