There is a story, which might be apocryphal, that José Carreras, who practically drove his mother crazy by singing all of the time, used to lock himself in the family bathroom to prevent people physically trying to shut him up! If it’s true, then the world of music has a lot to be thankful for with the strength of that bathroom door.
Born in Barcelona in December, 1946, Josep Carreras enjoyed what he described as ‘a happy and carefree’ childhood, despite undergoing several upheavals during it. His father, also named Josep, the Catalan equivalent of José, had fought on the Republican side during the Spanish civil war and consequently decided to emigrate to Argentina, when José was only 5 years old. The venture was to prove unsuccessful, though, and the family returned less than a year over and Josep, unable to find employment as a teacher in the new Spanish regime, instead worked as a traffic policeman. Mother Antonia, meanwhile, worked as a hairdresser in her own small shop.
We know that the young José felt a constant desire to sing – it is recorded that he used to entertain fellow passengers on the boat back from Argentina and that he used to regularly sing to customers in his mother’s hairdressing salon. His parents remembered him coming back from the cinema, having seen Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, and singing all the arias that the great Italian tenor had sung during the film.
One of those arias, of course, would have been la Donna e Mobile, which became the first official public performance José Carreras gave when, at the age of 8, he sang it on Spanish National Radio. Incidentally, this recording is, remarkably, still in existence and can be found, amongst other places, in the video biography entitled José Carreras – A Life Story. José’s mother had started her youngest son at singing and piano lessons with the mother of one of his friends and then he had moved to a local music conservatory.
By eleven, though, José was on the stage, singing at the Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona’s Opera House. This was the real beginning of José Carreras’ incredible career. In his first minor role, José was noticed by the famous soprano Montserrat Caballe and she made a specific request that he sang alongside her in Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia and this was to be the start of a partnership, and friendship, that was to last for years.
What was uncommon in Carreras’s development was that, by the age of 28, when most tenors are only just beginning to fully develop their range and their voices, Carreras had already taken the lead in 24 separate operas – in both America and Europe – and had headlined in the world’s four premier venues- Milan, Vienna, New York and London. With a marriage to Mercedes Perez in 1971, the birth of their son, Alberto, the following year and their daughter, Julia, in 1977, José’s personal life, despite the problems of combining it with a life of constant travel, was contented. Furthermore, his professional life was going from strength to strength – singing over 70 performances most years and developing an especially productive partnership with the famous Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan.
But, in 1987, José Carreras was diagnosed with acute leukemia – at one stage being told he had just a 1 in 10 chance of survival. At less than 42 years of age, it seemed certain that, at the very least, his operatic career would be over.
Incredibly, José made a complete recovery from his illness and began singing again, perhaps going on to even greater international fame, particularly because of his collaborations with fellow tenors Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Most of his long-term fans will tell you that his voice has never fully recovered the power and beauty it had prior to the leukemia, but he was still able to ‘sing from the soul’ with a passion few could match.
Because of his illness, José initiated the José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation, which became of fundamental importance in his life. Indeed, the very first Three tenors Concert, in Rome in 1990, was organised to raise money for the Foundation. He continues to spend much of his time working for the Foundation and it has raised many millions of pounds for research as well as providing countless grants for the José Carreras Foundation Young Investigator Fellowship, promoting research in haematology.
But José Carreras continues to sing; he is scheduled to give 12 concerts during 2008, including one in the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona on June 17th to celebrate the anniversary of his starring debut there in 1958 in El Retablo de Maese Pedro. There will also be an exhibition devoted to his long association with the theatre.