In 1972, Ovation magazine described the voice of a young man making his debut as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at the New York City Opera. It was "a honeyed lyric tenor, richly coloured, clear and true and possessing a sensual beauty that is quite extraordinary." The young man with the sensuously beautiful voice was José Carreras.
He was born on December 5, 1946 in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, a region of Spain with a unique cultural life and language. (Carreras’ true first name is Josep, the Catalan version of José.) The youngest of Antonia Coll-Saigi and Josep Carreras-Soler’s three children, he has described his childhood as happy and completely carefree. This is quite a tribute to his parents, given the dire economic conditions in Spain during the years following that country’s Civil War. The family briefly emigrated to Argentina in 1951 in what proved to be an unsuccessful search for a better life, returning to Barcelona less than a year later. Carerras’ father, his teaching career ruined because he had fought on the Republican side during the Civil War, eventually had to take a job as a traffic policeman, and his mother opened a small hair-dressing shop.
It has been said of many great singers that they have an almost physical need to sing, a need that can express itself when they are very young. Carreras was no exception. As a child he truly loved to sing. He sang to the passengers on the steamship from Argentina back to Barcelona. He sang to the customers in his mother’s hair-dressing shop. And, after he came home from seeing Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, he sang to his family all the arias that Lanza had sung in the film - especially la ‘Donna e Mobile’ which seemed to hold a special fascination for him. Whenever his family suggested that his constant singing, although impressive might just be starting to drive them crazy, the six year old happily locked himself in the bathroom and kept right on singing.
Fortunately for the world of opera (and for the other members of the Carreras family who were waiting to take their baths), his mother arranged for him to channel this seemingly boundless vocal energy. He started voice and piano lessons with Magda Prunera, the mother of one of his boyhood friends. and at eight he started attending the local music conservatory after school. At eight he also gave his first public performance, singing ‘La Donna e Mobile’ on Spanish National Radio. (A recording of this still exists and can be heard on the video biography, José Carreras – A Life Story). At eleven, he was on the stage of Barcelona’s opera house, the Gran Teatro del Liceo, singing the boy soprano role of the narrator in de Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro. A few months later, he sang for the last time at the Liceo before his voice started to change. It was perhaps a bit of type casting for the boy who used to drop clothespins onto the heads of the hapless passers-by beneath Senora Prunera’s window. He played the naughty child in the second act of La Boheme who was dragged by the ear from the toy-seller’s cart crying "Vo’la tromba, il cavallin!" ("I want the trumpet and the little horse!")
By 18, the soprano voice of Carreras the boy had become the tenor voice of Carreras the man. He studied at first with Francisco Puig and later with Juan Ruax, whom he has described as his artistic father. It was Ruax who encouraged him to audition for what was to become his first tenor role at the Liceo, Flavio in Norma. This minor role had major consequences for his career. The beauty of the few phrases that he sang as Flavio was noticed not only by the critics but also by the great soprano in the title role, Montserrat Caballe. She asked that he sing Gennaro with her in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, his first principal adult role, and the one which he considers to be his ‘real’ debut as a tenor.
If Ruax was his artistic father, then Caballe was to become in many ways his artistic mother. She sang the title role in his London stage debut, a concert performance of Maria Stuarda, and the recordings (both commercial and ‘pirate’) of their artistic partnership went on to include over 15 different operas. The English critic, Alan Blyth saw the Maria Stuarda performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Carreras was only 25 at the time but Blyth recalls "It was one of those occasions when one immediately and instinctively recognises that one is in the presence of a new and very special talent. Not only was his a profoundly beautiful tenor, typically dark-hued in the Spanish vein, but its owner knew how to employ it to maximum advantage and, almost as important, had the vital, vivid presence of a born communicator."
Carreras went on to grow into what Lofti Mansouri, the Director of the San Francisco Opera has called "One of the most complete operatic stars that I have ever worked with...His musicianship, intelligence, dramatic ability, not to mention his gorgeous voice make him a total artist." What is perhaps quite unusual about Carreras’ career is that by the age of 28, when many opera singers are just starting to make their mark, he had already sung the tenor lead in 24 different operas in both Europe and North America and had made his debut at the world’s four great opera houses - the Vienna Staatsoper in 1974, as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto; London’s Royal Opera House in 1974, as Alfredo in La Traviata; the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1974, as Cavaradossi in Tosca; and La Scala Milan in 1975, as Riccardo in Ballo in Maschera.
Ballo in Maschera is inextricably linked with both his artistic and his personal life. Carreras had married Mercedes Perez in 1971. Their son Alberto was born in 1972, on the day after Carreras had sung Riccardo for the very first time in Parma. Their daughter Julia was born in 1977, on the day after he had finished recording Ballo in Maschera in London. At the height of his career Carreras was singing over 70 performances a year and was almost constantly travelling around the world’s opera houses. Although an intensely private man, in several interviews he has alluded to the problems of combining an international opera career with a family life – the sense of alienation and the dangers of forming new ties. (He and his wife divorced in 1992 and Carreras has never remarried.)
In 1987, at the height of his success, Carreras was diagnosed with acute leukemia and was given a 1 in 10 chance of survival. Had it not been for the skills of his doctors in Barcelona and at the Fred Hutchinson Clinic in Seattle, Washington, the Missa Criolla would have been his last recording and his performance in I Pagliacci at the Vienna Staatsoper would have been the last time he sang on the operatic stage. After his recovery, one of the first people he went to see was the great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, a musician with whom he had an almost instinctive affinity. Carreras found it fascinating "how Karajan made you feel that he was like your father, conducting for you alone." Their ten year artistic collaboration has produced some of Carreras’ finest performances and recordings. In an interview shortly before his death in 1989, Karajan said of Carreras "If the crew were here I would play you the video of the Verdi Requiem. Did Caruso sing the ‘Ingemisco’ better? I wonder. He has had this terrible illness, but he is full of hope. From all that he has told me it was a terrible experience, but he has now set up his Foundation to help other sufferers, and this is a great joy to him. He is an adorable person, and as he is still young, we all hope that he will make a new career now."
Carreras did indeed resume his career, gradually returning to the opera stage and the concert platform as well as to the recording studio. He now concentrates more on concerts and recitals and restricts his opera performances to one or two productions a year. His most recent role debut (Zurich, 1998) was in the title role of Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly. In 1999 at the Washington Opera, he again sang this role for the opera’s North American premiere. It was a performance that moved the Opera Now critic to write "His ardent infusion of grace and lyrical vitality was both poignant and powerful."
And of course, his Foundation has added a new dimension and purpose to his life. Many of the concerts and recitals that he now gives are benefits for the José Carerras International Leukemia Foundation. The 1990 Three Tenors concert in Rome was originally conceived to raise money for this Foundation and as a way for Carreras’ colleagues, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, to welcome their "little brother" back to the world of opera.
Carreras is now in his fifties. His voice is older and darker, but he still has the vital, vivid presence of the born communicator that Alan Blyth recognised over 25 years ago. For many people, the first time they ever saw or even heard of José Carreras was through one of the Three Tenor concerts. He perhaps remains the least well known of the three, or as one of the characters in the Seinfeld Show said, "Pavarotti, Domingo, and...you know...that other one." But those who have discovered "that other one" and have listened to his recorded legacy have also discovered one of the most beautiful voices of this century.