Considered to be one of the world's three great operatic tenors living at the end of the 20th century, Jose Carreras (born 1946) waged a successful battle against a deadly form of leukemia to return to his beloved singing career. He won international acclaim touring with fellow tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
Born in Barcelona, Spain, on December 5, 1946, Carreras was the youngest child of traffic cop, Jose Carreras-Soler, and hairdresser, Antonia Coll-Saigi. His was not a particularly musical family, but Carreras became interested in opera at only six years old. His father, a teacher who'd been forced into police work by the repressive Franco regime, took young Jose to see The Great Caruso, a film biography of operatic singer Enrico Caruso starring Mario Lanza. From that moment on, there was no doubt in Carreras' mind about what he wanted to do with his life. The very next day, Jose's voice filled the Carreras household with arias he remembered from the film. In his autobiography, Carreras recalled that his performance of these arias amazed his family, for he "repeated them to perfection," despite the fact that he had never heard them before. His family, impressed at how profoundly Jose had been affected by the film, arranged for him to take music lessons.
Enrolled at Conservatory
At the age of eight, Carreras enrolled at the Barcelona Conservatory, where he studied music for the next three years. During this same period he saw his first live opera, attending a performance of Verdi's Aida at Barcelona's Gran Teatro del Liceo. In his autobiography, Carreras said of that experience: "In every person's life, there are certain moments that can never fade or die. For me that night was one of those occasions. I will never forget the first time I saw singers on a stage and an orchestra. It was the first time in my life that I'd stepped into a theater, but the place was as familiar to me as if I had always known it. At the time, I couldn't understand my feeling. Today I can describe it this way: from the moment I crossed the threshold, I knew it was my world., I knew it was where I belonged."
Shortly after seeing his first opera, Carreras made his singing debut in public, performing in a benefit concert broadcast over National Radio. When he was 11, he was invited to sing the role of Trujaman in El Retablo de Maese Pedro, an opera written by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. Only three years after seeing his first opera at the Gran Teatro del Liceo, he had returned to its stage to make his operatic debut. He performed twice more in small parts at the Liceo before his changing voice forced him to temporarily decline all offers.
Took Formal Voice Lessons
Carreras began taking formal voice lessons in 1964. The following year he enrolled at the University of Barcelona, studying chemistry for the next two years. However, he remained interested mainly in pursuing a career in opera. After a year of voice lessons from Juan Ruax, Carreras dropped his chemistry studies in 1967. His adult debut in opera came in 1970, when he performed the role of Flavio in Bellini's Norma. The famous Spanish soprano Monserrat Caballe was so favorably impressed with Carreras' performance in Norma that she invited him to appear opposite her in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, performing the role of Gennaro. Under the wing of Caballe, who Carreras later described as "like family," the young tenor's operatic career was formally launched. In addition to the role of Gennaro, Carreras sang the role of Ismael in Nabucco. In 1971, he won the Verdi Singing Competition in Parma, Italy, which opened the door to the opera houses of the world for Carreras. That year he also married the former Mercedes Perez. The couple, who separated in 1992, had two children, Albert and Julia.
Carreras' repertoire eventually grew to include more than 40 operas. Among his more notable roles are Rodolfo in La Boheme, Don Jose in Carmen, Cavaradossi in Tosca, and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera. Notable among the many conductors with whom he's worked was the late Herbert von Karajan, who called Carreras "my favorite tenor." The two worked closely together from 1976 until 1989, the year of von Karajan's death. It was the conductor who encouraged him to take on heavier roles, some of which were not really suited to his voice. One such role— Radames in Aida—was debuted in Salzburg in 1979 and was later dropped from his repertoire by Carreras.
In addition to appearing in most of the major opera venues worldwide, including La Scala in Milan, the Staatsoper in Vienna, and the Metropolitan and City Center in New York, Carreras has recorded extensively. His recordings are not limited to operatic performances but include popular music, folk songs, and excerpts from zarzuelas, the distinctive light operas of Spain.
Diagnosed with Leukemia
Carreras' greatest challenge came in 1987. The singer had felt profoundly fatigued for months, but when he arrived in Paris to begin shooting the film version of La Boheme, he felt so nauseated that a friend drove him to a hospital in the French capital. Within 48 hours, French doctors handed him their devastating diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Doctors gave him only a ten percent chance of survival. From Paris, he was transferred home to Barcelona, where he entered El Clinco Hospital. So popular was the tenor in his native country that Spanish television broadcast bulletins on his condition three times each day. When it was determined that the best treatment options for his particular form of leukemia were available in the United States, Carreras was transferred to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
In Seattle Carreras underwent painful surgery in which bone marrow was extracted from his hip, cleaned of cancer cells, and then reinjected into his body. Fearful that breathing tubes might damage his voice, he insisted that he be given only partial anesthesia for the operation. The surgery was followed by weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. To sustain himself through this ordeal, he focused on his first love—the opera. To get through the radiation treatments, he would measure time by running through some of his favorite arias in his head. He later told Time reporter Margaret Hornblower: "I'd say to myself, 'Only three more minutes of torture. That's the length of Celeste Aida.' So I'd sing it in my head better than I'd ever sung it onstage." The ravages of radiation treatments and chemotherapy took their toll on Carreras. He lost all his hair, his fingernails dropped off, and his weight fell sharply.
