HOW WE MET

JOSE CARRERAS AND MONTSERRAT CABALLE
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The Independent Culture
Jose Carreras, 48, is one of the world's leading tenors. In 1987, he was diagnosed as having leukaemia. He returned to opera singing a year later while undergoing treatment for his illness and has been singing regularly ever since. Separated from his wife, he has two children and lives in Barcelona.

JOSE CARRERAS: I remember well my first meeting with Montserrat at the Liceo, the opera house in Barcelona. It was a rehearsal on the occasion of her first Norma, when I was given the opportunity to sing Flavio. Of course, I had heard her many times. She was the singer who had always made the greatest impact on me. Because her brother Carlos had been one of my closest friends since the beginning of my career, and had helped me make important decisions about my music studies, I felt I already knew a lot about Montserrat even before we met. I knew, for example, not only that she was a great artist, but that there was a very beautiful human side to her too. Being given an opportunity to work with her in the opera house of my home town, where I had been introduced to opera, was something very special for me.

Naturally, I was extremely nervous to sing for her. I was a shy boy of 22, she was 37 and already established as one of the greatest sopranos in the world. Her voice was one of the most beautiful instruments I have ever heard and I wanted so much to please her. I hoped that she would like my voice - my way of singing. I didn't need to worry because she was so kind to me and gave me a lot of confidence. Montserrat has always been there for me, giving me moral support whenever I have needed it.

During my illness, she was one of the first of my closest friends to see me and was supportive in her special, sensitive way. We had a long talk, and, as always, she was like a sister to me. Montserrat has also suffered a lot of serious illness, so between us there is a special, unspoken understanding.

We have been singing together for 25 years, and for me it is always a privilege. The way Montserrat is able to transform herself on stage is truly amazing. I know this woman so well, and yet every time she takes on another role, she totally becomes that character. She must have maybe 20 different roles, but to each one, she brings something extraordinary, and I completely forget that it is Montserrat, my friend, who is singing. Like all of us, she is nervous before a performance, but she has great self- control, so there is no way the audience would know. I don't believe anyone who says they are not nervous before a performance. It's not possible.

Although we have a professional relationship, it is much deeper than that. We are like family, even though our work means that we can rarely make regular arrangements to be with each other. It is such a pleasure for me now that I have started to sing with Montserrat's daughter, Martita. She is a lovely girl with a tremendous personality and a most beautiful voice, which has the potential, because she is still so young, to develop into something much more beautiful. I know it was a tremendous surprise to Montserrat when Martita decided to tell her that she wanted to be a singer. For any child, it is tremendously difficult to go into the same profession as your parent, but to be the child of a very famous parent, following in their footsteps, demands a great deal of both parent and child. Montserrat and her daughter have a lovely mother-daughter relationship, which I think says a great deal for Montserrat. Because of the nature of this business, when it comes to family life, it isn't easy for any of us, but I think that it's even more difficult for a woman with children. The family is very precious to Montserrat, who, although she has a warm and open house, has always managed to guard her privacy and her own space.

When we are planning our concerts together, the programme depends very much on the venue. If, for instance, we are playing in New York, Vienna, London or Milan, in a classic concert hall, our choice of music will be quite different from an event held in the open-air in front of many thousands of people. Our next gala together will be in Oslo in November. Some time this summer, I will go over to her house in Barcelona to discuss what we would like to sing. Probably, we will try out a few things, very informally, with the piano.

Montserrat already has a tremendous repertoire of music, but she is constantly looking for new things. One of the things I admire most about her is the absolute devotion she has to her career. She is still excited about the possibility of doing something different, and whenever we have the opportunity, we include a lot of Spanish music in our programmes.

At this time in her life, she is working a tremendous amount, when many people in her position would be starting to slow down. Montserrat is a woman who loves life and loves what she does, so I think it is absolutely right for her to carry on doing what she enjoys most in the world. We are both devastated about the fire that destroyed our beloved Liceo in 1994, so whenever either of us has time, we will organise concerts to raise money to help rebuild the theatre.

