Interview with José Cura (English version - full length)
José Cura
José Cura, 35, is considered from many sides to be the tenor of the 21st century, the new star at the tenor firmament. Just within few years he has become one of the most sought-after singers at the world's top opera houses. In November he will give his debut at The Washington Opera House with 'Samson et Dalila' and in '99 he will open the 1999/2000 season at the MET. But the Argentinian singer has not only an outstanding voice, but also some personal views.
Birgit Popp: You have been advised by the choir director to start an education as opera singer, but on the other side you have not been interested in opera, what created your interest ?

José Cura: My interest in opera started very slowly when I was 21, 22. But then I gave up, because my voice was not doing very well. When I was 26 I started again. Slowly I began to like it.

B.P.: When you started for the first time, you learned some wrong techniques, which damaged your voice. At that time did youu had an education as baritone or as tenor ?

J.C.: We were trying to find, what to do. But nothing worked, so I gave up.

B.P.: What made you come back ?

J.C.: I do not know. Life, things. I once sang in a concert and the people told me, you have to sing and to study. So I studied again. Life in a way pushed me.

B.P.: Some people told you, you are a tenor, some that you are a baritone. You say you had to find your own way. How did you do ?

J.C.: I finally found a teacher, who understood my voice and from there I began creating, which is now my voice.

B.P.: Was this still in Argentina ?

J.C.: Yes, back in '88. It was Horacio Amauri. Then I moved to Europe and I continued with another teacher Vittorio Terranova. This was in '91/'92.

B.P.: What made you move to Europe ?

J.C.: If you want to be an opera singer of the Italian repertory and you want to be a good one, you must go to Italy. Because, unless you understand the idiosyncrasy, you will never understand, why they sing in a way and not in another. So, you have to live between them. You have to speak with them. If not, you will never agree, how they sing like that. Why Italian opera is so different to German opera. In German opera you do not have this big climax of high notes. You have it in Italian operas because Italian people like to shout. It is different kind of style. All people write in the way they are and you have to live between them, if you want to sing. If you want to sing Czech opera you have to go to Prague and you have to live in Prague. If not, you will never be able to understand Janácek. You will sing the music, but you will not understand, what Janácck wanted.

B.P.: I understood that you made an audition in '91 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, where you have been studying also conducting and composition, and they did not want you. They were not interested. Is this correct ?

J.C.: In December '91 I made my last audition in Argentina and I heard people saying to me for the last time you must go and change your job. So I am off for Europe.

B.P.: Finally this was a push for your career . . .

J.C.: Now they want me there and I might come back to Argentina maybe in '99.

B.P.: You did already sing a Gala-Concert again at the Teatro Colón ?

J.C.: I sang a Gala-Concert there in 1994.

B.P.: So you have forgiven them ?

J.C.: I do not blame them. I think, it is normal. Every country has the same problem. You never respect the artists of your country. You think always that the artists of another country are better until everybody says that the artist of your country is good. With the orchestra it is the same. If you go to Prague, maybe everybody thinks that the orchestra from Milano is better than the orchestra from Prague. And the orchestra can come to Germany and they say that the orchestra from Prague is better than the one from Germany. It is always like that. Nobody is prophet in his country.

B.P.: Did you meet your wife already back in Argentina ?

J.C.: I met my wife when I was fifteen.

B.P.: How long are you married now ?

J.C.: Thirteen years.

B.P.: You have three children. How old are they ?

J.C.: Ten, five and two.

B.P.: Does the ten-year-old already show interest in music ?

J.C.: No, thanks God, he is a normal kid.

B.P.: But for you there was never anything else in your life ?

J.C.: In my life I have done a lot of things. I have been a body-builder, an electrician. I have been a carpenter. I work in my house. I work in the woods. I have done everything. Look at my hands. Do you think these are the hands of a tenor ? These are the hands of somebody, who is alive, which is more different and much more interesting.

B.P.: You do the recitals in quite a different way. When did you start sitting on the ground and doing things like that ? You are really acting.

J.C.: I was always bizarre. Nobody was able until now to make me do things I do not want. I am doing recitals not for a very long time, but from the very first recital I have done in my life, it was directly like that. I enjoy myself on stage, moving around, joking with the gunnies, sitting down. We have done a concert in '96 and I have done the Villi aria lying flat on my back in the middle of the stage. With Jeans and with my shirt out of my Jeans.

B.P.: When you say you are going new ways in opera, what do you understand with this ?

