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Sunday, October 2, 2011

José Carreras: A Voice of Extraordinary Beauty

José Carreras was born in Barcelona in 1946. Like so many before him, he came from a family of very modest means, and showed marked musical talent from the beginning. He seemed naturally inclined to sing as a child, and started even then trying to sound like great singers he had heard, most especially Mario Lanza. I know so many singers who have told me that Lanza, primarily through his movies, had been their first inspiration to try to sing opera. This was one of Lanza's less well known—but very important— contributions to opera and operatic singing. Even though he himself largely portrayed an opera singer, he inspired many who went on to actually become opera singers. Carreras was singing in public, most specifically on Spanish radio, as early as 8 years of age, which made it abundantly clear to his family that he was both serious and talented. His family at this point saw to it that he started to receive music lessons at Barcelona's Municipal Conservatory.

In 1970 he appeared as Flavio in Norma; a very small first role, but one which caught the attention of the great Monserrat Caballé, who heard gold in the young voice. In the same year, under her patronage, he sang opposite her as Gennaro in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Carreras proved his patroness to have been right! He was a great hit from the beginning, and his career skyrocketed. The golden voice was unmistakable, and international debuts followed in rapid succession: London, Italy, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Vienna; all within a period of 4 years. He was on his way to greatness, in operas such as Bohème, Butterfly, Traviata, Rigoletto, and Tosca. He also did Ballo—possibly a questionable choice, because it is a very big role for the tenor, well into the spinto repertoire, and at this stage Carreras' voice was what might be called a robust lyric. By his own admission, the very top of the tenor range was not at all easy for him, while the middle was especially beautiful. This may have led many to believe that he was really a spinto verging on dramatic, but that of course would only exacerbate the difficult top, since so much more energy was being put into the middle and upper-middle registers. In a word, it's a short path to becoming a Bb tenor.  However, that was not in evidence at the beginning of the career, when there seemed to be plenty of range to sing at least a good B natural, enough for virtually all the bread and butter Italian and French repertoire, where the arias containing a high C are often sung down a half tone. (Except perhaps in Italy, where a tenor can on occasion be booed for transposing a famous aria.) Recording contracts followed, and by the late 70's, José Carreras was internationally famous, and enjoying one of the great careers of the 20th century.

Here is the young Carreras, in 1973, singing one of his most popular early roles, the Duke of Mantua. The aria is beautifully sung generally, and the extraordinary beauty of Carreras' voice is very winning, and immediately makes his character sympathetic, even in the case of very flawed and unpleasant characters such as the Duke. Also, and importantly, the high B at the end is solid at this point in his career, and is clearly a bit hit with the audience.

That is truly superb! It is a world-class rendition, and a clear announcement to one and all that a new great tenor has arrived on the scene. This is what I would call the true Carreras voice. I am not alone in wishing that he had restricted himself to this kind of lyric repertoire as long as possible. But that was not the case. Like many, many tenors before, the lure of the big tragic, dramatic roles was calling, and Manrico, Chenier, Rhadames and Canio were on the way. By the late 70's and early 80's, the problem with the top of the voice was becoming self-evident. The attractive beauty of the voice, however, was such that his fame was still intact. Here is a Rhadames from 1979, six years later:

The coming trouble, as I say, is evident. The top notes in this aria are only Bb's. This is hardly more than the top of the range of many good baritones, yet notice the effort, and the change in quality from the middle to the top notes. They are not quite in line. He hops off the final Bb so quickly that the audience is confused and starts to applaud too early and has to clap again after the orchestra finishes. Almost all spinto and dramatic tenors take a big breath and hold on to that note as long as possible, ending with the orchestra if possible for the big applause cue, which seldom fails to bring a huge hand from the audience. Many conductors will help them by speeding up the tempo at the end. That just doesn't happen here—it is a weak and disappointing ending to the aria. Yes, I know that Verdi wrote a pianissimo note here, to end in a wistful, dreamy way as Rhadames dreams of his beloved Aida. But realistically that  doesn't happen in performance. The triumphal chord progression in the orchestra begs for triumphalism in the voice as well.

Toward the latter part of his career, Carreras began to shift his emphasis from opera to the concert stage, where he could choose songs and arias that favored the strongest part of his beautiful voice—the middle—and avoided the highest notes, which had become too difficult. He recorded West Side Story and South Pacific, and was fond of singing "Tonight," from West Side Story, with different sopranos, but I feel this was largely a failed effort. Simply the wrong choice. It is almost impossible for the classically trained foreign operatic tenor to transition to any kind of Broadway tunes, even one where the character being portrayed is a dialect character. The over-blown cover and vowel formation always make the young lover character sound too old to be taken seriously. And also, the best Broadway tenors—John Raitt is a good example—simply do not cover. It just isn't an acceptable English language sound in music any longer. That day (Victorian fin-de-siècle) is long gone. It sounds too foreign. Where Carreras did excel was in Neapolitan songs, something squarely within the Latin tenor fach. Here is an interesting video, introduced by considerable pre-song applause and an introduction by Carreras himself, in English, of "Core 'ngrato." Very beautiful, and well received, even though the Bb at the end, while acceptable, is strained and seems to be nearly out of his range at this point.

