As a conductor and a composer, as well as a singer, his background displays an unusual versatility that has helped him create a series of much admired operatic portrayals, many of them at London's Royal Opera House.
Two of these signature roles are in Puccini's later operas and he's back early this season as Dick Johnson in Piero Faggioni's lavish production of La fanciulla del West. In this eagerly anticipated revival conducted by Antonio Pappano, he sings alongside Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and Silvano Carroli as Jack Rance. He returns as Calaf, his Covent Garden debut in the role, in a December revival of Turandot.
We meet in his dressing room before a morning rehearsal for Fanciulla and it is with Puccini's Wild-West classic that the conversation starts. I point out that it's a work which is greatly admired but has never achieved the popularity of some of Puccini's other operas. What does Cura see as the reason for this?
'It is true that Fanciulla is not an opera with a super-engaging, psychological background. It's not like Otello or Samson or Aida, which speak about betrayal, or Pagliacci which reflects the conflicts of show business. Fanciulla is a kind of idealistic love story, a Spaghetti Western, where the girl loves the boy and the bad guy hates both; it's a situation straight out of Hollywood. We have some ingredients there, of course, but it's not the kind of heavy plot that you would dedicate a month of Freudian analysis to. In that sense, the plot is sweet, it's light. It's an opera you go to and, for once, nobody dies; it finishes in a very optimistic way and everybody forgives everyone else. Considering what we see in the news every day, it's not bad to come to the opera and, for a change, not see people dying and betraying everybody. Fanciulla is probably not so extremely popular in that sense because it is not a tortured opera, it's almost a musical, in a way, although obviously not in terms of the composition, which is incredible.'
How does Cura explain its special musical character?
'Fanciulla, like Tabarro, like the last operas of Puccini, its an opera that moves almost in the rhythm of straight theatre, where people sing almost as if they're speaking to each other. It flows really well and Tabarro is the same, it's not an opera that allows for clichés in terms of acting and movement: you really have to act, to flow with the text in a natural way. It's the perfect opera in the sense of the evolution of the genre. Of course, for some people the perfect opera is one where the tenor stands and just delivers his aria. That might be the perfect opera for an old-style approach, but at the same time it can be very hard to be realistic in those melodramatic, old-style operas. You can try but there are times when you've just got to stand and deliver, because that's how it's written. With this work that's not the case, you can really be modern. It's the ideal opera for young people, for people who've never been to the opera who you want to bring for the first time, to seduce them for the future. Bring them to Fanciulla!'
Piero Faggioni's production is well known for its grand, cinematic sets (designed by Ken Adam, best known for his work on several James Bond films). Does the grandeur of the production make it more difficult to bring across the character of Dick Johnson?
'No, on the contrary. The fact that the staging is hyper-realistic, it allows you to just be the guy, to go and live it, to get into his skin and walk on to the stage as you would into a normal saloon. You don't have to imagine, say, that there's a chair on stage when there isn't, as you might in the kind of psychological mises-en-scène that are fashionable these days, or pretend you're somewhere when you're actually just in a black room.
'All that's very interesting, of course, but with this opera it's very difficult to carry off because the whole thing is there: the colours are there, the bangs, the fights, the smell of the gold is there. People have tried it and I've done Fanciullas that have been a bit weird, but they never work. I remember a Fanciulla two or three years ago when I walked on stage and there was a telephone, there was a fax machine, people had the Internet, there were antennae everywhere. So I said to the director: "Sorry, just one little thought: why is everyone so eager to receive the post when they're emailing all the time, why are they all nostalgic about their loved ones and homes being so far away when they can speak to them on the telephone every day?" The main thing in Fanciulla is the nostalgia; the violence also comes from the distance, from not being able to communicate and the feeling of isolation everywhere. So the moment you have all this modern communication equipment, the whole thing falls to pieces.'
I bring up the idea of the opera's 'happy ending', does Cura see an irony in the fact that such a realistic opera avoids the fatal clichés of verismo?