J.C.: You have seen how I am doing a recital. I perform in the same direct way in an opera. If I have to fall down, I fall down. I do not care. I am direct. You will never go to an opera I sing and find me on the stage like that singing my aria. (Setting himself in position) No, never.

B.P.: The acting part has always been very, very important for you ?

J.C.: Yes, if not, you stay at home and you can put a tape in. Why are you coming to theater ?

B.P.: What do you prefer for the production, a traditional way, a modern way, or do you think it depends on the opera ?

J.C.: You can do whatever you want on stage as far as you do something logical and with good taste. The problem today is that some directors use the stage to psychologize their phantoms and this is not good. As long as you are doing something reasonable and you are really believe in what you are doing, you can do anything on stage. You saw me during my recital just with one chair and all the feeling of Pagliacci was there - only with one chair. So you do not need a big thing. If you have an artist with charisma, an artist with aura and you put one chair in the middle of the stage, everything black around and everything will happen. And you can put a lot of things, fireworks etc., but when the artist has no charisma, nothing happens on stage.

B.P.: You have studied conducting and composing, do you think that you approach an opera in a different way than other singers, which do not have this background ?

J.C.: It is not only me, every singer, who  is a musician, will approach the opera in a different way. Maybe it is not in a different way, in the only logical way, you should approach music. You should be a musician to approach music. The new generation [of singers], thanks God, at least ninety per cent of the new generation, are musicians. I mean, not everybody is a composer or conductor that is very difficult. It needs a very big study, but at least they play the piano or they play an instrument or they can read the music. And that is very important.

B.P.: How is the situation for you, when you feel unhappy about the conducting. Do you say something to the conductor, when you do not agree ?

J.C.: When you have a conductor, who is prepared, you can discuss and have a wonderful communion of work. When you have an asshole, there is nothing you can do. You have to impose yourself, if not, you will lose the concert. Because they can really do a disaster. If you have a genius, an Abbado, a Muti, one of those, it is so wonderful to work because you do not talk too much. When you have good people, you do not have to speak. You go and do the music.

B.P.: And with the directors ?

J.C.: No, not even Abbado or Muti made me do things, I did not want to do because for the simple fact, they never will like to do something, what is not musical.  So if I make them understand, what I try to do, it works. And, if you can prove to a conductor, even he is a big conductor, that what you are doing is worth doing and the try is interesting, they will accept it. I remember with Abbado we had for example for Otello a couple of discussions, how we do this, how we do that, and we sorted it out musically. With big people, you do not need that. The discussions are always with assholes. And thanks God, when you get up, when you get high in your job, you have less chances to find an asshole. You work with wonderful people because theaters try to take care to put the big singers with the big conductors, because if not you will go to have a mess and it will not go to work.

B.P.: Do you have the feeling that the conductors more recognize you because they know that you have the education as conductor yourself ?

J.C.: Apart from people that know me for several years, a conductor you find for the first time is not informed about your musical training. He is not going to learn before you have met for a rehearsal, 'okay, let's see what he has studied, okey, he has studied ..., okey he is fine.' Listen, I have a wonderful anecdote. When I have done Cavalleria with Muti in '96, everything was wonderful. I was never out of bar. After the last day we went to dinner altogether and we were discussing a lot of things, and all of a sudden, he asked me, 'did you ever sing 'Carmen' ?' And I said 'of course, I also conducted Carmen' - 'What ?' - 'Yes, because I am a musician. I am a musician by choice and a tenor by mistake' and he said to me 'ah, now I understand, why in two weeks you were always in tact. I did not know you were a musician. Now I understand.' Sometimes it proves you that he has not to go to find out how good I was, see the status. He is going there with an open mind to do music. If the colleague is good, it is good, if the colleague is stupid, okay, then you have to .....

B.P.: You are still composing yourself and it is said you would prefer to do the composing for text. Is this right ?

J.C.: Yes, I like composing and I like to compose with text because I am a singer and I enjoy composing.

B.P.: In which direction are you composing at the moment ?

J.C.: I think that it comes close to the 2001. Next century. We have to finish for once with classifications. You write what ever you need or you feel to write or you paint whatever you feel or you need to paint. Because classifications always restrict.

B.P.: Where can we hear what you are composing ?

