“Be yourself. Because everybody else is already taken”

Interview by Renate Publig

The dark velvety voice of José Cura is his trademark as well as his intensity in portraying roles. But the tenor is not only dedicated to opera.

Mr. Cura, in your first recital at the Viennese Konzerthaus you will present songs from native country, songs which seem to be by of a rather wistful, melancholic character. Is this reflective tone typical for Argentinean songs? 

Regarding the composers of this repertoire, we are talking about a generation of people who were descendants of immigrants, or even immigrants themselves. Today, the personality of the modern argentinean has changed, a lot of time has passed, but people of that former generation was very much affected by nostalgia, having to leave behind their lands, their beloved ones, in order to find their fortune in a foreign country. That “longing” is reflected in the music. But in the second half of the concert you will also hear joyful songs, not all tunes are sad!

What does it mean to you to bring these songs to other countries?

I do this recital a lot, I’ve just given one in Budapest, in the new auditorium calle MUPA, with 2000 seats. It was completely sold out, so we had to add 100 seats on the stage itself. A wonderful atmosphere: myself and the pianist in the center and the public all around! Such a direct contact with the audience! This program, for the Viennese audience, is likely to be a different recital than expected by the Liederabend tradition. For such evenings a singer often chooses a repertoire based on his land, the country he comes from, therefore German-speaking people usually base their program on Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, etc. Generally talking, it’s not common to have a recital of Argentinean classic music. I think the public in Vienna, which is eager for music, will find interesting to get to know songs and poetry so far away from the usual repertoire!

How do you choose songs, what is more important, the lyrics or the beauty of the melody?

Both, but speaking about Lieder, I think the lyrics are very, very important. A great Liederabend is based on great poetry; it’s that combination which makes a Liederabend so special. The music sometimes may even sound a little naïve, “naïve” in the real sense of the word, which is “innocent” and not “stupid”. Contemporary music, when badly written, is sometimes uselessly complex and dissonant, even on words that don’t need such artificial treatment. Some poetry requires simple, innocent music. It takes enormous courage to compose naïve music! 

- There is a huge difference between singing an opera, with orchestra, colleagues, costumes, or a recital with a piano accompaniment. What do you like about recitals?

When you are performing in an opera, it is not you on stage, it’s your character. You have to behave in ways you would never do as a private person. With Otello’s psychology, for example, which I have performed recently here in Vienna, I have nothing in common. Of course it’s my obligation as singer/actor to leave my personality in the hotel and bring on stage the character of Otello even if that goes against my moral. On the other side, a recital enables you to show a bit of your own persona, through the concept of the chosen program. It is you on stage, not anybody else, not a character. You have the chance to communicate with the audience directly, and this close up is very enriching. I have been having an artistic relationship with Vienna for about twenty years and, because after a recital you know much more about an artist, and the artist also learns more about his audience, I would have loved to do a recital here much earlier… Technically, it is much more difficult to sing a Liederabend than an opera. Nothing protects you: it is just you, your soul and the music. Also a song’s recital allows you to sing in a softer voice; you can add much more colors to the words and the music. You don’t have the athletic high notes of the opera to deal with, so all is more intime. This said, you must know that some times people are disappointed because you didn’t sing an opera aria in a Liederabend, not even Nessun dorma as an encore…

You also will present some of your compositions – is there a way to describe your style?

There’s one thing that composers in the present must have in mind: After Johann Sebastian Bach, everything else is a comment. That phrase is not from me, but from Mozart. It points out that no matter what you do, there’s nothing really fully new under the sun in terms of music: the geniuses have already done it all, or almost. On top of that, I think nobody needs new music from José Cura in the world, so it’s not with that intention that I wrote these songs. The songs were composed in a very special periods of my life, the first two were written in 1995, the last two in 2006. The number six, the last but one song in the cycle, is also the last song I wrote and it was written in Vienna, when I was here for Don Carlo. Harmonically the music is very rich, with interesting melodies, but the main purpose of the songs is the extreme respect to Neruda. When you write music on the words of such an incredible genius, your music has to step under the word, every melody and harmony being the representation in music of the meaning of the poetry. In that sense the songs may surprise for not being hysterically contemporary, on the contrary, they are romantic, some of them dramatic, and they are never overwhelming the great poetry of Neruda

You grew up in Argentina at times when democracy started to form after the military regime and when the country fought with unemployment and poverty. With a requiem and a Stabat mater, you set music to very profound texts. Are you a pensive person?