'Puccini was not 100% a verismo composer. He was a realistic composer: his operas were realistic, were true, the rhythm was almost that of the spoken word. That is of course verismo in the sense of it meaning that it reflects truth, but not in the sense of what defined that movement, not in the sense of people breaking all the rules of old-style opera, going for bloody situations and people shouting on stage. That is what we understand by verismo – like Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana – which is wrong in the end. Because these operas, if they're done properly, are also very stylised. You're not supposed to go there and shout and kick chairs around in Pagliacci just because it's verismo. But tradition has, also, unfortunately created that habit and that's why these operas are not very well loved everywhere. You can do them in a very stylised way and they can work really well. So Fanciulla is all that, Puccini's all that: it's almost impossible to define. It's true there's verismo there but there's also a lot of style.'
This brings us on to Turandot; Cura is returning to Covent Garden in December to sing his first Calaf for the company. Everyone knows 'Nessun dorma' but for some people there's a problem understanding what Calaf is about as a character. How does he set about persuading an audience that there's more to him than the one aria?
'Turandot is a very tricky opera. The problem with it is that it's become famous just because of one song. We hear that and we think of the World Cup, we think Three Tenors, we think of big stadiums. But the opera is really very complicated. It's a very Freudian opera in the sense of the conflict and confrontations between the female elements and the male elements, by which I also mean within the individuals themselves. We have the female in conflict with the past and in fear of physical contact, and the male who wants to possess. It's an opera that came around the same time as Lulu where psychology was evolving, it was the peak time for Freudian and Jungian theory and an extremely complicated period, but a fascinating one for humanity too. It was a time when people were discovering lots of things that were always there and had never been thought or talked about before. In the middle of all this Puccini writes an opera which finishes with a big conflict, one that remained unsolved because he died. So some people talk about the great music he might have written if he'd lived to finish it, while others read a lot into it, since Turandot was also a very autobiographical opera for Puccini. They see the conflict brought about by the Manfredi girl in his family; Liú was the alter-ego of Manfredi and Turandot the alter-ego of Elvira, his own wife. For them this explains the confrontation between the two women, the sweetness and love of one and the aggression of the other, Turandot, who in the end surrenders to love. With this personal dimension, some people think he would never have been able to write the proper music for this duet. Not because of any technical obstacles, but because of the conflicts of his own psychological situation.'
Bearing all this in mind, I ask Cura about the completion of the opera by Franco Alfano, who pieced together the final duet and finale from Puccini's sketches to produce the version usually performed in the opera house today.
'I think people are wrong to say "Oh, Alfano did a shit job". I don't think that's fair. The guy was not Puccini and that's it. It's not fair to lay into a composer because he couldn't rise to the challenge. He did what he could and was very humble in the way he tried to serve his teacher and master. He gathered all the pieces as best he could and he wrote what he knew. Of course it's easy to say, "It's not Puccini and because it's not Puccini it's shit." For some people that's just an action reflex, and they're just repeating an opinion that's chic. I wonder how many really know what they're saying or have really analysed what the guy did, which is actually really interesting. If you acknowledge the fact that he's not Puccini and if you take it on its own terms, harmonically it's very revolutionary. The first version of Alfano's ending is even more complicated, with harmonies that were completely ahead of their time, so the guy was not stupid. Even suppose for a moment that Alfano was a genius, in any case he was not the same guy who wrote the music before so there was never going to be a perfect match in the music.'
And does Cura have any views on Luciano Berio's completion?
'I've not heard it. And with all due respect to Berio, it was probably a very interesting adventure but I don't see the necessity for it. Having said that, I'm due to do a Turandot in a couple of months in Germany and I heard they're planning to finish with the death of Liú, which is another solution. One thing's for sure, let me tell you: Calaf without the final duet is a piece of cake! Yes, 'Nessun Dorma' is an appointment but it's solvable. The last duet, though, is a massacre; it really is very tough to sing. So if the fashion is to start cutting the last duet, there'll be a lot of happy Calafs out there!'
I lead the conversation onto other plans. Cura has sung several less well-known roles, starring for example in productions of El Cid and Edgar last season. I ask if there are any other unexpected roles he's keen to tackle?