Never Feared Dying
Looking back on his fight with cancer, Carreras told Time: "For nine months in the hospital, I knew I was facing death. But I always saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes it was bright; sometimes it was almost extinguished. But I tell you something: I was not afraid to die. I was worried for my children. But afraid of dying? Never."
Against all odds, Carreras won his fight against leukemia, but he worried that the massive amount of radiation he'd received along with hours of nauseating chemotherapy might have damaged his voice beyond repair. Throughout his months in the hospital, he received support not only from his fans but also from fellow tenors Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Domingo flew to Seattle to talk for two hours to his beleaguered countryman through a wall of plastic. Pavarotti sent a telegram that read in part: "Get well soon. Without you I have no competition!" Interviewed in 1992 by Stereo Review, Carreras recalled the importance of his fans' support. "The thousands of letters I received from people I didn't know touched me deeply and were fundamental to my recovery."
In July 1988, Carreras made his comeback in an open-air concert performed in the shadow of Barcelona's Arch of Triumph. More than 150,000 people attended the performance. Normally a modest man, Carreras couldn't resist telling one interviewer that "Michael Jackson, in the same city, got only 90,000." He followed his comeback in Barcelona with concert appearances in more than a dozen cities, including Vienna where the Staatsoper set up a video screen so that hundreds of fans in the streets who'd been unable to get tickets could see Carreras perform. Inside the prestigious opera house, Carreras was given a standing ovation of more than an hour. The tenor received equally warm receptions in New York City and London, where fans showered Carreras with flowers during five ovations. Late in 1988, Carreras established the International Foundation Against Leukemia, the main aim of which is "to help scientific research with funding and grants," he told the Unesco Gazette. "Scientists believe that the best way to fight the disease is to step up research efforts."
In September of 1988, Carreras traveled to Merida in the south of Spain to make his first operatic appearance since his diagnosis with cancer. Interviewed by a television crew before his performance, the tenor said, "This is a special moment in my life. It is a triumph over myself." And Carreras did not disappoint the thousands of fans who had flocked to Merida to see him sing the role of Jason in Cherubini's Medea. Although still weak from his months of treatment, he "proved that he was back, ready to compete again on the operatic stage," according to Time magazine's assessment of his appearance. Shortly after his appearance in Merida, Carreras returned to his hometown to premiere a new opera called Christopher Columbus.
Sang to Benefit Cancer Center
One of Carreras' first American concerts after his recovery was a 1989 benefit for Seattle's Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he had been successfully treated for leukemia. Perhaps the crowning jewel in Carreras' return to singing after his illness was his appearance with Domingo and Pavarotti in the "Three Tenors" concert of 1990. Staged in an outdoor arena in Rome, the concert preceded a game in the World Cup soccer championship and was seen by more than 800 million fans on television worldwide. A stunning success, the concert was repeated at the 1994 World Cup Finals in Los Angeles before a live audience of more than 50,000. An estimated 1.3 billion saw the concert on television. Records and videos from the two concerts have sold in the millions. In subsequent concerts the "Three Tenors" performed at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, outside New York City, in the summer of 1996, at Detroit's Tiger Stadium in July 1999, and again in Beijing's Forbidden City in June 2001.
Carreras' autobiography, Singing from the Soul, which focused on the singer's battle with cancer, was published in the United States in 1991. Although the reviews were mixed, the book sold well, racking up sales of about 650,000 copies.
Concerts, such as the "Three Tenors" performances with Domingo and Pavarotti, are seen by Carreras as a way to bring opera to the masses. Of his quest to win a wider audience for opera, he told the Unesco Courier: "Like any other form of artistic expression, music needs an audience. It can only be decoded and become accessible if it reaches the public—you can't love anything until you know it." In June of 1994, he joined an Italian opera company in a musical tribute to those who lost their lives in the ethnic fighting over the future of Bosnia. The concert, which was televised, was staged amidst the ruins of the National Library in war-torn Sarajevo. Conductor Zubin Mehta led Carreras, singers from the Italian opera company, and the Sarajevo symphony orchestra and chorus in Mozart's Requiem Mass.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.
Commentary, October 1, 1996.
Time, September 25, 1989.
Washington Post, September 30, 2001.