To Thine Own Self Be True : An Interview With José Cura

I first saw José Cura on stage in March 2005, in a performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila at the Metropolitan Opera. I remember being astounded, discovering facets of Samson I never knew existed. Mr. Cura presented a character so rich in nuance and psychological detail that his portrayal transformed Samson into an accessible and understandable human being, establishing a deep connection with the audience. Having also heard some of Mr. Cura’s recorded work, I remain an impressed witness to his abiding commitment to uncovering the absolute truth of the character and the music—and through his interpretation, bringing this detailed truth to light.

From singing to conducting, from composing to running his own management and recording company, this astonishingly complete musician is a living example that everything is possible, as long as you stay true to your own talents and are willing to work hard without compromising. In addition, Mr. Cura proves that there is always time for everything—he generously donates his energy and knowledge to do master classes, to raise scholarship funds for singers, and to pursue yet another talent: photography.

In the words of the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz, an artist is: “Someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to quench the thirst for truth.” José Cura is indeed a pure artist, by far one of the most truthful and uncompromising artists today, always maintaining his integrity intact, in art as well as in life.

(For more information about José Cura, please visit his website at www.josecura.com.)

Did you grow up in a musical environment?

I grew up in a musical environment, but not in an environment of musicians. My mother had no prejudices when it came to music. She would switch from Beethoven to Sinatra without any kind of discrimination. That kind of openness towards music is hard to find today.

At first, I knew only that there is good or bad music, it didn’t matter if it was pop or classical. My mother encouraged my open-minded view because my house was always full of good music of all kinds. My father used to play the piano for pure pleasure, having taken piano lessons, like many kids in the ‘50s.

When you began focusing on composition and conducting at the age of 12, were you aware that you had a voice? Did you like to sing?

I was singing since I was 12 or 13, in several groups: quartets, octets, etc. We did jazz [and] spirituals, among other styles. Then I sang in choirs, old music like Palestrina, for example. So I was always singing, but never in an operatic way. Yes, I was completely dedicated to composition and conducting; that is still my vocation. Of course, there can be a difference between vocation and profession. If you are lucky, your vocation is your profession. But I only started to sing lyrically when I was 21 or 22. I had problems; I couldn’t find a proper teacher.

What kind of problems did you have?

I think most singers know that to find the right teacher is a great problem. Certain people say: “Oh, today we don’t have any good teachers!” But these people also say that there are no good singers—so they are actually transferring the invented problem of not having good singers to saying that there are no good teachers. Well, let me tell you something: There have never been just good teachers or just bad teachers! You might already know that an extremely good teacher for somebody can be an awful teacher for somebody else.

The voice is not an instrument where you can easily “see” what is going wrong. Singing is a very empirical thing, so you never really know what is happening, unless there is an extremely rich and harmonious human communication between the teacher and the student. If the teacher is able to go inside the student’s being and give him or her a couple of clues about what to do or how to do it, then that teacher is the right one for that person. If you find a teacher who has a good chemistry with you, who understands your body and your voice, and on top of that is also a great technician, then of course, you are in heaven!

Personally, I had many problems, until I found somebody who, for one year, dared to “dig” inside my body, my cords, my larynx. This was when I was 26 or 27 in Argentina. Before that, every other teacher I had tried was damaging my voice badly.

When you found the right teacher, did you do a great deal of technical work with him?

Well, we worked for a year. I have always been a rebel in my life, self-taught in almost everything I do. I always wanted to carve my way, in my own style. But this teacher helped me discover and understand my instrument. He didn’t change it; he didn’t try to shape what was the rough prototype of my voice into an artist. So, from there on, I took charge of my own instrument, and kept asking myself: “Now that I understand how it feels, what do I have to do, what do I have to keep feeling? How do I have to mold my understanding of the voice into the musician that I am, in order to continue on my own path?”

Of course, when you do things alone, it takes a lot of time. It’s very dangerous, and you hit your head against the wall again and again! I was lucky, because I was always surrounded by great musicians, and by people with great ears who said to me: “This is not good; check it!” Or: “I don’t know what you have to do, but this doesn’t sound nice.”

