Ten years ago, Jose Cura was writing Masses for the Falklands dead. Today he is a contender for the title of `The Fourth Tenor'. But what, he asks Nick Kimberley, should he sing?

It's mid-November, just two days before Jose Cura is to appear in the first of the Royal Opera's two Albert Hall `Nights of the Stars'. Just as we're about to start our interview, a call comes in: one of the baritones, with whom Cura was to bring the first half to an end, has cancelled. Cura will have to fill the slot alone: what does he want to sing? Cura says he'll need a few minutes to think; he'll phone them back. Then, instead of me asking him questions, he's asking me: what would be a good piece?

I make the predictable suggestions. "Nessun dorma?" After all, it's the opening track on his debut CD. Too obvious, he says, the merest hint of disdain in his voice. Something from Carmen? "No, it's too long since I sang it." The tenor aria from Gianni Schicchi, also on his Puccini CD? "No. OK on a recording, but it's too leggiero."

Well, who listens to journalists? In the end, Cura calls the Opera House back with his own suggestion: yet another piece of Puccini. When he puts the phone down, he grins mischievously: "For me, it's better. I'll finish that part of the concert on my own..."

You don't get to be a star by shunning the limelight, and Cura is enjoying his celebrity. At 34, he's still young, but in terms of experience, he's younger still. In his native Argentina, he studied guitar, then conducting, then composition. Singing was merely a hobby: "I knew I had a voice, but I didn't want to use it in opera. Then I was working as music director of an opera group, about 1986, and I sang in a concert because we were without a tenor. There was another tenor in the house; he heard me and said, `You should study.' He introduced me to his teacher, I started studying, but I wasn't convinced. Then I began to work a bit, and suddenly the voice started to come. But it's impossible to make a living in South America, unless you're part of a company and you sing Cavaradossi one day, Goro the next, the next day in the chorus. So in 1991 my wife and I came to Europe, knowing that it would be less difficult, particularly because of the demand for tenors. Even in a chorus, I was going to earn my living."

Cura's big break came by way of contemporary music, singing in Hans Werner Henze's Pollicino in Verona in 1992. More 20th-century opera followed: Bibalo's Miss Julie in Trieste, Janacek's The Makropulos Case in Turin. Modern opera would win more listeners with voices of the calibre of Cura's but, for the time being, this tenor knows what butters the bread, and it isn't 20th-century music.

"They needed a tenor who could be both a musician and an actor for these difficult pieces, which I enjoyed singing, Janacek most of all. But when people started to offer me traditional repertoire, it was difficult to turn down, not because I don't want to do modern music, but because the theatres have this image of the romantic tenor: `We have lots of people who can sing contemporary music, but you're the only one who can do Otello.' It's not necessarily fair, but it's the law of the market."

In 1994 Cura won the Placido Domingo Singing Competition, his first direct contact with Domingo, who conducts his Puccini CD. Cura resents any suggestion that he is Domingo's protege: "I met Domingo when I won the competition, then two years later he conducted when I sang Bellini's Norma in Los Angeles. The next time I saw him was for the recording. Three times in three years, yet people are saying I'm a Domingo protege. I don't know what that's about. Of course, with the recording, there was the danger that Domingo has his own way with these arias, but he made it clear: `I'm here to follow you; you do what you want. If I agree, fine; if I don't, it's still your recording.'" One reviewer wasn't happy with Domingo's conducting, and wrote, "We'll wait to see what Cura does with a less indulgent conductor." What that reviewer doesn't know is that Cura will do what he wants, whomsoever he works with. "If somebody convinces me that I'm wrong, OK, but it has nothing to do with being indulgent. It has to do with having your own personality, with not wanting to be a copy of anyone else."

Singing leaves little room for composing, but Cura still considers himself a composer. His next CD, of Argentinian music, will include his own settings of Pablo Neruda, and he nurtures a long-term ambition for another of his pieces: "In 1984 I wrote a Requiem Mass dedicated to the people who died in that stupid South Atlantic War in 1982. I was in the reserve army at the time, waiting to go to the Malvinas [Falklands], and I thank God the war was short. I have a dream that I'll perform the piece in 2007, to mark the 25th anniversary of the war. I wrote it for two choruses, one Argentinian and one British, with a mixed orchestra, so I'd like to perform it once in Britain, once in Argentina. I wrote it when I was 22 and very impressed with Krzysztof Penderecki's Te Deum and Requiem, so the musical language is in that kind of neo-romantic style. But, as a composer, just as much as a performer, I believe in music as the language of expression. If I need a cluster, I'll put in a cluster. If I need a shout, I'll put in a shout. If I need a scream, then I'll put in a scream."

Like most rising stars in the tenor firmament, he's made his sortie outside the classical repertoire, in his case recording "Just Show Me How to Love You" with that ardent collector of tenors, Sarah Brightman (whose last catch was Andrea Boccelli, the "blind Pavarotti"). It's the opera house that is his real home, though. Last May he sang the title role in Verdi's Otello for the first time (under Riccardo Muti), and he'll sing the part at Covent Garden when the Royal Opera House (if that's still what it's called) finally reopens. When I suggest he's at an early stage of his career for this pinnacle of Italian tenor roles, he again turns the tables and questions me: "If I ask you about Otello now, give me a name." Once again the obvious answer: Domingo. "OK," says Cura. "He did it at 36. Mario del Monaco? He was 35. Of course you won't be able to sing Otello when you're 25 years old, but once you feel you're ready for a role, the sooner the better. Otello is a live role: you need to sing it a lot, if you're going to be a mature Otello when you're at the top of your strength as a man and as a singer, which is at about 45. If you wait until then, you'll be maturing in the role when you're 55, and that's starting to be too late. The problem with Otello is to be able to portray the character: that's the challenge."

And this tenor enjoys a challenge. At that Royal Opera gala last month, Cura not only closed the first half, but in the interval allowed himself to be persuaded to sing the aria that another indisposed tenor was to have sung in the second half. It was the highlight of the show. No fuss, no bother, just a willingness to deliver his voice to his audience. He admits that what he calls "mozzarella singing" (the climactic top B in "Nessun dorma" and the rest) is useful, but insists, "Opera is theatre, and I'm a stage person. Taking risks in terms of interpretation is much more thrilling for audiences today than putting in a high note where a high note is not written."

Jose Cura's debut CD of `Puccini Arias' is on Erato 0630 18838-2.