J.C.: For example from the Argentinean recording we have recorded in the end of '97, beginning of '98. I have wrote two songs for that recording. Because they are songs about love and death I wrote simple, easy and enjoyable music for these songs. But, if you come across my requiem or my stabat mater there you have clusters and series. You have different music. So I think we have to finish for once with all these classifications as the way we have to finish with the limits between the countries. I mean it is ridiculous. Still today you are in the European Community and when you go to England you have to show your passport. So what a community is this ? Or to change the currencies, stupid, we have to finish with all the things that restrict people.

B.P.: You also said you would prefer the roles you have the feeling you can transfer something to the public. Roles you mentioned were Otello, Don Jose, Cavaradossi, Des Grieux. You want that the people go out and think about it.

J.C.: You saw myself on stage. Can you imagine myself singing for twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five minutes just like that (doing a great pose) without moving ? A Wagner-Oper or whatever ? No . . . .

B.P.: This was not the question. The question was, what do you want to transfer, what do you think, when people coming out for example of these four operas, what they are going to take with them, what should they think about ?

J.C.: This is nothing I can say because you will take what you need according to which is your life, which are your problems, what were your problems, when you enter in the show, and which are going to be your problems tomorrow. So you take your part, he takes his part, she takes her part. Every human being takes what he needs in terms on what he is living. So I never will be able to say, I want people going out having this remembrance. It is impossible to have this all under control. I mean if you are having a love-affair with somebody and you are seeing butterflies everywhere you will take home harmony and if you have lost two days or a week ago somebody you loved and you have seen La Villi you will go out crying. I do not know. Every human being takes out what he is living at the moment.

B.P.: You were talking about emotions and that you want to show emotions and feelings on stage, of course, you do, but I thought there might be something you wanted to transfer to make people think about the opera, but it is more a touching feeling you want to produce. I had the feeling there was more behind.

J.C.: There is one thing I really want. Of course, there is a lot behind, but it is presumptuous to say I want to give a message and people take the message or nothing. I mean this is impossible. That is presumptuous. The one thing I want people to take or to have is they enter the theater in one way and they must leave the theater in another way. Whichever this way is. But, if the same people enter the theater and leave the theater in the same mood they entered that is frustrating. The music must have changed them, because you have open the music to them. Of course, if not, you have done nothing. If you finish a concert and you go to dinner and after two minutes you talk anymore about what you have seen, that was not a success. But, if people two days or a month after that still talking about it, that is a success. I had people saying to me we are still talking about the concert in Ireland, we are still talking about your Otello, we are still talking about your Cavalleria, that is wonderful. That is what you want.

B.P.: If I understand you right now, that talking about it - what includes that it was touching and how you performance was,  but it does not necessarily mean that they talk about the contents of the opera, or the message or the moral of the opera.

J.C.: Listen, it is again the same history. If you are a butcher, if you are a flower-seller, and you have this culture you would talk about that, if you are a musicologist you would talk about other things, if you are a conductor, you will be talking for days about how the conductor moved his hands, if you are a flutist you will criticize the flute and if you are simple and normal, you will talk about the emotions. I mean everybody talks about the thing that touches more directly. There is one thing I would like everybody to talk about, yes, of course, and that is about emotions. I get crazy when people go out off one of my shows and the day after you read the critics and they say 'oh, wonderful, but the third note, the fourth bar or the second system was a little bit so and so, that is shit. It drives me crazy. It is so cheap, but, of course, cheap criticism is part of frustrated human beings. I think, we have to learn to go with it.

B.P.: Why did you chose to live in Paris ?

J.C.: I lived in Verona for four years. And then, because Italian bureaucracy is like them, very messy, unfortunately, because they are a wonderful country, I got to move, I got to leave the country, and I moved to France because some people of the French government invited me to come to France, so that why we moved to France.

B.P.: As I understand one of your hobbies is to work in your house.

J.C.: Oh, yes, like every young couple - for years and years we have been renting and now finally we bought our house. And we bought the house of our dreams as it happen to everybody. I am normal like everybody. And now we are working in our house.

B.P.: So is it an old house ?

J.C.: No, it is not that old, it is from the fifties. Forty years old.

B.P.: You are living now for three years in France, are you going more into the French repertory ?

J.C.: I have two operas of the French repertory, which are 'Samson et Dalila' and 'Carmen'. Everybody says I would have to learn Werther. I do not know, because right now, Werther is sung by lyric tenors, maybe some mistake. I do not know, I have to study it and find out.

B.P.: You say that for you a lot of roles, which are considered as dramatic like Otello or Radames are not really dramatic for you. Which roles would you consider for really dramatic ?

