The rise and rise of Big Voice

Musicality, looks, charisma - and marketing. It's going to be hard to ignore Jose Cura.
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The Independent Culture

There was an extraordinary scene at the end of the Puccini gala in Torre del Lago, the small Tuscan town on the edge of Lake Massaciuccoli. In the 3,000-seat open-air theatre, just metres from Puccini's summer villa, a scrum was going on. Hordes of middle-aged ladies were rushing to the stage, elbowing one another out the way and gasping to get a closer look at opera's latest pin-up.

There was an extraordinary scene at the end of the Puccini gala in Torre del Lago, the small Tuscan town on the edge of Lake Massaciuccoli. In the 3,000-seat open-air theatre, just metres from Puccini's summer villa, a scrum was going on. Hordes of middle-aged ladies were rushing to the stage, elbowing one another out the way and gasping to get a closer look at opera's latest pin-up.

The object of their excitement, the 6ft-tall former body builder, Kung Fu black belt and tenor Jose Cura, was pacing up and down like an oversexed tomcat, just centimetres out of their reach.

The man does exude a rare charisma. Throughout the concert he ambled around the stage as if he were rehearsing in his own living room and, at one point, he stopped to talk to a member of the audience. By the end there were shouts from all over as his admirers tried to engage him in conversation. And, more in keeping with cabaret artists than opera singers, he changed his jacket three times. In celebrity terms, this man is a natural.

Fortunately, he can also sing. His rich voice and impassioned acting style have broken hearts all over the world. Journalists have been unable to resist building him up as the successor to the Pavarotti-Domingo-Carreras triumvirate, baptising him "the fourth tenor", though Cura is resistant to such wanton comparisons. "They don't deserve to be compared with someone who is just starting to work and it's not fair for me to be put in a group of people who have been there for 30 years," he tells me. "If my profile is as high at 36 as Domingo's when he was 50 is not because I am doing three times as much work, but because whatever I do is automatically on the radio or the television. The media is constantly on the look-out for new talent."

But despite the praise heaped upon his singing, Cura feels that he is often unjustly attacked. Indeed, it is hard to get him off the subject of critics, particularly British ones. "They act like we are still living in the 19th century," he splutters. "They are conditioned by the idea that a tenor in a recital should be dressed like a penguin and standing close to the conductor at all times. When you break those rules you are committing blasphemy."

Some critics have also expressed a dislike for Cura's vanity, with particular reference to his alleged tendency to present only his left side to the camera. "It's so cheap!" he explodes. "I don't understand why to be an opera singer you have to be ugly and why to be a sex symbol you have to be an idiot. Why can't you look good and be an artist and an intellectual? Maybe it is because some of the people who write these things aren't very good looking."

Cura's marketing team have certainly seized upon his aesthetic qualities, recognising an opportunity to thrust opera in the faces of a wider audience. In the media he has been portrayed as the consummate Latin lover, complete with big biceps, puppy dog-eyes and a fiery temper. And, rather than the standard performance stills, his album sleeves depict him close up, his eyes all dewy and his head tilted forwards as if advertising some hair-rebuilding treatment.

Back at the concert, as the third jacket goes on, there are murmurings from the marketing executives that there is still work to be done on his wardrobe. "Yes, but we've managed to put an end to all the cardi's and ties," sighed one.

In his native Argentina, Cura studied classical guitar before training as a conductor. It was not until he started working as the music director for an opera group that he started to take his voice seriously. "Singing was just a hobby for me until then," he explains. "Everybody told me I was not good enough."

Then Cura won Placido Domingo's singing competition in 1994. This also marked the beginning of his friendship with Domingo. Now, at 36 - an infant in operatic terms - Cura's has already tackled Verdi's Otello and his first solo recital disc, a collection of Puccini arias conducted by Domingo, shifted 150,000 copies.

Now he is ready to go global. There are wall-to-wall Cura concerts for the next six months, his third solo album 'Verismo' is out this week and, on Sunday, he features on the South Bank Show .

It took the 1990 World Cup to bring Pavarotti to the masses, but Cura has no plans for a sporting soundtrack. But there is an appearance on the National Lottery show planned, and he doesn't seem daunted by the prospect of climbing on the media merry-go-round.

"There is this enormous belief around the world that classical music is dead and I am trying to keep it alive," he says.

So how far will he go? Richard And Judy ? Blankety Blank ? "I will go up to the limit of quality. From the point where I feel that that starts to suffer, I will stop."

But despite his obvious desire to become the world's greatest tenor, Cura insists he remains a conductor at heart. "Technically," he says "I'm a composer and a conductor who has taken time out to sing. I will, hopefully, return to what is my real vocation."

Such humble interludes don't really wash for Jose Cura. The man is at his most interesting when singing his own praises and damning those detractors. Vain? Quite possibly. Charming? Utterly. But modesty would never have suited him.

 

Jose Cura's album 'Verismo' is out on Erato Disques.

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