I had never been to an opening at the Metropolitan Opera. It seemed surreal to me: a Fellini movie played out on the Upper West Side. Money, money and more money. The opera began…beautiful music…more money. Then Mr. Cura walked on. Something recognizable at last. He walked like a bull in a china shop. He seemed Latino and Italian all at once—a movie star who sings. A fast-rising tenor with an exceptional voice and an innate acting ability, Cura is what’s known among cognoscenti as a serious musician. The Argentinian tenor began voice lessons at 12 and made his conducting debut at 15 in an open air choral concert in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina. Cura wanted to be a composer or conductor but it was his voice that won him a scholarship at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Today, his repertoire includes over 30 operas, including, Carmen at the San Francisco Opera, Othello in Madrid, and Cavelliera Rustiana at the Metropolitan Opera, and Samson and Delilah at the Washington Opera. When we met for this interview, we spoke in Spanish. He is a friendly, charismatic man. His wife sat nearby. Then I said, “better switch to English.” So here goes…
Eduardo Machado I went to see opening night of the opera and I enjoyed it a great deal. You are a wonderful actor, as well. I wonder what made you decide to do opera?
José Cura I love what I do, but because I also love other aspects of performing, the music itself, the conducting, teaching, I couldn’t say which is my priority. I mean, in the list of what I love about opera, singing is a complement but not the only thing. But because the laws of opera are what they are, the demands of being a tenor are more important than those other demands. So what I’ve tried to do is to sing as an actor, and to do music as a full musician instead of just singing.
EM Not only to be a voice.
JC Yes. Somebody who is used to theater, like you, would say, “Oh, he is an opera singer but he is acting, he is believing what he is doing.” That is what makes the difference.
EM That’s what made the difference for me. It wasn’t static. I have a bit of a hard time with opera, being from the theater. José, when people interview me, they ask,”Why theater?” In opera you cater to a certain kind of audience that isn’t as wide as a salsa audience, which I am sure you could sing. And so I am asking you: Why opera?
JC It’s like asking a tall athlete, “Why basketball and not marathon running?” It’s about analyzing your own aptitude so that you can be one of the firsts in your world, rather than being number 20 in another world. The point is, I feel that opera could be done in a different way, and that is exactly the way that you appreciated it the other night.
EM How much more different would you like to see opera?
JC I apply all these things to every opera I do. Some reviewers are modern and intelligent, but, unfortunately, there are the ones who stick to what they are used to and say, “Don’t you dare touch.” Some reviewers say I’m not such a good singer after all, and that I’m using my acting ability to cover the fact.
EM They can’t accept that you can be good at both things.
EM I was taken by the fact that you were so free—in theater this never happens—within a framework that has already been set up for you by Mr. Zeffirelli. What’s that like? How do you find freedom within that strong a framework?
JC Well, having worked with Franco in the past—even though he was not here—knowing the man, I know he would be happy that somebody is using his own thoughts to create a different atmosphere than what he originally interpreted. He’s not the kind of man to say, “You have to follow the lines.”
EM I worked for him once, I sang “Guantanamera” for the movie The Champs, but I was very young.
JC His usual way of working is, “Listen, I would like you to enter from this door and exit from the other door. At a certain point I would like you to go to this chair and touch this flower. Show me what you are going to do and how you are going to do it, and I’ll tell you how it looks.” A big director would never tell an artist, “Now raise a finger. Now close your eyes.” You build together, you know what I am talking about because this is what you do. So my interpreting was not dangerous. This set looks like Sicily. Some may say that it is old-fashioned, but if you’ve ever been in Sicily, it’s just like that. So you can behave within the set the way you would behave as an ordinary man in ordinary Sicily. That makes things easy. If you were to have an ultramodern set where things were moving or happening, you’d have to be in a certain place at a certain moment or you’d get killed, or you’d seem out of place. But in this set you can enjoy an almost natural space because it is a complete…
JC It is natural: the church, the stairs, the door…
EM You also conduct. How do you feel when you are being conducted by someone else?
JC It is the same feeling for actors who also direct movies. When you are in front of the camera it is one thing, and when you are behind the camera it is another. If you are open and flexible enough, you can capitalize on both worlds and make them one, and then you become extremely rich as an artist. When you are in front of the camera, the fact of knowing what the people behind the camera are seeing…
EM It’s the same thing.
