Bel canto in corpore sano

Forget the Three Tenors. Alfredo Kraus is the forgotten fourth - eight years older than Pavarotti and twice as stylish. By Joanne Watson
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The Independent Culture
There can be few opera stars who put such reliance on physical fitness that they work out regularly in their own gym, but Alfredo Kraus is no ordinary singer. His dedication has kept him at the top for nearly 40 years and, at 67 (seven years older than Pavarotti), he's still singing beautifully. Not only has he no thoughts of retirement, he's just released a new disc on Philips which the company has thoughtfully labelled "all new recordings" just in case his fans thought he was past it.

Since his debut in Rigoletto in 1956, the Las Palmas-born Kraus has set a standard of singing that few tenors have emulated, yet, unlike some of his more famous colleagues, he has avoided the promotional hype and, with it, household name status. For him, there have been no excursions into musicals or pop and one suspects that he sees such escapades as a prostitution of his art.

The nearest he has ever come to popular exposure was at the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics, when he was one of six Spanish singers asked to perform. Yet even then he was a late addition to the list, and the back-stage rumblings suggest that fellow tenor, and organiser, Jose Carreras isn't top of the Kraus family Christmas card list.

When asked if, given his time again, he would choose to be a populist rather than a purist, he smiles. "You have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to serve the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor. I think they are two different things, two different careers. Of course, it's a little more easy to be known by everyone, but I don't really want that. I want to be known by people who are knowledgeable about opera, who appreciate bel canto singing, people who have more sensitivity."

Although he claims there's no secret to his longevity, Kraus attributes it to three things: good health, good technique and a wise choice of repertoire. Physically, he belies his years: his dapper physique is sustained by his work-outs. But, far from being a singing Schwarzenegger, his conditioning is designed to keep his abdominal muscles and diaphragm in good trim, while the miles he puts in on the bicycle allow him to feel comfortable standing on stage for hours on end.

It seems to work: the voice is remarkably flexible, there's no apparent strain, and no wobble or vibrato. He may not be the most impassioned actor, but his commitment on stage is always evident, even in works such as Rigoletto, Traviata, Lucia or Werther which he's sung hundreds of times before.

While he remains in demand at houses such as the Met, Vienna and Berlin, there is no place in his diary for Covent Garden - an omission he blames on the "politics" of the Royal Opera. "They want to use young singers," he says, "because of the risk that, if they use old singers, they won't be in such good condition when they appear as when they signed the contract, and because of the economics - young singers cost less than famous old ones." These are in his case, one feels, risks worth Covent Garden's taking. He simply shrugs: "That's not my problem."

These days, Kraus limits his performances to 40 or so a year, interspersed by long periods of rest which he regards as essential to re-charge his batteries. He admits that, for any singer of his status, performing gets more difficult as the years go by and the burden of expectation increases. "It's harder, because your reputation is bigger and the people expect much more. You always try to sing a bit better, but it's a challenge every time you go on stage and every time you have contact with an audience."

His most obvious successor is Roberto Alagna, for whom Kraus has a high regard. "When I first heard him, I thought he can have a fantastic career, and at the moment he's doing that." But he has one caveat: "One thing I always say to him is: try not to sing very heavy roles, stay in the lyric repertoire. I hope he will do it, because it could be dangerous to sing heavy roles for his fresh, beautiful, lyric voice." Let's hope Alagna heeds the advice - he can have no better role-model than Alfredo Kraus.

n 'The Incomparable Alfredo Kraus' is on Philips 442 785-2