I am a very pensive person. Some people think singers to be like the character they portrays on stage. That happens to many persons whose career, whose work, is based on representing somebody else. A lot of people said about me many years ago that I was arrogant, which I’m not, it’s the characters I portray, like Canio or Radames or Otello, etc, who’s  personalities are conflictive, not me… I am a very pensive and peaceful person. Today I’m turning 51. When you approach a certain age at which you are not old, but not young anymore, to be pensive, to have wisdom is one of the most beautiful things to achieve.

Have your compositions of that time ever been performed?

No. The war was in 1982, I wrote the requiem in 1984 as an immediate reaction to the war. I never reopened the score since then, I cannot even tell what’s in the music, I can’t remember. Should it be performed one day, the big decision would be if to show it as it was, or if I completely re-edit it with the 30 years of life and musical experience I have gained since. I don’t know. Perhaps two versions?

You began your musical development as a composer and as a conductor. Does this knowledge of the structures of a score influence your interpretation of a character?

A lot. And not only the composing and the conducting, but also my constant curiosity in analyzing the text and acting in consequence. The interpretation of a role is an incessant process of research. So I am not angry when someone points out a mistake I might have made in such research. Getting to the bone inside a character is my characteristic as an artist and, I know, that with age an experience, I am becoming much more radical in my interpretations. I wouldn’t be me if I wouldn’t do it in order to be sure people will not be disappointed. I always have to ponder if I should or should not integrate my perceptions into the interpretations even at the risk of being criticized for it. I don’t know it yet, but maybe sooner or later I will be making a nice compromise: being radical but balanced…

Are you seeking for characters with multiple layers of personality in order to have the possibility of different approaches to the roles?

I think there are two ways of performing: One way is to be “just” a professional performer, relying on interpretations which have proved to be efficient in the past, not taking too many changes. (This is maybe a prudent thing to do. I admire in a way who can work like that. That does not only count for singers, but also for painters, sculptors, any artistic manifestation. It is important to remember that what we consider “Classic” or “Traditional” today, was once perceived as insurgent and disturbing). The other way is to go for research, experimentation, to try to do some fresh and new, to follow your ideals as an artist, as a human being, dreaming to take things to where you feel they could be going. Not in order to scandalize, not out of the cheap spirit of being controversial, but based on healthy and honest exploration. This is the only way to keep things moving.

Singers sometimes complain about more and more directors hardly being able to read music. Does it happen to you that directors tell you what to do on stage while the music clearly demands something different?

That’s a big issue. First of all, nowadays unfortunately there are less and less new productions. I consider myself to have been very lucky because I did so many new productions in my career, and I learnt a lot in them. Many young talented singers of the new generation do not get the same chance, they have to perform again and again in “repertoire performances”, without the possibility of creating something new. This is in the long term very harmful. I have no problem working with anybody if they are well prepared. I used to make a comparison: When you dance with somebody who knows how to dance, you are very happy to relax and to be guided by that person, because that’s the magic of dancing. But when you dance with someone who is again and again standing on your toes, you have to take a decision: Either you stop dancing, many does, and leave, or you take the guide yourself. I love to work with persons who are knowledgeable, prepared, professional. Then you can honestly say, “You take the lead, I am your instrument as a singer” (In the same way the orchestra is the instrument of the conductor). The problem is that today we find less and less of such “dancers”, maybe because of the so-called “Wikipedia-generation”: people who think that having read an article in tInternet makes them experts. The profession of the director is a dangerous one since a director can cheat very easily! As a singer you either sing or you go home, you cannot feign. That also applies to a conductor: If you are not good enough, the orchestra uncovers your deficiencies and you are in very big troubles. But as a director you can bluff easily. Many of these “geniuses of stage direction” have good assistants who do the job for them. Not to mention how fashionable is today to hide your lack of great ideas with a supposed to be contemporary approach to a piece. The so called Regie-theater is great when it’s based on talent: Lots of new views were discovered thanks to it. But it is very bad when it becomes the excuse to cover the non-existence of good ideas.

Conducting an opera gives you much more opportunity to “create” the piece than singing one part of it. On the other hand, a singer has other possibilities to “dive” into the emotion and to deliver it to the audience. Which side do you prefer and in which way?