It’s interesting, when you read the reviews of my career from the start to today, you understand that in the beginning, I was developing myself within the process of performing. I was trying to identify with my own way of expressing and my own body.

In the early reviews, for example, you read a lot that: “Cura doesn’t have a technique.” And I always thought: “Wait a minute, you cannot handle such a career as I have had from the beginning, and still be able to speak after singing a Samson or an Otello, if you don’t have a technique!” In a couple of years, you would be out, completely aphonic and unable to sing one note.

On the other hand, I am happy to attribute to the lines of those reviews, [which said] I don’t have a technique, the fact that I have my own technique! I think that singers can learn a lot from you when it comes facing unfair reviews.

The ideal for a singer is to have his or her own technique. Singers are not like instrumentalists. A singer is an entity in himself or herself. You cannot apply the same resources to everybody. That is the main challenge of being a singer, and of growing from rough material to a professional. And that is also the big challenge of finding a good teacher.

It’s not only about knowing where to place the notes and how to do scales—but it’s hard not to get trapped in that! Don’t you think that a teacher needs to make a singer aware of physical things that may inhibit the best result from that singer? Yes, but in moderation!

What happens a lot is that we forget the fact that singing is a natural thing. In order to sing, you have to breathe; in order to live, you have to breathe. Singing is a natural process that you need to develop, not invent.

So, you’re saying that the natural act of singing is already present in each singer, but it’s more or less disguised, and the work involves uncovering this natural gift rather than “building” it?

Exactly! For me, the key is this: We cannot invent singing, because there is nothing to invent. You need to develop what is inside the person. It’s like when you are an athlete, and you have a trainer who trains you how to run as fast as you can, to break the records and be one of the top athletes. He is not teaching you to run in the basic sense of: “one leg goes in front of the other one!” That’s a natural motion. We don’t have to invent that. He will teach you how to train your muscles, how to articulate your knees, in order to obtain the maximum result from that which is a natural thing for a human being, like running, in this case.

That is why teachers fail when they take somebody and they try to invent a voice. No! As a teacher, you have to take your time to understand what is there. Just start with that and try to get the best out of what your student already has!

What was your existing core, or your starting point?

I’ve always been an athlete, even close to being a professional, before the beginning of my career. My starting point was to understand that there is a direct relationship—not to say identical—between the body that you use for sports and the body you use for singing. It’s the same body. When you sing, you use muscles, blood, tendons, bones and fluids—all the things you use when you go to the gym, or when you play a tennis match.

A singer is not somebody with a crystal bird in the larynx, so [that] you can push a button and all of a sudden the voice comes out! No, it’s a physical thing. That’s why many things have to do with the cycle of glucose and lactic acid, things that people wouldn’t normally think about.

For example, there are singers who don’t understand what is going on when they start vocalizing, and after 10 minutes, they get hoarse and can’t speak anymore. Then they take a short break—and they can sing again, and they have no idea why. It’s very simple. You just burned the glucose in the muscle and you have lactic acid as garbage, and the liver needs to clear the lactic acid and add glucose again.

The same happens when you do push-ups, for example, and after the twelfth push-up, you can’t move anymore, because all your muscles are burning. But if you stop for five minutes, the lactic acid is replaced by glucose, and then you can do 10 more push-ups like a miracle. The body is just doing its job.

It’s the same with singing. Once you see this relationship, once you understand that it’s very much about muscles and blood and physicality, you will face the fears of having to sing with a completely different mind.

People say: “I have to warm up my voice.” You don’t warm up your voice, because the voice is an intangible thing. You warm up the muscles that produce a sound which you call ‘“voice.” You warm up those muscles in the same way an athlete would warm up his body for a competition, trying to put into motion the circuit of glucose and lactic acid, so that the energy will be there. Once you understand that, your whole life as a singer changes.

In the beginning you sang in Teatro Colón in the choir. How did that experience develop you as a singer?

