Celebrating José Cura--Singer, Conductor, Director
The headline in the newspaper says it all. 'LA LO-CURA!' it shrieks in big black letters in a deliberate play on locura (the Spanish word for 'madness') and the surname of the biggest star to come out of Argentina since footballer Diego Maradona. José Cura, the tenor, is back in town, and you'd have to be deaf, blind, and somewhat unobservant not to notice.
The idea dreamed up by his record company seemed simple enough: ease him into his debut appearance as Verdi's Otello at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, by taking him to his home town of Rosario to give a concert and spend time with his friends and family. It was meant to be a low-key affair, but then the media found out about it.
I join the throng in Buenos Aires and wait to get this new star's story - his desire to stay in touch with his roots, his accelerating career and the pressures of international fame. But from the moment Cura steps off the plane, a frenzy envelops him. His entourage is besieged by television crews from around the globe, including one from The South Bank Show. His gala concert is then mobbed by 40,000 adoring fans. Psychologically unprepared for such attention, Cura is left in a state of exhaustion and, reeling from the publicity onslaught, cancels all his appointments - including my interview - for the next 48 hours to recuperate.
It is hardly a surprise that José Cura's professional schedule has suddenly gone ballistic. The opera world has long been waiting for a new young tenor who not only possesses a voice of heroic proportions but has the physique to go with it. Cura clearly fits the bill. He is a superb musician, a fine actor and, crucially in these days of under-nourished 'studio voices', one of the very few singers around who can - as opera critic Rupert Christiansen nicely puts it - "raise the roof".
Cura's arrival on the international scene in the early 1990s sparked off a fiercely contested debate about the elusive 'fourth tenor' who would succeed the Olympian but ageing triumvirate of Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras - the other pretender to the throne being Roberto Alagna.
Born into a musical family, Cura showed early promise as guitarist and pianist, came to opera relatively late, at 21, and a professional career even later, making his debut at the relatively advanced age of 29. His career, though short, has been meteoric, helped along by his success five years ago in Plácido Domingo's Operalia competition in Mexico - an entrée to the world's great opera houses. In only a few years Cura has learned more than 30 different operatic roles, almost all of them Italian and French because he refuses to sing in a language he cannot speak fluently.
Meanwhile his image has been bolstered by his life outside music: a passion for body building, an abandoned career as a rugby prop forward, and a black belt in kung fu. He has worked as a stagehand, a lighting man and a set builder. Seeing him on stage in the summer of 1999 in Verdi's Aida - the opening production of the Arena di Verona season - brought home to me how crucial Cura's athleticism is to his art. As Radamès he displayed the energy of a rock star, running from end to end of the enormous stage, parading his musculature at every opportunity and, in the opera's more lyrical moments, wringing every ounce of character from the role.
In Buenos Aires, Cura's imminent debut appearance as Otello at the Teatro Colón is an opportunity for me to clinch the long-awaited interview. Despite his evident nerves, and the chaos surrounding the dress-rehearsal, he turns in a performance that, vocally and dramatically, more than lives up to expectations - particularly strong on Otello's tortuous see-sawing between outward aggression and inward angst.
Hoping to snatch a few words with the tenor after the rehearsal, I wait amid a gaggle of admirers at the stage door. Here I met Jane Austin, founder of the internet-based club International José Cura ConneXion. Jane has been smitten with the man ever since she saw him sing the title role in Stiffelio in London in 1995. Indeed, she knows more about Cura than anyone - perhaps even more than the tenor himself: she tells me that, on the video he made of Otello in Turin, he leaves a smudge of brown make-up on Desdemona's forehead when he kisses her.
She also knows that, when José - it is always "José" to her - emerges from the stage door, wherever in the world it happens to be, he always finds time for a few words with her. Grabbing my arm as the crowd presses forward, Jane pulls me towards a tall, swarthy figure in an expensive-looking designer coat. He shakes my hand, says "Nice to meet you" in a strong Spanish accent while looking over my shoulder, then moves on to give a big bear-hug to an old friend.
The following morning, just as I think my chances of an interview have slipped away, the phone rings. Señor Cura will give me 25 minutes, but it's now or never. I find him in his hotel room, sinking low in an armchair in jeans and T-shirt while his wife, Silvia, attends to the phone - by the sound of it, fending off more requests for interviews.