J.C.: I think there is a mistake in the classification. One thing is to be dramatic and one other thing is to be a shouter. You can have the most intense drama of your life in silence. And that is the mistake. People say Otello is dramatic, so you must go there and shout. Otello is the drama of a man, who after being a big general is breaking into pieces. It is the last twenty-four hours of a poor human being breaking into pieces. So how can you shout ? But, of course, when you are not able to act, when you are not able to transmit energy and sufferance without shouting, you shout.

B.P.: So you think there is not a really dramatic role in your sense because you said the classification is wrong.

J.C.: No, no, the roles are dramatic. What is a mistake is to think that dramatic is a synonym of shout. That is the mistake. Samson is a dramatic role, but Samson after the beginning of the opera, when he imposes himself as the leader, then he must do the most incredible soft singing. All the duet of the second act is soft, sensual singing, it is not shouting. And the role still is dramatic. So the problem is trying not to go dramatic as the synonym of shouting, of loud. You can be dramatic in silence and you can be joyful making a big noise. All depends on the energy. Most of the most dramatic scenes of theater, of cinema, of opera happen in silence.

B.P.: What future plans do you have. I mean singing Otello already with 34 years is fantastic but what stays for the future. What stays what is a challenge ?

J.C.: Of course, I have been so lucky that in the last three years of my life I done debuts in 25 roles, so even if I still have another four, five or six roles I would like to do, I now have the chance of repeating those roles and improve them. And this is much more difficult than doing the debuts because you can do a debut and if it is good it is better. But people forgive you because it is your debut. People say 'okay, it is a good debut and okay he will be better in the future.' - Now, after I have done the debut, I mean the dangerous part is now that I have to show that each time I sing a role I am improving. And that is very difficult.

B.P.: You have done so many debuts at the big opera houses over the last three years, at the Covent Garden, at the Scala, at Vienna, how do you feel about this success, how do you stand it ? It must be overwhelming somehow ?

J.C.: I have been doing music since I was twelve. I am now thirty-five, so I have been doing music for twenty-three years. Which is apparently surprising for everybody, and how from one day to the other, miracle, miracle, but this is not that true, because after twenty-three years of preparation, of trying to be prepared for the moment, now is the moment, Now, is the moment you know and the moment they see, but under that you have twenty-three years of work. That is why I am the way on stage. The way I move on stage is because I have twenty-three years of background.

B.P.: But, no matter how hard you have been working. To have these debuts at all the big theaters must be overwhelming.

J.C.: Of course, it is overwhelming and it is nice. I enjoy it. What can I do ? You want me to tell you that I am every time I go to theater I tremble. 'oh, God, I am in the Scala'. I really enjoy it. I really enjoy to be on stage.

B.P.: It must have changed your life.

J.C.: Of course, everything changes my life. This is changing my life. After the chat with you tomorrow I will be a different guy.

B.P.: I do not think so really.

J.C.: Of course, yes, everything that happens in your life, if you are intelligent enough to capitalize change your life.

B.P.: You said in an interview referring to sing Otello in a young age, because you were warned, that if you sing Otello, you would not like to sing any other role anymore, 'not the role is dangerous to the singer, the singer is dangerous for the role. How do you mean this ?

J.C.:  The danger of Otello is like the danger of being in touch with perfect things. It is like the danger of being in front of La Gioconda. It is like the danger to be in front of the most beautiful landscape. After that you say, okay, what now, what else ? That is the problem with Otello. My teacher Vittorio Terranova told me, the problem with Otello is not the singing. If you are a good actor enough, if you are intelligent enough, you will cope with the character. The problem with Otello is, that once you have sung Otello, there is no way to go.

B.P.: That was the question about the challenges.

J.C.: Exactly, it is the master piece of master pieces. It is like being a baritone and sing Don Giovanni. Where are you go then ? Every other opera sounds cheap after that. It is like tasting the most incredible wine and after that every other wine is like bbbb. That is the problem of 'Otello', It takes you everywhere. It changes your life and what do you do then ? Even the most incredible operas like 'Samson et Dalila' or 'Carmen' they have pages, where the opera goes down. 'Otello' is like 'ahhhh' all the time. You finish the opera and you cannot get out of the character. What can you do ? That is Otello.


The interview was conducted by Birgit Popp


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Performing dates of José Cura

The Washington Opera (house debut)
Samson et Dalila with Denyce Graves and Plácido Domingo conducting: November 10 (premiere), 12, 15, 18, 21, 23, 25 and 28, 1998


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