In all the years we have known each other, Montserrat has never let me down. We have never even had the smallest argument. Like me, she is also a passionate supporter of our home team, Barcelona, so there is not the remotest possibility of a row - not even about football. Montserrat Caballe, 62, is one of the world's most flamboyant operatic sopranos. In 1987, she recorded the album Barcelona with Freddie Mercury. She lives in Barcelona with her husband, the tenor Bernabe Marti. They have two grown-up children. She appears tonight in a Verdi Gala at the Olympic Arena, Bath.

MONTSERRAT CABALLE: My first meeting with Jose is a little complicated because I knew of his voice for at least two years before I knew the person. I felt we were friends even before we had been introduced. For many years, Jose had been a good friend of my brother, Carlos, who is also my manager, and now, of course, also Jose's manager. He was always talking about Jose, ecstatic about his silvery lyric tone, which he felt would develop into something extraordinary. It was Carlos who recognised Jose's wonderful voice and encouraged him to carry on with his studies. All the time, he would tell me how talented Jose was. When someone is so enthusiastic about someone, you feel you must know that person, even if you haven't been introduced. I remember sitting around the table with my husband, my parents and Carlos one lunchtime, when Carlos said, "You know, Jose would be very good as Flavio for your first Norma." I knew my brother had a very good ear, so I said, " Why not?" At last, after our incognito friendship, I finally got to meet him in rehearsals at the Liceo in Barcelona, at the end of 1969.

On stage, Carlos presented me with his friend, Jose. I felt that he was more like a little brother than a colleague. There is 15 years' difference in our ages, but to me, Jose will always look young. When he started to sing, it was as Carlos had said: Jose's voice was something of incredible beauty. I agreed with my brother that one day this voice could be what he called "the sound of the century".

The production of Norma took place in January, and in June of that year, I went to London to make a recording with Placido Domingo. I can't remember what it was, but I remember very well what I said to Placido: "I have heard a most beautiful voice, Placido, a great talent. His phrasing is perfect." Immediately, Placido replied, "A beautiful voice like mine?" and I told him, "Yes, very beautiful, but very different to yours. I am giving him a lot of encouragement." Placido, who is a very generous man, said to me, "Well, Montserrat, if you are so enthusiastic, I really hope he is another Spanish singer." In the next season, Jose appeared with me again at our beloved Liceo in Lucrezia Borgia. In those early days he was called Jose Maria Carreras. He had a triumph singing the part of Lucrezia's son, Gennaro.

Since then, his career has been fantastic, and we have sung together many times. We know each other so well that singing with him never feels like work, although, of course, we have to plan and rehearse for every concert. Years ago, when Jose made his debut in San Francisco, I was already living there and promised I would go to the first night. That afternoon, I had to have some complicated dental work and left the surgery looking terrible with my face very swollen. I should have gone home to bed but I had promised Jose, so, looking and feeling dreadful, I sat through the performance and then went to congratulate him in his dressing-room.

Because of our work, we may not see each other often, but it doesn't matter. We always pick up again as if we had seen each other yesterday. On the few occasions when we are in the same city, we try and see each other's performance and meet afterwards for dinner. Jose loves to go out late at night, which is something I don't enjoy very much any more, but because it's him, I always go. Jose is a very important part of my musical family. At Christmas he has been to my home with his children and we are always in touch when it matters most.

The year of 1987 was the most horrible year of my life. Both my uncle and my mother died, and Jose was diagnosed with leukaemia. I went straight to the hospital and will never forget that day, seeing him - my dearest friend, so courageous, so full of life - now so ill. It's very difficult to be strong when someone you love so much is suffering, but it's something you have to do because the one who is ill needs all their strength for themselves. In February, when Jose came back home to Barcelona after bone- marrow treatment in Seattle, I was there to greet him. He no longer looked like the Jose I knew, but at that moment, for me, it was enough that he was alive.

In my prayers, I have always said thank-you for the things I have in life, but ever since Jose's illness I have said a special thank-you. People say that he works too much - not only his singing but his work for his medical foundation and the restoration of the Liceo - but Jose knows exactly how much he can do, and when it's time to take a break. When you have been so near to death, every day is precious and you want to make the most of every minute.

For me, Jose will always be like my little brother and I think part of him will always remain like a child. A lovely child, and one that I would always make excuses for - no matter what he did. !

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