Almost exactly twelve years ago, a young and largely unknown Argentinean tenor opened the Royal Opera's Verdi Festival playing the title role in Stiffelio, Verdi's long-neglected masterpiece of 1850. But in the interim, José Cura has risen to become one of the most highly-acclaimed and beloved singers of his generation; at Covent Garden, he has performed leading roles in operas such as Samson et Dalila, Il trovatore, Andrea Chénier and most recently La fanciulla del West.
He returns to the House on 20 April to bring a fresh take on Stiffelio, and I caught up with him in the middle of a heavy rehearsal schedule to see what his views on the piece are.
Although it's often been overlooked, Verdi took many risks in making an opera out of Stiffelio, because the story is riddled with controversial topics. A pastor's wife commits adultery; the pastor challenges his wife's lover to a duel; she asks him to hear her confession as a minister; and in the climactic final scene, Stiffelio reads a story from the Bible to publicly forgive her (some of the early productions cut this passage because it was considered a scandalous use of a religious text onstage). I ask Cura whether this kind of daring and danger characterises him as an artist as well. 'Well, it's a different kind of daring!' he laughs. 'After having been happily married for more than twenty-one years, it's not the kind of threat that endangers my life. But yes, daring in the sense that I have always been an artist who was ready to put his head on the block, ready not to be too obvious. For that reason, as you know, I have been praised, and I have been criticised. That's fine. It's a good sign.'
Cura is a very complete musician: he has been a conductor even longer than he's been a singer, he is an intelligent actor, he evidently understands music from the inside as well as the outside. Is that the key to his success as a singer? 'It is an ingredient, yes. But I think the key ingredient is to be daring enough to use all this information. I don't think I'm the first or the last singer to have this kind of complete approach to the business. That's something called professionalism, and we expect more and more people to have it. But what is rare is to use that encyclopaedic information in the complete sense: not merely to know it - because as I've always said, for as much as one person knows about something, there's always somebody else who knows more - but actually to use that background as well. Show it! It's a case of having the courage to go onstage and say 'I have discovered this and this and this and I am bringing it to you' rather than 'I have discovered these things but because I know what I have discovered it is not what you expect me to do, to avoid any danger I will not show it to you'. That has never been my philosophy.'
His debut as Stiffelio at Covent Garden in 1995 evidently holds many memories for him. 'One of the main things that I remember is quite funny, though the meaning is not so funny. At that time, in order to get me to look older they had to colour my hair and my beard white. Now I don't need to because I have enough white of my own! It means I have a completely different approach to life - experience and maturity as a human being, which is perfect for this role.
'This is a completely different take on Stiffelio. Many roles don't need that kind of thing - they need maturity as a musician but they don't change a lot as you mature as a human being. But Stiffelio is one of those roles like Otello, where age and experience of life changes your approach to a part, to the meaning of a word, to the psychology of the character.'
Written in 1850, Stiffelio comes before three operas which are often (though erroneously) considered to belong together as a trio: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853). Does Cura think it deserves to be elevated to the same sort of 'masterwork' status? 'It depends on your point of view, of course. For me as an interpreter and an artist, yes, I consider it to be a masterpiece. But if to consider an opera a masterpiece you need to have fifteen minutes of recognisable tunes that become hits, then of course it's not that kind of piece. You do not have 'Nessun dorma' or 'Di quella pira' here. In terms of musical style, it is a piece conceived more like Peter Grimes. The music leads the action, one behind the other; apart from a moment in the third act when the baritone has a big aria and stops for a moment for the 'picture' and then goes on, it's music that drives on from beginning to end. It's like an Ibsen play. It's a raw drama.'
What does he make of the character of Stiffelio? 'The character is so complex and so psychologically linked to every other character on stage (unlike Calaf in Turandot, for example, who is the same all the way through) that I'd rather say what we are making of the character. What we are doing with him is the result of reading what my colleagues are making of their own roles, and to that extent I think what we're creating is very strong. Today we spent six hours working on the tougher spiritual moments of the opera and we've discovered each other crying more than once. So we're going very deep with this. Everybody in the cast is inhabiting his or her role, not just singing the notes. I think it's going to be a surprise because what's going on now is very essential, in the pure sense of the word. We're doing very little on stage, moving only when absolutely necessary. Everything is passing through the text into our internal feelings and emotions. That's a big risk on one level because the theatre is big and it could easily be lost. But I think it's a good way of building up the opera at the moment - probably when we get onstage we'll make it a bit bigger so that it can be understood by everybody at a distance as well.'
Mark Elder is the conductor for the current revival of Stiffelio and Cura explains how they haven't seen each other since he last sang Stiffelio here. 'In 1995 the conductor was Edward Downes. One month after that, I did the original 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra with Mark Elder. But since then, we've never worked together, so it's funny that we should meet up twelve years later to work on the piece that I was singing when I first met him. It's great to finally see him again after we've grown up together in such a parallel way.'