JC It’s the same thing. I know exactly what the conductor is trying to obtain because I can understand every single thing that is happening there—instead of being carried up and down like a puppet.
EM You strike me as someone who is the opposite of a puppet.
JC Maybe that is what upsets people, because I am not…
EM A traditionalist.
JC No, they can’t put me in a box and say, “Hey, tenor, stand up here in front and sing,” which is like saying, “Just sing and shut up.”
EM Which, in this country, is something they do—they don’t understand a person having more than one discipline.
JC Over the last two years, I’ve been devoting myself to photography. I love it. Dealing with photography helps you understand the way the light works when you are on stage—not only knowing how the music is working, but knowing how the light is working on you, and the effect it is producing. It opens a whole new world.
EM I have a lot of friends who are Broadway singers, they spend a tremendous amount of time worrying about their voices. Do you worry about that? How do you take care of it?
JC Well, actually, I don’t take care of it at all.
JC When I say that, I don’t want to sound negligent, what I am saying is that I try to lead a normal life. Of course, if I have a performance I won’t go out barefoot in the snow and challenge destiny, but I’m not a slave to my voice. I eat when I am hungry, and sleep when I am tired, and wash when I am dirty like anybody else. The day of the performance I will try to sleep as much as I can because, as you know, you are in the theater two hours before the performance and then you stay two hours after the performance getting rid of the makeup and normally, when everybody else is in bed, you are in the middle of your day. So I try to sleep during the day to be rested in the evening; but apart from that, no, nothing special. I’m not a scarf tenor.
EM America, being a very egocentric country, has made a great deal of the fact that you are going to be at the Met. Is the Met the center of opera, I wonder? What does it really mean for you to debut at the Met?
JC This is a very interesting question, and I’m going to give you a dangerous answer. There are two ways of seeing the Met. It is the most important theater in the United States, and saying that, you are almost acknowledging that it is the most important theater on the American continent. Teatro Colón used to be a great theater but now, apart from the building, because of the economical situation it is not the great thing that it used to be. Chile, Brazil, and Mexico have wonderful houses but they can’t make them work in as efficient a way as they do at the Met, just because they don’t have the money. So, leaving that aside, it is an obvious conclusion that the Met is the greatest opera house on the American continent. After that you have San Francisco, and Chicago, and you have theaters that are pushing very hard like Washington. But the Met is the Met. That doesn’t mean that the Met is more important than Covent Garden or Vienna or La Scala. There are several, five or six, big theaters that are the pinnacles you have to reach—you have to perform there. But the Met is not the only big theater in the world. I personally suffer the extreme measures of security inside the Met.
EM This city has become very extreme.
JC Yes, very extreme in everything. For an artist it is very aggressive. The stage, in our souls and in our innocence, is a place of fantasy. I am an artist, the stage is my place, but to reach the stage I have to ask permission.
EM It is like that in every American theater.
JC I’m not blaming them, they are doing their job of securing the theater. It’s not their fault that this is a hard country and they have to take care. The fact is that the way of working, the way of being, the way of everyday living in this country is a bit too aggressive. It is this energy that pushes and makes a lot of good things happen. But sometimes, this strength turns into aggression and you have to create defenses against your own idiosyncrasies. Apart from that, artistically the Met is great: the orchestra, the chorus, the atmosphere. When you are on stage, you can feel the positive energy. It’s not like some other theaters where everyone wants you to break a leg—literally.
EM In this country, opera is not perceived as an art form—neither is the theater—for everyday people. But opera is perceived as completely not for everyday people, because of what it costs. At this point in my life, I have begun to think about it. That’s why I just made a movie, because I wanted more people to see what I do. Do you think about that?
JC I am not an expert in this. The Met, for example, is an enterprise unto itself. They produce their own money through sponsors and tickets sales. They make their own decisions and administrate their own incomes. Not every house is in such a privileged situation. Maybe because of that, the tickets must be more expensive. But I feel that all over the world, slowly, while still having the old, nice, black tie gala evening, we are starting to have lots of other performances that are open to everybody, where tickets are not much more expensive than a cinema ticket. Opera is the most expensive of the live arts to produce. You have at least 100 singers in the chorus, at least 90 musicians in the pit, another 50 or 60 moving everything, I mean you don’t do Aida without moving less than 300 people around. That’s the main stone in the bag. And it doesn’t look like there’s a solution to that. Where there’s a chorus, there’s a chorus, you have to have the chorus. And if you are part of the chorus you want to be paid, et cetera…the money has to come from somewhere. Some people say that the great burden of the theater are the fees of the great artists. Only one or two great artists get a big fee in a production, everybody else is part of the house establishment.