'I have some plans but some of them depend on the possibility of learning the language. I've had several people ask me to do The Queen of Spades but I really have to learn the Russian. That's not something I can do overnight. I hate singing phonetics, it doesn't work with my style of interpretation which has always depended on the subtext. It's OK to sing in German or in Russian just repeating things phonetically and having an overall idea of the plot. It's another thing entirely to speak the language and to understand the "perfume" of the words. So whether this is something for the future, or just the dreams, I don't know.
'Another is Peter Grimes, but I'd love to do that in England. I want to learn the role and perform it in the proper way by coming to the source. But every time I say this I hear, "No, but the accent and this and that", and I say "Give me a break, have you ever heard English people singing in Italian?" They're very good and they try as hard as they can but you can hear the accent. It's natural, you can't avoid it. So does that mean that only English people can sing Peter Grimes, only Italians can sing Italian opera, only French people sing in French? Then we'd end up with a very limited international panorama. All of a sudden we'd have theatres closing. So I think this is nonsense. It's interesting to have someone in a role if they care about it and train hard for it, even if you hear the accent here and there. Who cares about that as long as you have an interesting psychological approach. So sometimes when you want to experiment you have to fight against prejudice. I don't know, I'll end by doing Peter Grimes somewhere else, for sure, because I want to do it. It would be a pity, because it's one thing to do it here to learn the style and how do it properly from someone who's English. It's a different thing to do it elsewhere and learn it from someone who's not English. Every time I mention it casually here I get a smile in return. So I've just stopped mentioning it! I'll have to live with that.'
So, with Hermann in The Queen of Spades and Peter Grimes, Cura's eyeing up Russian and British roles, has he ever thought about tackling the German repertory?
'I've even had invitations but I'm so afraid of the language. The point is that when you set a standard – regardless of whether or not people like that standard – you go on stage and people expect certain things. Some people expect mistakes and some people expect thrills, that's part of the game, but they expect something. I'm afraid that if I start doing German roles I won't be up to my own standards. I think that's OK if you cannot live up to the confrontation with another artist, there's always going to be someone better than you. If you can't live with the confrontation with your own self then you're in trouble. If they say "Cura is not as good as Del Monaco or Domingo", that's OK because it's true. If they start saying "Cura is not as good as Cura himself" then you have to pack your bags and go home. For that reason I'm not ready for Wagner because I know I will not be up to my standards.'
After the two roles he's singing at Covent Garden this season, I ask if we can look forward to seeing him return next season.
'I've got nothing next season because my calendar is very full, but I hope that we can have some interesting conversations before I go to work something out. I've been singing at this theatre for fifteen years so it's a very important part of me as an artist. I've done many important roles here and it's always a great thing to come back. Also, each time you come back to the Royal Opera House you have a feeling that you're starting again from the beginning, that you're a student. With lots of other theatres you arrive as the personality you are and that's it, and they're just glad you've turned up. When you arrive here the levels of expectation, organisation and pressure are so high that you're not the "star" any more, you're just another piece in the machinery who has everything to prove and has to start at the beginning. And it's not bad to have that kind of detoxicating cure every two or three years, to be brought down to earth and start again. The point is that in London, which I see as the world capital of art, you are one more artist among many, you just have to shut up and get on with it. It's very good, it's a good therapy to be made to realise that no matter how good you might be, there's always someone who's better.'
This Fanciulla revival is being conducted by the Royal Opera's Music Director, Antonio Pappano, a Puccini specialist. Is that something else Cura's looking forward to?
'I'm very good friends with Tony and he's great fun to work with, particularly with these works, because they're in his DNA. You see him going through the score with complete emotional understanding. Without having to pretend, he's there at the heart of it. It's great because when you're up on stage and you look down and see someone who is struggling – not technically but psychologically – with the piece, you can feel it, and it gets transmitted to the stage. I'd rather have somebody who's completely at ease with the piece, even if they miss a beat here or there, than someone who's a great intellectual but not necessarily fully at ease with the piece psychologically. In this case, though, we have the best of both worlds. Add to that the fact we've got Faggioni, who is a genius, and we have a pretty ideal situation. It's not every day that you get a great cast and a fabulous company so I feel, as an artist, that I'm a bit spoiled.'