I think that every singer who wants to be a soloist has to spend some years singing in the choir. That is some of the best training you can get. You learn how to be on stage. You learn about makeup, and costumes, and how to walk, how to follow the conductor. You can take some risks with your voice and experiment a little, because whatever happens, you are covered.

If you are a tenor in a big choir where there are 20 to 40 tenors, you can try diminuendo, crescendo and some things that if you were alone you wouldn’t dare to try, because you might be afraid your voice will break. So you can use the choir as a territory of experiences for the future. Not to mention that by singing in the choir of a big opera house, you have the chance of sharing the stage with great artists. You are there when they sing, and you see what they do. You learn how they breathe, and how they move their mouths. You are in rehearsals, you see their problems, you watch how they struggle to obtain a result, and you learn how to fix certain things. It’s a really great experience!

You made your operatic debut in a few small roles, until the bigger role of Jean in Miss Julie, in March 1993. Is that where your career started taking off?

Well, yes. It’s a weird thing, that a career takes off with a completely unknown opera that I’ve never repeated since. Some people who saw me then started to think about the possibility that “maybe this guy could be somebody interesting to follow.”

You were 30 at that time.

Yes. You’ve been counting the years. Mamma mia!

Do you think it’s better for a singer to start a little later, rather than throwing themselves out there at 22 or 23?

It’s not about when you start … it’s about what you have inside your head to deal with your life and your career, which has nothing to do with when you start, or with age. This is like getting married. If you feel that you have to get married at 22, even if everybody says that you are too young, then you get married at 22. I got married at 22! I’ve been married for 20 years—I have three kids and I am the happiest man. So, it worked!

On the contrary, I started to sing very late, and that worked too! It depends on when it comes. The train passes in front of you, and if you don’t jump on it, maybe there won’t be another train. But it has to happen at the right time. There are no rules. You just have to keep your senses on alert and be ready to jump if the occasion is there. And be intelligent enough to understand if you are up to the challenge of a certain occasion or not, because that can also be tricky.

When I did my debut in Otello, I was 34, and that was a daring thing to do. There I was with Maestro [Claudio] Abbado, live in front of the world, and I thought: “I cannot lose this chance!” So what I had to do was to sing Otello like a 34-year-old guy. I couldn’t intoxicate my interpretation with interpretations of 45-, 50- and 60-year-old tenors who have great experience with the role and whom I couldn’t compare to. Because if I did that, by the end of the first act, I would have been kaput! So I created a very lyrical Otello, based more on stage presence and acting, rather than the volume of the voice. Many said: “But this is not Otello, this is too lyric.” It was lyric, of course, but what can you do when you are 34?

It was your own interpretation.

It wasn’t a set interpretation that I will keep forever. It was a guy of 34 taking this risk in a role that is emblematic for a tenor; a role that is very dangerous and very difficult, and which you are mature for when you are 45.

It’s about taking calculated risks and surviving to tell about it. And that created a very nice image: The first tenor in the history of opera to make his debut in Otello at 34 in a live broadcast, which is absolutely daring and irresponsible!

Every tenor I know made his debut in Otello in a more or less hidden way, to be sure that they could cope with the role—and when they knew that they could do it, the second [Otello] was more in the open. I went for it at 34, and I did it in my way at that time. So what was at the time a surprise for critics, now it is understood as a demonstration of intelligence, to have done it like that and then to live and be here to speak with you about it!

You manage your career yourself through your own management agency. Did you have an agent when you started?

When I started I had agents like everybody—until I discovered certain traits in some of them …

Like what?

I will not go too much into detail because it’s not necessary. Actually, it would serve as advice for singers in terms of what to watch out for when they have an agent.

Singers have to [make sure] that the agent is honest. At the time, I was getting fed up with the image they were trying to create of me—“sex symbol of the opera”—something that is very nice at first glance, but then you understand that it is superficial. I didn’t spend 30 years of my life to become a musician and only be considered because I am kind of good-looking, for goodness’ sake! That is frustrating.

You are very good looking! And don’t tell me that doesn’t help at all!

