Jose Carreras' career recovers after his brush with leukemia

July 04, 1993|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Staff Writer

"Heroic" and "survivor" are the words that come most quickly to mind to describe Jose Carreras, the Spanish-born lyric tenor whose sumptuous, straight-from-the-heart style will be the main attraction Thursday at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Five years after undergoing successful bone marrow surgery for leukemia, Mr. Carreras' career is back at full tilt, including new productions in the world's great opera houses and a non-stop schedule of concert appearances and recordings.

Mr. Carreras, 46, says he is grateful for everything, given that there was a time when he thought not only might he never sing again but also that his very life hung in the balance.

"The experience changes one's opinion about everything," he said from his hotel room in London recently. "You become more mature suddenly. Everything in life becomes different -- my view as an artist, my feeling for music, my outlook on life as a man."

Yet perhaps because of a reluctance to tempt fate, he still resists being drawn too deeply into a discussion of his illness.

"Five years ago, yes, I was hoping I would still be able to sing. But to be truthful, at the time what was really important was to fight for my life. That was even more important than singing.

"Though I am afraid to say it, almost, I do feel things in a deeper way. I have a deeper view of life, of our relation to life. But I don't want to be pompous. I want to let the audience judge."

Yet perhaps inevitably, Mr. Carreras' brush with death has made him something of a symbol of the quintessential survivor for a public that identifies with him as a promising young talent who suddenly found everything he had worked for thrust in mortal jeopardy.

Mr. Carreras was a child prodigy who made his first public appearance at the age of 11 in his native Barcelona in the role of the boy narrator in de Falla's "Master Peter's Puppet Show." The feat was all the more unusual because the difficulty of the role usually requires that it be sung by an adult mezzo-soprano.

"It was an exciting experience," Mr. Carreras recalled, "and I was even more thrilled because I was paid for it. Already I felt I was a professional."

Mr. Carreras' career began to take off in 1970, when the impresario Denny Dayviss and the critic Frank Granville Barker visited Barcelona to hear Montserrat Caballe give her first "Norma." Mr. Carreras had a bit part in the production as a result of the interest Madame Caballe had taken in the then-17-year-old singer, whose seductive voice and dramatic stage presence

reminded her of the young Guiseppe di Stefano.

Invited to sing

Mr. Carreras carried off the tiny part of Flavio so well in that production that he was invited to sing opposite Madame Caballe the following year in Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" at London's Festival Hall. His international debut was followed in quick succession by critically acclaimed performances in Boito's "Mefistofele" and Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur."

Three years later he made his Covent Garden debut in Verdi's "La Traviata," an event made all the more memorable when the curtain came crashing down in the middle of the second act due to a bomb scare at the theater.

From there he embarked on a series of successes in Milan's La Scala and with the Vienna State Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera Company.

He has performed or recorded nearly all the great Italian tenor roles, constantly expanding his repertoire as his voice has matured and grown darker in tone.

Asked which characters he feels the closest affinity with, Mr. Carreras paused a moment before answering. "I like different characters for different reasons," he said. "The character has to fit you vocally, of course, and also physically. Then you have to take into account your views of life as a man and artist, and your personal idiosyncrasies."

Mr. Carreras' sound is that of a classic lyric tenor -- clear, almost piercing, but with a burnished quality that can be particularly effective in the bel canto roles of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and early Verdi with which he began his career. More recently, he has begun to take on some of the heavier tenor roles, such as Jose in Bizet's "Carmen" and Otello in Verdi's opera of that name.

As an instrument, Mr. Carreras' voice has neither the velvet smoothness of a Luciano Pavarotti nor the dark, dramatic timbre a Placido Domingo, the two other leading contemporary tenors.

Mr. Carreras also has a way of belting out the sound from the middle register upward that gives the impression he is extracting every possible ounce of power from rather modest vocal equipment. He takes risks that would be foolhardy if attempted by lesser artists. Yet he manages to carry it off with such emotional intensity and honesty that listeners rarely fail to be

moved by it.

Time and travel

Of his life now, Mr. Carreras says the toughest thing for him is traveling. "When you are forced to travel every day, this is the worst part of the profession," he explains.

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