José Carreras: 'Life has another dimension for me'

José Carreras has helped to bring opera to the masses. But he's driven by more than music, he tells Peter Bills
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The driving force in José Carreras's life does not come from the world you would expect. He loves opera, embraces its glories each and every day of his life. But it is the world of life and death which is his raison d'être: It is 16 years since he nearly died of leukaemia.

He was 40 when the illness struck. The memory of it quietens his already hushed, gentle voice, as we talk in the foyer of Sydney's Inter-Continental Hotel. "I was in hospital in Barcelona for almost five months, and half a year in Seattle. I got a bone marrow transplant. It was a time of ups and downs, like every process.

"But what I remember most is the wonderful show of affection I received from people around the world during this time. I think that was very important in my recovery.It gives you the strength and the right determination to try to fight against this disease. It is very important to stay positive during this time. It can help the final result."

Did he despair? "The only thing that made me desperate was the thought of not seeing my children grow up. I thought OK, I was by then 40 years old, I had had a wonderful life and successful career. My dream to become an opera singer was already there. I had had the opportunity to sing with the best conductors and colleagues. But this idea, of not seeing my children grow, was the most painful thing, that is for sure."

His survival spurred him to work for the rest of his days for a cause - his concerts now raise money for the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation. This raises funds for research, including scholarships for young scientists; helps establish bone marrow transplantation centres; and supports round-the-clock information services for patients.

"We created several units in Germany, Spain, and will soon do the same in Eastern European countries like Romania and Lithuania. I hope that we can create something in the Far East, in Japan. Also a certain kind of social help for families, little flats or apartments, where parents can stay nearby during the process of treatment for their children."

To finance the Foundation, he sings 12-15 concerts a year, besides all his other activities. Japan preceded Sydney, Perth in Western Australia followed, in November. He performed at London's Royal Albert Hall earlier this year. Every year a three-hour television gala is held in Germany, which regularly gets donations of £4-5m in one evening.

Whatever the cause, Carreras insists he still gets a raw buzz each time he performs. "Every day more and more, because the end is near. Therefore I know exactly what I am going to miss, much more than 20 years ago when everything was so far away. Every day, I appreciate what I am doing and the privilege that I have with my profession.

"Every song you sing, there is a different story to tell, no matter when it is from, the 18th century or contemporary, whatever its roots. It does not matter if you sing in one language or another; it remains a story to tell to the audience and to try to communicate these emotions with the music and the words."

His last Three Tenors concert was in Bath, last summer. "It is easier to create the right emotion, to transmit to the audience the feelings you have inside just with a piano, without amplification, in a 2,000 or 2,500 seat hall, than to do it like in a concert at Bath when we had around 20,000 people. It's more difficult to create the right atmosphere. Particularly at the beginning when it was still daylight. Difficult to make the people concentrate, but also yourself. But when the evening goes on and on, the moment arrives when everybody is concentrating at what is happening on stage."

There are plans for the Three Tenors to perform next year in Mexico City and Moscow. Madrid and the USA may follow. But the opening of opera's borders to a greater audience, through the Three Tenors, has not enchanted everyone.

"Opera has often been accused of being elitist. But the same people that we can call the purists, who were criticising opera as too elitist, they are the same ones who now criticise us for bringing this kind of music to a much more general type of audience. But the most positive thing to come out of the Three Tenors concert is exactly that.

"Also, we three are not only opera lovers and fans, but tenor lovers. There is nothing in the world that excites me more than to hear a good tenor voice. So to have two of the most important tenors in the history of opera beside me on stage is a fantastic pleasure."

But Carreras never loses sight of the bigger picture, especially when he visits leukaemia patients. "I think maybe it helps them to know that somebody who has been in the same situation overcame the disease and is living a completely normal life. A few things give the courage, the passion, the hope needed to survive.

"I feel privileged to have survived. Life has another dimension in many respects for me now. I am not saying I am a wise man now, no, not at all. But I see things in a different way and probably, all of a sudden, I became much more mature."