I think it is important to end by reiterating that Carreras was a great tenor. There just isn't any doubt about that. I don't mean to overplay the vocal problems. He knew from the beginning—and was honest about it—that the top was not easily produced. But just consider for a moment what he actually did during his career in spite of that! The voice was extraordinarily beautiful, and won him much attention and affection from his vast audience. He was a handsome man who acted well and convincingly, and he sang with great passion. His repertoire was huge, and he became very famous. He even struggled with—and conquered—leukemia and its debilitating effects and never—ever—lost the affection of his fans. To fuss unduely about the odd Bb or B natural is ultimately over-pedantic. This was a great singer, a great performer, and an admirable individual. He deserves all the attention he has received!


JD Hobbes said...

Yes, what you say about his singing is true. It is a shame that he became ill with leukemia 20 or so years ago, but that event showed a kind and benevolent side of him as he developed charities and a leukemia foundation to help others.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, that is very true. I am glad you mentioned that; I would have made more of it if I had written more. He is a good man, as well as a brilliant singer. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. I like the way you talk honestly about his problem with very high notes, and yet stress how good he was and how much his fans (like me...I love Carreras)appreciated him. He's my favorite tenor and like you said who cares about a few notes. Great!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Jason. That is kind of you, and I appreciate it. Yes, I tried, as you noted, to stress his brilliance, and especially the beauty of his voice. Like Di Stefano (one of Carreras' idols), there were some vocal problems with a few notes. But that's a very small part of the story. Thank you for the comment.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

In parole d'opera Aïda: "Salvator della lirica, io ti saluto!" Bravo Edmund, hai fatto bene. Fatto molto bene. Come del Monac cantava: "hai ben ragioni." Complimenti!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Molte grazie! Molto gentile, e molto apprezzato! Spero solo che un giorno avrei potuto sapere la metà di quello che sai tu di la musica operistica! Ancora una volta, grazie!

JING said...

Very interesting article, as always, balanced and informative. I saw Carreras several times - in Tosca at New York City Opera in the early 70's if I correctly recall. He sounded wonderful and really was then regarded as handsome and sexy. Then many years later I heard him and Marilyn Horne together in a concert at Wolf Trap (Washington DC area). It was something of a disaster - It was clear from the outset that they had not rehearsed together at all. She accused him of not delivering his musical arrangements for the orchestra on time, wanted him to apologize to the orchestra and audience, he shrugged and complained that he had tried, blamed the airlines, etc. By the end it was clear they really disliked each other. The program included solos and duets from West Side Story, with all the problems you bring up in connection with the unfortunate Bernstein recording.(I only listen to it now for the great dance music.)

I am glad you mentioned the Mario Lanza connection. Your blog has, over time, really served to revive my appreciation of that unique singer. Thanks!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my dear friend, for a characteristically well-informed and interesting comment. Personal recollections are always so important because they put the stamp of authenticity and experience on what are otherwise theoretical opinions. Yes, the decline toward the end was notable, and this is not to say anything against Carreras, it is simply what happens to so many. And, as J.D. Hobbes was good enough to mention--and I had neglected to stress sufficiently--the poor man fought for years against cancer, which is terribly debilitating and preoccupying, not to mention financially ruinous. That was of course one of the "Three Tenors" goals from the beginning, to raise money to help Carreras pay his debts. Thanks again for an interesting comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Edmund. As usual, your characterizations are very precise. The choice of recordings is excellent too. I knew mainly “The Three Tenors” period of his career and it seemed to me that he was literally “the third’ tenor in the trio, but judging by his best recordings, he was one of the greatest. The voice is of rare beauty, an ‘ideal’ tenor, in spite of difficult high notes. He sang the Duke brilliantly.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. Yes, you make a good point. By the time he had reached the "Three Tenors" stage, the decline was very noticeable. The "true Carreras," was, as you point out, something entirely different, a brilliant spinto, or strong lyric, tenor with an uncommonly beautiful voice. That's the Carreras I prefer to remember. Thanks for an excellent comment, which I appreciate very much.

Anonymous said...

ідеально завдяки дизайну.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Дякуємо. Я думаю, ви маєте на увазі форматі блога. Він, здається, працює добре.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Great to see this new post on your blog. Am sincerely looking forward to seeing the next post on it, however long it may take. he really a robust lyric? I don't think I can agree with this. I think Carreras was more a spinto tenor able to tackle the dramatic and lyric repertoires just like Giuseppe di Stefano.

Thanks for the video with Carreras as the Duke of Mantua. I can't wait to try that out.

Hmm..Carreras' real voice? That's an interesting comment because I heard that Carreras' was actually best in the bel canto operas.

Carreras' a good tenor with a beautiful voice but I think there's one thing people always tend to forget about him. It's his amazingly impressive repertoire. Look at the range of operas recorded by him. From Rossini's Otello to Halevy's La Juive, doesn't this cover quite a range?