We move on to more general questions, and I ask Cura what music means to him: is it just a career or something more? 'Oh, that's a very Freudian question! We could go on for ages and I'm not sure I want you to know what music means to me! With such a question you can become very kitsch or you can become very philosophical. Or I could be very practical, and say that music is a way of earning my living, which is true - it's a marvelous way of earning my living which I'm very grateful for; I truly and humbly believe I'm gifted for it and am glad I am able to do it.
'But parallel to that, I am like many musicians in being an enormous lover of silence. Most of the music in my life is linked to my professional activities; when I am not doing music as a professional, I am normally in silence. So today I cannot say that music is the essence of my life or that I listen to music from the shower to the bed. Music is a beautiful business and I'm lucky to do something so great, but I really appreciate silence.'
Does he like working at Covent Garden? 'Yes, I wish I worked more here, and I don't say that because I'm an easygoing flatterer! This is probably today the number one house in the world. It's not just a single aspect that's great but all the departments work perfectly together. Of course if you are inside every day you get to know all the tiny problems, but in a house things are never going to be always perfect. It's the result of the whole thing that makes this house very special.
'You have the luxury of not working in a repertory system. That means that each opera is taken one at a time and built. So each time something goes on stage at the Royal Opera House, we know that it's the best we can possibly do at that time. That's a great thing. In a business that's getting more and more superficial and commercial and 'fast', it's wonderful to have three weeks of rehearsals for a revival like this, for example. Personally, I'm not usually fond of doing many rehearsals unless we're doing good work that justifies the time, but I'm having the time of my life in this case. I'm the first one to arrive and the last one to leave! I'm really having a great time.'
He admires the audience here, too, which he feels is very much based in a serious theatrical tradition: 'There's a theatre every 100 yards in London. You can really tell that when you're approaching an opera with dramatic truth, it's being appreciated. In some other places, they expect you to stand around like some singer from the 1950s, so there's a very different characteristic of working here.'
Any plans to return? 'Next year in September we're doing La fanciulla del West again because everyone enjoyed it so much - it's a fabulous piece and a great production. And in December 2008 I'm singing Turandot - my first Calaf in the UK. But beyond that, there are no more projects booked, so I hope that before I leave we can plan something.'
And what lies ahead for the singer, given that he's already sung most of the major roles in the Italian repertoire - anything new? 'That's a good point, because it's very difficult to persuade opera houses to go for new repertoire. Being mainly specialized in dramatic roles, when you have a free period the opera houses want to go for a Samson or an Otello - works that are very difficult to stage because so few people can do them. So it's difficult to say 'I have one month free, can we do Le Cid?'. But one of my dreams is to do Peter Grimes and I would love to do it here. Where better to learn and perform it than here in London? On the other hand, it's a very dangerous thing to do. If you do an English or German opera and you are not English or German and don't get the accent absolutely spot on, you are criticized to death. But if you're English and you sing an Italian opera without a perfect accent, nobody says a thing. I don't know why it works like that. I think that the Italian approach is the most healthy because it's not possible to have a perfect accent in a foreign language, but who cares if I speak English like a Spaniard? The important thing is to have a perfect approach to the characterisation. I think I could do Peter Grimes, but every time I suggest doing it in the UK they say 'yes, but go and do it somewhere else first and then bring it here'. Why?! I want to learn it well from the beginning rather than do it again and have to start from scratch. Hopefully someone will read this and allow me to do it!' He also seems keen on the idea of having an opera written for him: 'That would be great - if you know somebody, just pass on the word!'
While he's in Britain, Cura is busy spending time on helping young singers. On 4 May, he's chairing the panel of judges for Opera Rara's bel canto competition at the Royal Academy of Music, while on 6 and 7 May he is taking part in a masterclass with twelve young singers at New Devon Opera, of which he is Patron. 'For me, this is one of the most important things. It's something I didn't have when I was a kid. It's essential to share with young people all the things you learn as well as hearing from older people all the things they've experienced; it's about growing up together. It can be amazing: you attend a masterclass for two hours and you end up spending ten hours with them and you don't know how it happened! It's great, provided that there's preparation and respect. I always tell them I'm not there to teach them how to sing - I don't have the technical authority to tell someone how to do that. But I want to bring to them some things I know from my own experience.
'Young people like you are everything to the future of opera. I'm only 44, so I'm not the past! But if I'm the future for the next twenty years, you are the future for the next forty years. And the people behind you will be the future for the next sixty years. If there's hope for everything in the world, the hope is in the future, not in the past. Once I read a quote that said, 'Children are the living messages of the future you are not going to see'. That's so absolutely true: it's the future of humanity.'