"Heroic" and "survivor" are the words that come most quickly to mind to describe Jose Carreras, the Spanish-born lyric tenor whose sumptuous, straight-from-the-heart style will be the main attraction Thursday at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Five years after undergoing successful bone marrow surgery for leukemia, Mr. Carreras' career is back at full tilt, including new productions in the world's great opera houses and a non-stop schedule of concert appearances and recordings.
Mr. Carreras, 46, says he is grateful for everything, given that there was a time when he thought not only might he never sing again but also that his very life hung in the balance.
"The experience changes one's opinion about everything," he said from his hotel room in London recently. "You become more mature suddenly. Everything in life becomes different -- my view as an artist, my feeling for music, my outlook on life as a man."
Yet perhaps because of a reluctance to tempt fate, he still resists being drawn too deeply into a discussion of his illness.
"Five years ago, yes, I was hoping I would still be able to sing. But to be truthful, at the time what was really important was to fight for my life. That was even more important than singing.
"Though I am afraid to say it, almost, I do feel things in a deeper way. I have a deeper view of life, of our relation to life. But I don't want to be pompous. I want to let the audience judge."
Yet perhaps inevitably, Mr. Carreras' brush with death has made him something of a symbol of the quintessential survivor for a public that identifies with him as a promising young talent who suddenly found everything he had worked for thrust in mortal jeopardy.
Mr. Carreras was a child prodigy who made his first public appearance at the age of 11 in his native Barcelona in the role of the boy narrator in de Falla's "Master Peter's Puppet Show." The feat was all the more unusual because the difficulty of the role usually requires that it be sung by an adult mezzo-soprano.
"It was an exciting experience," Mr. Carreras recalled, "and I was even more thrilled because I was paid for it. Already I felt I was a professional."
Mr. Carreras' career began to take off in 1970, when the impresario Denny Dayviss and the critic Frank Granville Barker visited Barcelona to hear Montserrat Caballe give her first "Norma." Mr. Carreras had a bit part in the production as a result of the interest Madame Caballe had taken in the then-17-year-old singer, whose seductive voice and dramatic stage presence
reminded her of the young Guiseppe di Stefano.
Invited to sing
Mr. Carreras carried off the tiny part of Flavio so well in that production that he was invited to sing opposite Madame Caballe the following year in Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" at London's Festival Hall. His international debut was followed in quick succession by critically acclaimed performances in Boito's "Mefistofele" and Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur."
Three years later he made his Covent Garden debut in Verdi's "La Traviata," an event made all the more memorable when the curtain came crashing down in the middle of the second act due to a bomb scare at the theater.
From there he embarked on a series of successes in Milan's La Scala and with the Vienna State Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera Company.
He has performed or recorded nearly all the great Italian tenor roles, constantly expanding his repertoire as his voice has matured and grown darker in tone.
Asked which characters he feels the closest affinity with, Mr. Carreras paused a moment before answering. "I like different characters for different reasons," he said. "The character has to fit you vocally, of course, and also physically. Then you have to take into account your views of life as a man and artist, and your personal idiosyncrasies."
Mr. Carreras' sound is that of a classic lyric tenor -- clear, almost piercing, but with a burnished quality that can be particularly effective in the bel canto roles of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and early Verdi with which he began his career. More recently, he has begun to take on some of the heavier tenor roles, such as Jose in Bizet's "Carmen" and Otello in Verdi's opera of that name.
As an instrument, Mr. Carreras' voice has neither the velvet smoothness of a Luciano Pavarotti nor the dark, dramatic timbre a Placido Domingo, the two other leading contemporary tenors.
Mr. Carreras also has a way of belting out the sound from the middle register upward that gives the impression he is extracting every possible ounce of power from rather modest vocal equipment. He takes risks that would be foolhardy if attempted by lesser artists. Yet he manages to carry it off with such emotional intensity and honesty that listeners rarely fail to be
moved by it.
Time and travel
Of his life now, Mr. Carreras says the toughest thing for him is traveling. "When you are forced to travel every day, this is the worst part of the profession," he explains.
"One also needs time to study, to rest. One has to be very rigorous with oneself. You can't let the profession eat you up. You have to be an artist, but you also have to be a man who has other interests as well."
Only in the last year has Mr. Carreras resumed a full schedule of stage performances and concert appearances. Perhaps he's making up for lost time, but it seems he's everywhere these days, from the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the opening of the Olympic Games in Barcelona last year to this year's four-city tour the United States.
Earlier this year, he sang "La Boheme" in Vienna and "Fedora" at Milan's La Scala. Meanwhile, his album "In Concert," with fellow tenors Mr. Pavarotti and Mr. Domingo, topped the Billboard classical music charts for more than a year after its release in 1990.
Mr. Carreras, who will perform a program of operatic excerpts, show tunes and popular Spanish and Italian songs with soprano Isabel Rey at Merriweather, becomes philosophical when asked what advice he would give to young singers just starting out:
"Be really sure you are born for this," he says. "Know what the profession will demand in terms of talent and discipline. There are a lot of people who will give advice. But at the end of the day, you have to be willing to just take your chances."
When: Thursday at 8 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia
Call: (410) 730-2424