Cura is well-known as a versatile musician but has recently shown another side of his artistic personality having released Espontáneas, a book of his own photography.
'I think it's already in the shops in London and they should have it on sale in the shop here at the Opera House,' he jumps in. He continues, 'but it's completely on the side. It's a hobby, it's like a way out. If you're a lawyer you might choose music as a way out. If you're a musician, what's your way out? To do law?' He laughs: 'No, if you're a musician your way out is probably another form of art. Some people paint, some people draw, I love to take pictures. I've been taking pictures for the last thirty years at least. I've been improving and practising and get to talk to a lot of great photographers in my job. I always took pictures as a part of my hobby, my passion, but also as a way of observing life. I'd never thought about bringing about a book but two years ago the Swiss publisher came to me and said, "I saw some of your pictures in friends' houses and I'd like to publish some of them in a book." I replied that I didn't really think the world needed a book of pictures by me but he said something nice back. He said "You might not be Richard Avedon but you're a well-known artist and people who like you will like to see how you see things. For them it would be a nice thing to have." So I said OK and we did it.'
Does he think then that these photographs will give people an additional insight into José Cura the singer and musician?
'Well, you know what Avedon used to say: pictures are not a portrait of the model but a portrait of the photographer. So it's true that you cannot take pictures ignoring your own self. It's the same if you paint a picture, it's you; even if you try to avoid it, it's always you. So it might be true, I don't think it's absolutely necessary for people to know me through pictures but the book is a nice book, with some nice pictures and that's it! It's another step in the holistic conception of a career that I always had. Being a performer, the more you enrich your secondary activities the more you transmit on stage. In the end, you're on stage telling things and you've got nothing to tell if you haven't lived. The more you live, the more you touch, the more you smell, the more you are in contact with reality, the more things you've got in the background when you try and communicate.'
Aside from his busy operatic schedule, Cura is regularly involved in education work. This London visit will also see him lead a masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music. Does all this mean he's confident in the future of opera?
'Opera has a future, but it depends on us being modern, it doesn't depend on opera. And I don't know why - and you see this particularly in London - there's been such a revolution in straight theatre but in opera we still think that the way it was done fifty years ago was ideal and that what we're doing today isn't. There's an idea today that a modern production is one where the audience needs a manual of explanations to understand what's going on. That's not being modern, that's not having anything interesting to say about a piece and just being weird so at least no-one will say you're copying. But from there to being modern is a long way. Modern artists have always been those who understood their society, the problems of their times and reflected them in their artistic activities, and that's what we need to do. If we continue to do Otello as they did it in the fifties, you ignore the worldwide crisis of fundamentalism of today: in 2008, the fact that Otello is a Muslim converted to Christianity opens up a whole world to investigate. After 2001 and September 11, the whole approach to a fundamentalist opera like Otello has changed. That's just to mention one example and it's something that can be applied to many other operas.
'That's the challenge but of course you need guts for it. If you go on stage destroying the myth that Samson was a saint, for example, and point out to people that he was killing in the name of God and therefore is comparable to a terrorist of today, then you have a scandal. If you point that out people might accuse you of being anti-Semitic because Samson was a Jew. But the philistines are also killing in the name of their god, Dagon, so both were behaving in the same way, so it's not against a particular race or group of people, it's understanding that killing in the name of God is something that's just as modern today 3,500 years after the original story of Samson. It's the same with so many operas, take Ballo in maschera with all its political intrigue, or Aida. Aida might be famous for elephants and monkeys on stage but we shouldn't forget about what's going on behind it all. So that's the future, trying to find that aspect of these works. And if you want to do that coming in in a flying saucer then that's fine, but if that's all you do then it's ridiculous. There's no point in trying to create a scandal for the sake of it, people will have forgotten it by the next day.'