Yeah, OK, but that is still frustrating. You are a woman and you know how it feels when people consider you because you are pretty, and they forget that you may also be intelligent, by the way. And that’s the case with a lot of good-looking women, and men. So, it took me several years to convince people of the fact that I was a serious musician, and that nothing that happens on stage or in my career is a result of coincidence, or chance, or the good luck of a purely gifted person, an overnight sensation—the typical media formula. On the contrary, it’s the result of 30 years of hard work!

Of course, thank God I have these talents, but I’ve worked very hard to develop them. If, on top of that, I am considered to be good-looking on stage and be a good actor, that makes me happy too. It’s the cherry on top of the cake, but it’s not the cake!

Then how do you see the importance of looks for this career?

Honestly, I think that if you look good, it is better. Not to the point that the looks will make your career if you are not a good singer, because then it is not better, it’s worse. But from my own experience, I can tell you there’s no way to sing roles such as Samson or Otello only with your good looks, because you won’t get to the end of the second act. OK, you are good-looking, but go on stage and show me what you can do! And then you will know the truth about a singer.

The paradox of opera is that for one reason or another, great voices don’t always go with great looks. You can make a very good actor out of a good-looking guy, even if he’s not good from the beginning. But you cannot put a voice in a good-looking guy, if the voice is not there.

This is where you need flexibility. If you have a great voice in front of you, the voice comes first. But there is another important fact to consider. I say this to everybody who has a great voice: Be careful not to rely on the fact that you have such a great voice, so that you do nothing more. Do not use that excuse to neglect the way you look, to start eating like a pig, to not dress properly, or not act well on stage! Because then you become a bad artist, you just become a voice, and you break the idea of the integral performer.

An integral performer is not somebody who is pretty. It’s somebody who is professional enough to obtain from his own body as much as his own body can give. And each one of us has to find his or her limit. There’s no way everybody can be good-looking, or smart, or fit. That’s not the point. What you have to do is just face yourself in the mirror and be honest with yourself, and see what you can improve. Then you try to improve the way you look, and you get to the point when you know you tried your best and you are happy with yourself. But when you use having a great voice as a pretext to ignore the remaining aspects of what is to be a professional whose body is the instrument of work, then you are not a complete professional and you are giving a very bad example.

It’s not about how you look, or how pretty you are compared to somebody else. It’s about you, in honesty with your instrument, with your body, with yourself—not trying to be the best, but as good as you can be! Of course, there are medical problems which are difficult to deal with and have an effect on your looks, but in a normal situation, an ideal artist obtains from his instrument the best he can in every way. That is an artist’s responsibility.

When did you decide to start your own management company?

In 1999, certain things happened. I had a couple of very disgusting legal situations with people who wanted to obtain the most from me without doing anything. So I decided to cut with everybody and to be my own man. This cost me three to four years of nightmares.

From 1999 to the beginning of 2004, I [was] under the harshest of … attacks from many different sources: people calling theaters to convince artistic directors not to engage me, and journalists being paid to write that I was history, that I was a falling star. But we persisted very hard, and we created my own production company with a branch for my own management. … In 2001, we created my own record company, we have three records now in the catalog, and they’re very successful.

A few months ago, we added two new branches: one is productions/special events. Our company is open for theaters or international organizations who want to engage us to create and produce shows for them. After many colleagues have seen the way my company operates, they asked us: “Why don’t you open a managing branch for other singers?” So we did, and we are very happy with this new branch. We already have many very talented young artists.

Today, a lot of things are changing; subsidies are being taken away from theaters, and business has changed a lot. Record companies now are not doing as well as they were years ago. Certain agencies are selling their buildings because they cannot pay the rent anymore, and they are moving into small offices.

In the actual picture of how show business is reshaping itself, I am very happy to say that my company is among the pioneers of what is probably going to be the new way of doing show business. After four years of struggle, we are now successful and very happy with our work. We have expanded and moved into new offices, and we are building our own recording studio.

I never thought I would become an impresario, but here I am! And the funny thing is that now I am receiving calls from several theaters that want me to be artistic director. So that is opening to me much faster than I thought.