"It's a crazy time, you know," the tired tenor said with the weariest of apologetic smiles. "When you are 'missing' for five years and all of a sudden you return to Argentina as a 'somebody' everybody wants to be there, everybody wants you in their newspaper, on their TV, in their magazine." Close up, I can see why we all want him. With his athletic, muscular build, high forehead and noble Roman nose bisecting a pair of dark, angry eyes, he corresponds perfectly to the romantic notion of what a young operatic tenor ought to look like.
In a recent review, The Times opera critic Rodney Milnes wrote that Cura should decide once and for all whether he wants to be a singer or a sex-symbol, apparently sending the singer into a fuming rage. The Independent on Sunday labelled him "an opera singer with a six-pack". To Cura, the physical nature of his work is just as important as the drama and music. "For me the body is essential. If you're an actor, which I am, the body is the instrument of your interpretation. The better you are physically, the better you will sound. Today if you are good-looking people think you are stupid, and if you are a genius you are ugly, dirty and wear glasses. Why can't we combine good looks with intelligence?"
Cura prides himself on his physique and has a personal gym at his Madrid home, although he admits that the demands of fame and the passing of the years are beginning to interfere more than he would like. "I'm not as fit as I was when I was a semi-professional athlete and weighed 20kg less than I do now. I try to live in a more or less balanced way, but when you are invited every day to a cocktail party or a dinner, and to this and that, then it becomes very complicated. Especially now that I'm close to my forties. The body changes, the bones change, and I'm losing my hair like everybody else!"
The question of age is an inevitable one for Cura, not least because in singing terms he was a late starter. But while his peers spent their twenties in the relentless pursuit of vocal perfection, Cura was doing other things. Singing, yes, but singing Beatles songs, Palestrina, spirituals, jazz - everything and anything, except opera. "The first time I opened my mouth to sing something that was more or less opera, I was 21. I didn't like it, so I gave it up. I didn't start again until I was 26."
Cura feels his unusual vocal education has helped him become the well-rounded, mature musician he is today. "It was a normal development, a normal way of arriving at my actual situation. I'm happy that I started my singing career at 26, and the big career at 31. Because at that age you are still young enough to justify all the investment and the hype, but you are old enough to be able to control it."
He has, it seems, got it all under control. Everything he did before the career kicked in, from sport to stage management, turns out to have had its raison d'être. Having worked as a lighting man, he knows where to position himself under the spotlight for maximum dramatic effect. Being an experienced conductor, he understands what conductors require of him. "If you want to be a complete artist these days," he reasons, "you have to master at least three or four different disciplines. Then you can be much more at ease in what you do."
Of all the other strings to Cura's broad bow, the one that interests him most is conducting. He has already started scaling down his vocal commitments so that by 2003, if all goes according to plan, he will be spending half his time singing, and half in front of an orchestra. He tells me this with a pensive seriousness, which suggests perhaps the decision is partly a response to the extraordinary pressures he has recently been facing as a tenor. "My schedule is booked up until 2005. But I am clearing out periods for myself for composition and for conducting. I have already conducted on Anhelo, my CD of Argentinian songs, and now I am starting to receive proposals from orchestras. Next year I want to do a symphonic record."
Any idea yet of the content? "Yes, but I'd prefer not to say. It might spoil the surprise," he says, his earnest demeanour immediately melting into a lighthearted smile. In Cura's current situation, it can't always be easy to keep seriousness at bay. But his life seems rich and varied enough to stop him losing touch entirely with reality. He also has a secret weapon that keeps him grounded. His family. He and his wife now have three young children - José Ben, Yasmine and Nicólas. Gesturing across the hotel room to where Silvia, her long brown hair hanging down to her waist, stands beside the window clutching a clipboard and a mobile phone, he says, as much to himself as to me: "The family base is so important. It's the only way to keep yourself sane as a human being. I mean, this life is very - no, it's absolutely - crazy. When you come off from a performance where there's a standing ovation and the crowd shouting 'Cu-ra! Cu-ra! Cu-ra!', and then you go home and have to change the baby's nappies, you learn to say, 'OK, the opera was fine, but this is fine, too'. That helps me keep my feet on the ground."
Last Updated: Friday, September 22, 2017 © Copyright:Kira