Four years ago, J ose’ Carreras was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia; now he makes a triumphant return to Scotland, having beaten the disease. Alan Morrison profiles one of the greatest tenors of our time.
When Jose Carreras sang the lead role in Saint-Saens’s Samson and Delilah at Covent Garden in February of this year. Samson‘s final act prayer for the restoration of his strength had a particularly poignant relevance for the Spanish tenor. This performance marked Carreras‘s first London appearance in a complete opera since he was diagnosed in 1987 as suffering from lymphoblastic leukaemia — a rare form of blood cancer with an estimated survival rate ofone in ten. The conductor of that production, Sir Colin Davis, had already referred to the singer‘s return to the demanding international circuit in terms of another biblical character, Lazarus, and recent concert and operatic performances have shown that a man whom many thought would never sing again is indeed back on form, at the height of his vocal powers.
Following a painful course of chemotherapy and surgery that required him to donate his own bone marrow, Carreras eased himself back onto the stage with a series of concert tours before tackling full-scale productions. An average of 120 performances a year was cut to around 40, although this is due less to the singer‘s ill health than to the amount oftime taken up by his energetic work as a fund-raiser for the International Leukaemia Foundation set up in his name. The Foundation was the main beneficiary from the most memorable event in Carreras‘s comeback — the ‘Three Tenors’ concert that teamed him up with fellow opera stars Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti in Rome after the 1990 World Cup. A television audience of over 1,000 million tuned in, and the resulting album established opera as a chart phenomenon following Pavarotti’s No 1 hit with ‘Nessun Dorma‘.
His charity work was, however, in evidence before the setting up of the leukaemia fund. In 1985 he conceived of Opera For Africa, a sort of classical version of Live Aid, that brought a host of stars — Agnes Baltsa, Montserrat Caballe, Simon Eves— to the Arena in Verona. It is this unselfishness, coupled with dark European good looks, that allows him to enjoy the kind of adulation that is normally reserved for ﬂavour of
the month rock stars. During his illness. for example, he received over 100.000 letters and more than 5000 telegrams with personalised messages from wellwishers. His popularity also has a lot to do with his ability to extend his repertoire beyond opera to Spanish and Italian folk songs and favourites from stage musicals. Recordings such as the 1985 Bernstein-conducted West Side Story and 1987‘s South Pacific (both of which placed him opposite Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) have brought him to new audiences. while the breadth of material on his Phillips recording. titled The EssentialJosé Carreras, is reﬂected in the type ofconcert performance that he will give at Glasgow’s SECC next week.
At the Glasgow concert Carreras will sing duets with British mezzo soprano Claire Powell. accompanied by the Scottish Opera orchestra and chorus, conducted by Elio Boncompagni. Powell will be the latest in a long line ofopera stars with whom he has shared the stage. going right back to his first major role as Gennaro opposite Montserrat Caballe in Liceo Opera House‘s production of Donizetti’s Lacrezia Borgia in the early 1970s. In his early professional years. Carreras was known for lyric tenor roles such as Pinkerton in Madama Butterﬂy (his American debut with New York City Opera in 1972) and Alfredo in La Traviata. As his voice matured and his acting improved, he began to take on darker spinto roles, some ofwhich won him universal acclaim - his Don José (Carmen) — while others attracted a fair share ofcriticism — Radames in
Jose Carreras: unselfishness and tlatlt Eurooean good looks
Herbert von Karajan‘s production ofAida.
Born in Barcelona on 5 December 1946 into a family not renowned for its musical talents, the young Carreras had the first indication of his calling when he went as a seven-year-old to see the film The Great Caruso. So impressed was he by Mario L'anza that he took up singing at every available moment, although in his teens he was sensible enough to enrol as a chemistry student at the local university in case his musical dreams backfired. His approach to his life and work has remained forthright, and in opera circles he is noted for his directness and honesty. ‘Today. the idea of being a diva is old hat.‘ he has said. ‘Today‘s greatest artists are people first. Their artistry and temperament are reserved strictly for the stage.‘
Nowadays Carreras restricts his own stage appearances to four opera houses (Barcelona, Vienna. Covent Garden and Milan‘s La Scala) and he has cut back on concert performances, which makes this Glasgow appearance — only his second ever in Scotland — all the more special. Nevertheless. he plans to supplement an extensive recording career with live performances until the year 2000 when. at the age of53. he will have been in the business for 30 years. All this. despite claiming once that ‘thc tenor voice is by far the most difficult in the whole range.‘
J osé Carreras plays the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. Glasgow, on Mon 9 Dec at 8pm. Th e Essential J ose ( 'arreras (Phillips Classics) is available from all good record shops.
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: NIGEL KENNEDY O ARILD ANDERSON O HOLE
The List 6— 19 December 199] 29