Beating leukaemia gave Spanish tenor Jose Carreras a renewed passion for life that he wants to pass on to his audiences, he tells Kevin Kwong
JOSE CARRERAS turned 60 on the day Barcelona football club reached the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League competition. It was a birthday wish come true for the avid soccer fan who's also one of the world's most celebrated opera singers.
'I consider myself a very fortunate person in my personal and professional life,' says Carreras in a telephone interview from his home city of Barcelona. 'I've always been treated [well] by the gods, if I can say that.'
It's almost two decades since the singer was diagnosed with acute leukaemia and given only a 10 per cent chance of survival. Today, having fully recovered, he appears regularly in concerts/recitals and recently sang at the opening ceremony of this year's Asian Games in Doha.
Now, the tenor is on an Asian tour, which will conclude here next month when he performs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of his nephew David Gimenez. Guest soprano Giorgia Fumanti will also appear in the concert.
'I'm very much looking forward to coming back to Hong Kong,' says Carreras, who last performed here at the post-Sars Harbour Fest in 2003. 'It's always a pleasure to come to this part of the world, in particular Hong Kong, which is one of the most interesting, exciting and beautiful cities in the world.'
His opinion of Shanghai, where he gave a concert at the city's Oriental Arts Centre in November last year, is equally glowing: 'It's a great city and we had a great orchestra from there as well.
'To come to China is always a great experience, particularly when you see how your country is developing, how much people are now starting to be very interested in western culture and western arts.'
His affinity with the mainland goes back to 2001 when he, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo - who became known as the Three Tenors - performed at the Forbidden Palace to boost the country's bid for the 2008 Olympics. This October, Carreras sang a Chinese folk song, in Putonghua, for the Olympics committee in Xian, which officials say will be a popular tourist destination during the Games and 2010 Shanghai Expo.
There are now talks of Carreras performing at the Beijing Olympics opening. 'Needless to say, I would be very happy and honoured to be part of it,' he says.
Carreras' lengthy career is well documented. Born to a humble family - his father was a school teacher (who fought on the republican side against Franco during the Spanish civil war) and his mother ran a small hairdressers - he was the youngest of three children.
He discovered his life vocation at the age of seven after his parents took him to a cinema to watch Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso. Carreras apparently returned home and sang every single aria Lanza performed in the film.
'It had woken up a certain instinct or intuition I had for music and I started singing immediately my own way,' says Carreras. 'My parents thought, 'This boy had a certain talent for music' so they sent me to the conservatory in Barcelona and I started studying music and piano when I was seven, and I was always singing.
'I was always thinking I would study music so I could have a better preparation to become a singer. I was never thinking about becoming an instrumentalist.'
By his late 20s, he'd sung tenor leads in 24 operas in Europe and the US, and made his debut at La Scala in 1975 as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, a performance the singer treasures most 'because it's a very special moment for any artist'.
Another highlight was the first time he worked with Herbert von Karajan at the Easter festival at Salzburg, where he took part in Verdi's Requiem in 1976. The collaboration marked a professional relationship between the two men that lasted over a decade, with Carreras being the conductor's 'favourite tenor'.
With countless performances and recordings under his belt, Carreras' passion for singing has not diminished in the slightest.
'The possibility to transmit emotions and feelings to others still gives me the buzz. You can open up yourself not only as an artist but as a human being trying to transmit this feeling and emotion.
'I think this is a real privilege. I know this sounds obvious, but it's true. This is the artist's privilege - to be able to transmit emotions to the public.'
His other passion is, of course, football. 'In our country, football is almost a religion,' he says. 'Barcelona football club has a tremendous social strength besides the sport side. This is probably because during the dictatorship of General Franco in Spain for 40 years, to support Barcelona it was, somehow, the way to support our identity, our roots, our traditions of our little nation, Catalonia.'
The father of two grown-up children spends much of his time raising funds through the Jose Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation. He says he feels indebted to society after he received 'so many proofs of solidarity, affection and support' from people when he was ill.
'That's why I established this foundation to fight against the same disease I was suffering from. So, for me, that's a very important role in my life. And we'll work on that. Our energy and determination will go on until we achieve our final objective, which is that leukaemia will one day be a completely curable disease. Let's hope this moment is not too far away.'
As for his career, Carreras says he wishes to go on for another few years: 'I don't know how many. I'm still very excited when I have the possibility to perform on stage. When you see the end near, you appreciate even more what you're doing.'
A Gala Evening with Jose Carreras, January 3 and 4, 8pm; Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Tickets from HK$280 to HK$1,800. Inquiries: 2721 2030