Between singing, conducting, managing your own company, recording, composing, do you even have time to sleep?

Well, I have a group of people working with me and for me. I don’t do everything! For example, I don’t manage the careers of the singers on my roster. I observe and I am consulted when somebody new is going to be part of the company. I’ve conducted a great deal in the past, and finally, I am coming back to what was supposed to be my vocation: to be a conductor. The singing was an accident in my life—a very happy accident—but not the reason why I became a musician.

This year I am conducting a lot, and making my debut in four or five new symphonic works. I’m conducting Rossini’s Stabat Mater, Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, [both] Kodai’s and Bruckner’s Te Deum, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, Verdi’s Vespri Siciliani and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Do you have time for any hobbies?

Actually, I’ve always been interested in photography as my hobby, as my way out. I am a pretty good photographer. I don’t say that I am the Richard Avedon of the lyric panorama—but pictures can also be interesting to understand what goes through the head of the photographer. So in my case, maybe it could be the ultimate way for my fans to comprehend certain things. Now I have a Swiss publisher who has approached my company to ask for the possibility of releasing a book of my photographs, whenever I am ready for that. It’s a big step!

Do you compose for voice?

My favorite thing is to compose for voices and orchestra at the same time, mainly choral symphonic music, probably because it’s the most complete of the ways you write music. You have the best of all worlds: the orchestra and the voice, all together in one.

What is your philosophy of life in general?

One thing I can tell you—and this has been my challenge since the beginning—trying not to be overwhelmed by the fact that because I have been given several different talents, there is the danger of becoming mediocre in all of them. [I’m] following [the dictum of] Einstein, who said: “If you look for different results, do not always do the same things!”

Well, you know the expression: “Jack of all trades; master of none!” How do you avoid that?

By working very, very, very hard and giving time to each of my talents, sometimes giving more importance to one of them in a certain period and putting the other ones aside, and so on—alternating. On the other hand, if you discover that you have several talents and you put most of them aside to concentrate on one, at the end of your life, you will feel very bad. You will know that you gave up your other gifts, just for the fear of not being able to face them all… at the same time! Or what’s even worse, you gave them up for the comfort of not having to work double or triple in order to maintain all of them at the same level.

But if people do so many things at once, then how can they become excellent at something?

If you only do one thing and you want to be perfect just in that one, the “bad news” is that nobody is perfect. The very “bad news” is that there is always somebody who is better than you. So at the end of your life, you will turn around and you will see: “OK, I have not been perfect as I wanted, because it is impossible, but I’ve given up a lot of other chances because I was a coward.”

I am not trying to pontificate here. What I am saying is that each individual has to make his own decisions and take his own risks, and forget about what other people say when they judge your behavior. Just go for it, and be responsible for your achievements and for your mistakes.

I prefer to suffer today the attacks and the criticisms of people saying that I am doing too many things, rather than just doing one thing, and at the end of my life, having to face God and explain to him why I have put aside all the other talents he gave me. If I have to deal with somebody’s judgment, I prefer to deal with human beings rather than with God!

How do you balance all this activity and your family life?

My company is very close to my house, so when I am there, I am in both places at the same time. The company’s general administrator is my wife, so we are always working together for the company.

I am making many sacrifices to be in my house as much as possible. For example, last week I did my last performance in New York on Saturday. I took a plane on Sunday—I went to Madrid for five days, which is not around the corner exactly—and then I took a plane back to New York to finish the remaining performances. That is exhausting! I sang the performance two days ago with a big jet lag. But well, that’s the price you have to pay if you want to be a good parent, and I happily pay it.

What do you do for that? Try to be as healthy and as fit as you can, and to have the most reliable technique possible in order to face those demands. Not everybody is capable of identifying with what I do, because sometimes it is extreme. But it’s working very well, because my family is great and we’re very united. I am not a father who brings up his kids by telephone.

How old are your children?

Seventeen, 12, and 9.

Do you teach at all?