Carreras' got quite a formidable repertory that's just as wide as Domingo's. From roles like Otello in Rossini's Otello and Leicester in Rossini's Elisabetta, it stretches all the way to Manrico, Don Alvaro, Andrea Chenier and so forth, won't this repertoire be wider than even Domingo's?

Speaking about Mario Lanza, this is the first time I heard that he was actually influenced to sing by him. This is interesting news.

I wonder if there's any relationship between him and Di Stefano. In my opinion, the two tenors are freakishly similar.
Has anybody heard Carreras sing 'Di Quella Pira'? I almost thought it was Di Stefano singing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for your comment, which is most interesting. Re Carreras' voice category. "Spinto" is fine, although I should say that there are many lyric tenors with a remarkably big and intense sound, such as Jan Peerce. But, not to quibble over voice categories, which, as you may know, have always been a matter of small concern to me. I think there are too many, frankly, and most people are referring to color or volume when they use categories. I would be happy with the choral s/a/t/b categories:) Regarding Di Stefano, good observation! In fact, Di Stefano was Carreras' idol and favorite tenor! Thanks again for the comment.

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Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! I appreciate your comment. You are always welcome here.

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Verdiwagnerite said...

Fascinating, as always! Edmund, you really get me thinking about singing and singers with your marvellous posts. I think you have unearthed the sleeping writer inside me! Carreras had a truly wonderful voice, but like so many before him, he chose to attempt some heavier repertoire. I heard in a documentary about Caballe that she heard him practising at the Liceu in Barcelona and told her brother Carlos and the rest, as they say, is history. I assume this is true?
I'm glad you made the comment about the high notes because there appears to be a level of hysteria on Youtube when a singer either, transposes an aria, or misses a high note. Whether Carreras or Domingo, for that matter, misses a high note, does not detract from what are otherwise beautiful voices, mostly intelligently employed.
On a general note about opera singers, your blog highlights what for me is the beauty of the "first instrument" - all voices are unique in a way that other "instruments", piano, violin are not.
Fianlly, I mention another Spanish tenor lesser known than the "2 tenors", Jaume (Giacomo) Aragall - a beautiful voice but he suffered very badly with stage fright (that could be a topic for discussion) and a Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza, who has had a big career in Europe.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. I appreciate your comments, which are excellent and thought-provoking. And thank you for mentioning Aragal and Araiza. Either--or both--would be good topics for articles!

Anonymous said...

I might have a bad memory, but I remember listening that the main reason of Carreras decline was not lack of skill or discipline.
Off course going for a "heavier" reportoire didn't help, but the main reason I had listened about his decline was terrible scheduling decisions, which he had none or little rest between performances and trips, overloading his beautiful voice.

By the way, I may have missed something, but I didn't found any article about Carlo Bergonzi, who in my opinion is one of the most underrated tenors of XX century, and owner of a magnificent voice.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for your comment. You make a good point, actually. I've heard the same thing about his over-scheduling early on in his career. I sometimes wonder--assuming this is true--if he was trying to beat Mother Nature to the punch, realizing that he had a limited number of years left in the repertoire in which he was proving most successful. Hard to say, without looking at old performance schedules, but a very interesting point nonetheless. On the subject of Bergonzi, he is on the schedule! Just haven't got to him yet, but soon, soon. I am a fan also. A great tenor, and a superb musician. He had an abiding respect from most orchestras and conductors. He really knew what he was doing. Thanks for an interesting comment.

100% Gambler said...

Carreras: an object lesson to all singers. No matter how good your natural voice, if you never learn to sing you'll destroy it.

I don't think it was down to "heavy roles", though that didn't help. I remember watching him on a TV show when I was much younger, in his pre-leukemia days. I got throat ache listening, and I was only about 14 myself at the time. He belted. And belted. And belted. Oh, and did I mention he belted? It hurt to listen.

Still, he hooked up with Pav and Placido, and made a fortune. So I suppose he's OK with it.

BTW, take a look at this:

When I saw the date, I thought "he'll be in E flat at best, maybe as low as D flat". Then I checked the pitch at the piano. F. What???

Then I realised he was miming.


Edmund, off topic: check out this astonishing Russian. Only just discovered him:

The Russian Schipa. Perfect voice.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'll check out the Russian site; thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful tenor early--Similar to Di Stefano but never really a Spinto tenor and as Edmund says here some tenors like Peerce where Pure lyric really with some heft or a lyric spinto. But like Di Stefano singing bigger roles too soon and with JC with his illness both shortened his career. Peerce basically a somewhat dark voiced lyric tenor. JC sang some roles too heavy for his voice. Peerce did not really and he he lasted, but also with good health which helps a lot!!

William C said...

The very first time I went to the opera was in 1976 to hear Jose Carreras in La Boheme. He was magnificent. It was only later I have realised how lucky I was.

The only other time I have heard Boheme at the ROH was when Gheorghiou and Villazon sang together for I think the only night they have combined forces in the UK.

My only problem is now I dare not go to see Boheme again as I fear all else will disappoint in comparison.

Great post on Carreras. Great website