Those really are two completely different approaches: The conductor has to put all his compassion, all his hot heart into the preparation of the piece. The rehearsals are the moment in which to take risks, where you may discover things. If you are too careful or conservative during rehearsals, you might miss out things, which would be a shame. But when the moment of performance arrives and the conductor is in charge, he has to be very vigilant, prudent and careful, because he is the main link, sometimes the only one, between the stage and the pit. In Vienna the orchestra is very high in level, so singers and orchestra can hear each other very well. But normally the orchestra pit is much lower, so singers and orchestra players do not hear each other very much, and of course they don’t see each other at all. IN these cases, the only connection is the conductor. A singer, when he/she is a try artist, also makes researches during rehearsals and, of course, he/she also has then to be careful and professional during performances, as the conductor is: cold in his head and hot in his heart. But the added luck of the singer –I can tell because I live the best of both worlds– is to be in direct contact with the “flesh” of the drama. If you compare the performance with an act of love, singing is the moment you are actually making love: You are sweating, you are crying, bleeding, you are afraid, you have joy, to sing, portraying a character, it’s a very physical experience.

You often hold master classes for aspiring singers, so working with young singers is important to you? 

I think working with young people is the only way we can ensure a stable future. As a father of three I can tell you I have my own experience at home! We live in very delicate times, both social and economical. This interview is not the moment to elaborate on that subject, otherwise it would be a very long one. The only way to pave the way for a better future is to help preparing now the generation that is going to be in charge, and to accomplish that, you have to give the best of you when you still can do it. I don’t think is wise to keep your experiences just to yourself, to prevent others from stealing your originality. That’s a very silly and very egoistic attitude. I try to pass on to young people insights that I have obtained, which work for me. I reveal to them my way of doing art, of singing, of conducting, of making music. But I ask them not to use my insights to imitate me, but as a tool to go for their own discoveries. One of my credos, which I always say to young people when I direct or conduct, is a great phrase from Oscar Wilde, who said: “Be yourself. Because everybody else is already taken.” Nobody needs a clone! There is no reason to perform the same music, the same opera again and again, if not for the purpose of experiencing it through the filter of the personality of a different artist. It is wonderful to discover the new approaches that a piece, “passing” through a different human being (with other social or personal background, living in another time), can give. That is the great thing about art. 

Some pessimists say that opera and classical music in general is dying.

I don’t believe it. Classical art will never die unless we kill it. If you put classical art under a crystal bell in order to prevent it from contamination, the air inside the bell will sooner or later be used up, suffocating that same Art you are trying to protect. The surviving of art depends on ALL of us, the artists, the audience, the journalists. After all, we are united by a wonderful thing, by music, so by facing each other with politeness and with respect we may keep art alive. When a journalist doesn’t like my interpretation and points out what he dislikes in an educated way, I accept his/her professional point of view. Anybody with intelligence appreciates a respectful opinion. But when a journalist says, “I don’t like this singer because he barks”, then it is an ordinary and impolite opinion; completely unnecessary and worthless. The same opinion can be expressed with elegance and education. Respect is an important thing. It is as old as the world that most people mistake the expression “I don’t like it” with the expression “It is not good”. These two are not synonyms. It happens to every artist. Poor Van Gogh didn’t sell a single picture in his live; he was considered to have no technique, no art, no this, no that, etc… Just think about what Van Gogh means to modern painting and take your conclusions!

Missing financial resources are quite frequently held responsible for the decay of culture. Do you agree?

The question about the present economy killing culture is a very delicate one. To begging with, the theory that “less money leads to the destruction of individual culture” is not true. Anyone, even with little money, who wishes to get “culturized” can go to museums, to libraries, to performances where the ticket price is cheap, sometimes even free. The financial situation it is often used as an excuse. Take Vienna as an example: There is an incredible wide range of cultural propositions, museums, etc. Even at the Staatsoper, you can get very reasonable tickets if you want. Holding the economical crisis responsible for the “destruction of culture” cannot be accepted so easily: the crisis does not destroy the culture itself, but the business of culture. Money is needed to realize “certain” cultural projects; without financial means some projects cannot be implemented: this is the business in art. But has nothing to do with the fact that the poor economical situation is condemning a whole generation to a “lack of culture”. it is maybe condemning a certain group of people to a “lack of business”. But that’s a whole other story. If you intend to make just money with art, opera for example, the same ten most popular operas have to be always performed and with the most popular singers of the moment, so tickets are sold well at the box office. This not bad and not good. Peace. But it has not to do, directly, with culture. It is just business. It is essential to distinguish between “just” Culture (with capital C) and Cultural Business.

Mr. Cura, thank you so much for this highly interesting interview, and good luck with your recital at the Konzerthaus!

I hope to see many of my Viennese friends at the concert; it will be a very special evening for me. I don’t know if Argentinean music will be to the taste of Viennese public, but I hope yes. 


December 5, 2013 Renate Publig