No, but I love to do master classes. I did a master class at Indiana University in Bloomington last year and it was beautiful! We had 500 kids there. It was two days, very intense, 5-6 hours each, and it was so sweet to see all that talent.

I also did a master class at the end of 2004 in Russia, in Yekaterinburg in the conservatory. They had 1,000 or more people attending—that was a killer! Such incredible voices and talented people.

It’s beautiful to see all these kids, both here and in Russia, and I am ready to fight whoever insists that there are no voices today as there were in the past. That is BS that certain people say only to prove that they are unique!

We are not unique! There are great voices out there, and we just need to find them and help them.

When you teach a master class, what is your approach?

I don’t have an approach. I am very instinctive, so I don’t have a plan or an idea when I go. I just take the temperature—so to speak—of the people, and I adapt to what I feel they need. Every person has different needs and wants to hear different things, so I just go there and say: ‘“Here I am; I am all yours!”

How do you prepare for roles?

Studying a lot, as usual.

Do you read related materials too?

Yes, of course, depending on the role. There are certain roles … you can really dig inside psychologically, like Don Carlo, Canio, Samson or Otello. There are other roles, like Calaf in Turandot for example, where if you have a nice presence and you sing well, it’s already enough. You can maybe find two or three colors, but it’s not such a rich character in terms of psychological background.

Then, if the character is very physical—like the Samson I am doing now, for example—I try to be as fit as I can to avoid accidents on stage, like twisting my back, for example, when they kick me around.

You are by far the most physical Samson I have ever seen.

When I am waiting to go on stage, between the millstone scene and after the Bacchanale, I am actually stretching and warming up as a dancer, to be ready for this very physical scene.

What kind of sports do you do right now?

I have no time for sports right now. I just try to do some push-ups sometimes to “keep the blood going.” Life in hotels, airplanes, and rehearsal rooms—which are almost always located three floors or more below ground level—is not the easiest thing to deal with if you want to stay more or less fit.

Any parting words of advice for our readers?

I would not say “good luck,” because I don’t believe in luck. I believe in being prepared. Luck is to be in the middle of the desert dying of thirst and all of a sudden having a short shower on your head. That is good luck! But if you don’t have a glass to gather the water, you lose the water. The glass has to be prepared.

Many people think that they didn’t have a career because they didn’t have the luck. Some say: “Oh, Mr. Cura, he’s very lucky, he’s been at the proper time in the proper place.”

No, no, no! Wait a minute! I moved from Argentina to Europe in 1991. I worked for two or three years in restaurants—my wife worked with me, washing dishes—and we did many things that a lot of people wouldn’t even think about doing. We had a very hard life. We lived in a garage for one year because we couldn’t pay the rent, and we heated the garage with a small fire, with me gathering wood in the middle of the night!

In 1990, one year before going to Europe, I was singing in commercial centers in Argentina, with my hat on the floor for coins! So don’t tell me about pure luck, because that is garbage! It is all about hard work! And then, be sure that through your hard work and preparation, the moment when you have that short shower on your head in the middle of the desert, you [are carrying] the biggest glass possible to gather as much water as you can.

That is my advice. Don’t live on dreams, don’t live thinking that one day somebody will knock on your door and say: “Hey, you’re the greatest on the earth, we are waiting for you—come!” That doesn’t exist. [That happens] only in movies—unless you do certain things that I don’t wish anybody to do, to make certain compromises at certain levels in order to start a career, compromises that could go from economical to physical ones. I know many of those situations, but I also know that all of them who started their careers by compromising lasted two or three years, and they were gone.

The advice of someone who’s been on stage for 30 years—15 of them professionally—is: Do not compromise! Just be as good as you can. And know where your limits are!

All the time I hear people saying: “I am the greatest artist on earth, but because nobody knows it, nobody gives me a chance.” That’s not true, because if you put many of those who say that on stage to do a solo, they can’t open their mouths for being too afraid or too unprepared. I am generalizing just for the sake of giving you an example, of course, but the problem remains.

Everyone can be great in the shower! My advice then? Speak less and do more!

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.