EM I’ll ask you another political question. Opera seems to be the most open place for people who are Latin, it seems that there is no prejudice having to do with nationality, color, or anything like that.
JC In opera, the voice is the first thing. That doesn’t mean that the voice should be the most beautiful or the biggest voice in the world, but you need to produce a certain kind of sound to be there on the stage. Then, some directors desire a white, blond performer for a character who is supposed to be blond and white. Maybe if you had a soprano of color playing that part it would seem bizarre—speaking from the “libretto” point of view. But I think that things are now more open in that sense. You don’t have the limitation that you would have in cinema, where, if the character is supposed to be blond, you wouldn’t cast a black woman. Of course, if the character is supposed to be a black person, you won’t be able to cast a blond woman. And, if you are supposed to be Superman, you cannot be fat. Cinema is what it is. Opera is a little more flexible. But the influence of cinema is starting to come into opera, and more and more directors want people who can look the character. The first thing you need is a voice, but you must try to have all the other things, too. However, creating a character is about believing: If you are performing in the role of a Latin lover, and you aren’t that good looking, you can be a seducer all the same. It’s about trying to deliver the proper energy. It doesn’t have to only be the way you look, that energy can occupy your being if you “believe” in it.
EM Right, right.
JC You know, in opera, you go on stage and if your performance is wrong, it is wrong, there’s no way to come back. If you crack a note, you crack a note. It’s like theater, if you forget the text, there is nothing you can do. This kind of pressure, together with the pressure of health (colds and coughing) tends to be catalyzed, in lots of cases, through eating. A lot of the folklore of the overweight opera singer…I have colleagues and friends who are not really thin, they know they need to change for health reasons too, and are making big efforts to lose weight. I had a wonderful surprise yesterday evening. In ‘97 I sang with a soprano who was really very overweight. I saw her yesterday and she was another woman; she had lost 20 kilos. And she was feeling good, more secure and more confident on stage. I don’t want to be misunderstood here, I don’t know if in the future I’m going to be fat, or lose my hair, or have a belly—but, it isn’t about that. It is about trying to make the instrument you use for working as good as your nature and your genetics allow you to.
EM What inspires you?
JC In what sense?
JC Commitment. There is nothing more frustrating for me than being onstage interacting with a colleague who is not committed. If you are an actor that’s the main thing. An actor is delivering energy and information continuously. And you need someone in front of you, apart from the audience, who will be able to take that energy, filter it and give it back to you and then you take it, and give it back to your colleague. It’s ping-pong. When you send energy to somebody and receive nothing in exchange, after half an hour on stage, you are exhausted, because you are doing all the work. You are projecting and somebody is sucking all of your energy, and what is worse, the audience is receiving nothing because there’s a wall.
EM What would you like to sing next? What are you going to sing next?
JC Well, my next opera is Othello. That’s really an opera I love because it has allowed me to create a very deep character. I’ve received heavy criticism from the opera guys for my Othello.
EM Already. (laughter)
JC And great compliments from theater people. I’m happy for that because I want to create the Othello I feel. Othello is not a monk. This is a man who used to be a hero, who used to be a general, who used be this and that, and now is just a piece of nothing breaking into pieces of nothings. That’s the Othello I feel. Of course when I played it like this for the first time all the opera buffs said, “Oh, there’s not enough sound, there’s not enough “noise” there.” And all the theater buffs said, “Oh, what great acting.” The next challenge is to try to fill the gap in between and make everybody happy.
EM Where are you singing Othello next?
JC In Madrid, in Palermo and in Washington next March…
EM Any anecdotes?
JC Yeah. When I sang it for the first time—there is this moment on stage when the alarm goes off; he has just been making love to his wife. So my interpretation was, he hears the alarm, grabs his trousers and goes on—half naked. That’s what you’d do in real life. I went out in only my trousers, holding them up, and I was nailed. Everybody said that I was trying to show my pectorals.
EM (laughter) Maybe this time you should come out nude.
JC No more, I think. I’m getting fat, too, you know?