Entertainment Music

Wednesday 13 December 2017

One of the original superstar Tenors who battled leukaemia and won

George Hamilton

The headline act on the opening night of the annual Belfast Festival next month is José Carreras. One third of the Three Tenors of yore, his was something of a background presence as the big personalities of Pavarotti and Domingo took centre stage.

Pavarotti is, sadly, no longer with us. Domingo has reinvented himself, as a conductor, and, betimes, baritone. Carreras remains the Mediterranean guy, as he describes himself, in love with song.

He was born in 1946, a world away from the glamour of the great opera houses, in inner city Barcelona.

When it became obvious that he could sing, his parents saved what they could to get him an appropriate education. His big break came when he got a small part in Bellini's Norma, as the centurion Flavio. Montserrat Caballé – who also hails from Barcelona – was singing the lead and was completely bowled over by the youngster's performance.

She took him under her wing, included him on a concert bill in London, and the blue touch paper had been lit. José Carreras was on his way.

New York, Covent Garden, Vienna, La Scala – the great venues filled to hear another star. His name was as an interpreter of Verdi, but he sang the big roles from right across the range – Tosca, Carmen, Turandot.

Then, at the height of his powers, not long after his 40th birthday, in Paris to star in a film version of La Bohème, Carreras fell ill. Tests confirmed leukaemia. A year of severe treatment followed. Happily, he recovered.

His comeback concert – an open-air event in Barcelona – drew a crowd of 150,000. And out of this grew the Three Tenors. Carreras began a personal crusade to battle leukaemia.

He set up a foundation to promote awareness and fund research. Pavarotti and Domingo, who'd been rival attractions, now weighed in to support him, and the Three Tenors were born. Their debut concert, in Rome just before the 1990 football World Cup kicked off, was a sensation. It produced what was then the biggest-selling classical album there had ever been. At a stroke, it seemed, they'd brought opera to the masses.

Their phenomenal popularity ensured a repeat event at the following World Cup. They played to a packed house in the LA Dodgers stadium. I was lucky enough to be there.

Where Pavarotti, a huge man, dominated by sheer force of personality, and Domingo, less rotund, but nonetheless imposing, shone through his powerful presence on the stage, Carreras always came across as a finer version, winning his audience through the sheer brilliance and clarity of his voice.

That's still his strong point, as he's adapted with the passage of the years, to a somewhat lighter repertoire that has added to the arias a palette of Neapolitan and Catalan songs.

José Carreras performs at the Waterfront in Belfast on Thursday October 17, then moves to Dublin for a show at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Sunday 20.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

ghamilton@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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