José Cura as the title role of Verdi's "Otello."
Taken during the March 11, 2013 performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Surviving in the opera world has always been a great challenge for performers. With ever increasing competition, many singers find themselves boxed in by opera impresarios attempting to fill in schedules years in advance. The result is that many never full develop their skills or have a chance to create their own identities; the demands of the opera companies create those personas for them.
Finding a singer that has sustained a career and continually reinvented himself time and again on his own terms, regardless of attempts to box him in or out is all the more remarkable; this has been the journey of Jose Cura.
Cura's professional career started as a conductor and composer, but he garnered international acclaim as an opera singer. In more recent years, he has also transformed himself into a stage director. When asked how he has managed to balance his time in order to accommodate the four crafts, Cura noted, "They balance each other because they enrich one another. I often think that my career as a singer was impasse to return to conducting and directing with greater authority and conviction."
Cura's artistic journey started at the age of 12 when he began learning the guitar. At age 15, he debuted as a choral director and a year later he started to study composition and piano. From there he entered formal education as a conductor and composer. However, he became determined to improve his vocal training and moved to Italy to study with Vittorio Terranova and make a career in opera. He began performing in houses throughout Italy in 1992 and slowly built up an international career. His Metropolitan Opera debut came in 1999 in "Cavalleria Rusticana" and he has since performed some of his signature roles at the house. This month he is in the midst of a run of his trademark "Otello," with the notable company; a performance reviewed a few weeks ago (To read the review, click HERE).
"Otello" is a role that Cura has studied for 20 years and one that he is constantly reshaping with new discoveries or ideas. His study of the opera will take a major step this July when he directs and performs the opera at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, the company that awarded him with a grant at age 21. Joining him will be noted Verdi singers Barbara Frittoli and Carlos Alvarez. Regarding his new production, Cura states that he plans to set it around October 7, 1571 during the great battle of Lepanto when a coalition of Christians defeated the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The major interest with that particular battle is two-fold. First of all, it contextualizes the opera's opening battle which sees Otello defeat the Muslims. Secondly, the battle was fought by Miguel de Cervantes, the writer of "Don Quixote." Throughout "Don Quixote", Cervantes' character makes references to the battle and Cura hopes to use some of these quotes as a preamble for the performance. As for the actual set, he maintains he wants to strike a balance between traditional sets with modern gestures and acting styles. "It won't be completely realistic. The walls and castles aren't finished. It's almost as if you opened up the walls and took out a piece off in order to look inside. There are no roofs, the walls aren't finished. It's almost Brechtian in style," he elaborated.
Cura has previously directed productions of Camille Saint-Saëns' "Samson et Dalilah" and the duo of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci." In the latter production, Cura decided to take a huge risk that no one before him has done; unite the two stories of the unrelated works to create a coherent storyline. "For the first time, the two works are really united," Cura asserted. The works are usually performed together due to their short length and their importance to the Italian Verismo canon. However, the works are composed by two different composers (Leoncavallo for "Pagliacci" and Mascagni for "Cavalleria Rusticana") and their characters are not related in any way. Cura explained that in order to unify the works, the major characters from each of the operas made appearances in the other work. For example he stated that Santuzza, the protagonist of "Cavalleria", is portrayed as being two months pregnant in Mascagni's work but reappears in "Pagliacci" almost ready to give birth. He was satisfied with the production but did note a lone regret: performing in both operas. "The theater asked me to do the two roles but my original idea was to not do Turiddu and only do Canio," he revealed. "I wanted Canio to appear in Cavalleria promoting the show. Unfortunately, I couldn't be in two places at once."
Cura revealed that he will be directing an upcoming production of Puccini's "La Boheme" in Stockholm, as well as a production of "Turandot" in which he will also sing. He admitted that he would be content to focus mainly on directing new productions and occasionally singing in them. His reasoning is that it would enable him to promote his idea of a new kind of operatic presentation. "I believe strongly that there is another way to do operatic theater that is based around subtlety and nuance," he asserted. "That's modern opera. Not Manrico entering on a Harley Davidson or Aida arriving on a flying saucer. Actors really infusing themselves in the roles with depth and characterization, that's modern opera."
After "Otello," Cura heads to Montecarlo to sing Verdi's "Stiffelio," a seemingly distant cousin to "Otello" due to their related stories of jealousy and vengeance. However, Cura argues that this link is superficial and that the two characters are in fact very different. For him, the idea of jealousy in each work in nothing more than the "shell" of the drama, but each work holds much deeper implications. "We are talking about problems of racism, mercenarism, treason, apostasy. We're talking about serious matters, not a handkerchief," he expressed in regards to Otello. Meanwhile, for him, Stiffelio is a "scandalous" opera with "themes that are more direct. Problems that still apply to our everyday lives." He is referring to Stiffelio's status as a married minister, an issue that caused a great deal of uproar in Verdi's time and is still not completely accepted today. Still he does concede that both are "dark characters that let their internal conflicts turn them into violent and insecure characters.
"For me they are perhaps the most complex characters in the Verdi canon," he added.
After "Stiffelio," the Argentine heads to the Vienna Staatsoper for "Andrea Chenier" before heading to Buenos Aires for the aforementioned "Otello." In September, he will return to Vienna once again to take on his third of four productions of "Otello;" his fourth comes in October in Berlin. When asked what roles he hopes to add in the future, Cura responded that he would love to take on the title role in "Peter Grimes."
"What I love is that it is an opera which would help me fulfill my dream of creating fluidity on the operatic stage that is similar to prose," he stated. "For me it's a great temptation because my next dream is to do prose theater." However, he added that he would need to make the role debut in a new production. "I can't do it in a revival after a few rehearsals. It's a very difficult and complex opera and it would be too hard to make my debut with limited rehearsal time," he added.
In addition to his artistic endeavors Cura also created Cuibar, a production company designed to help him promote himself and his work. The company released the aforementioned "Samson et Dalilah" and will also release the "Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci." More importantly, the creation of his own company has enabled him to navigate his artistic journey on his own terms. "In 2000, my career was going in a direction I was not happy with. I was being sold as a sex symbol, the 'sunny boy of opera,'" he narrated. "It got to a moment where I said to myself 'I didn't study 20 years' so that they could sell me like a piece of meat. I didn't like how my representatives were selling me as an artist.
"So I decided to break with the establishment and represent myself. It was in many ways a great challenge because it took three years to change my image to the way I wanted it to be. Eventually I accomplished it, but it gained me a great deal of opposition from agents and theaters."
He admitted that the decision did cost him a great deal of opportunities, but he doesn't regret it. "A friend of mine told me, 'You chose integrity. You put it before other interests and you should be proud of that.'"
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