It’s not over yet for the legendary singer, who is lapping up his final world tour, and excited at embarking on his first cruise.

 José Carreras turns 70 on December 5, but if he is at all perturbed about the impending milestone he isn’t letting on. Asked how he feels about becoming a septuagenarian, he says simply: “Oh, it’s great!”

As his birthday approaches, the legendary tenor has been doing what he has always loved to do best – sing for his fans. Critics may carp that the voice has lost its famous lustre but adoring audiences have been turning up in droves on his current world tour, which, over the course of two years, is taking him through Europe, Asia, the Middle East and America.

Billed as the “Final World Tour”, José Carreras: A Life in Music arrives in Australia in February for concerts in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne. He will perform with the Melbourne and West Australian Symphony Orchestras, conducted by his nephew David Giménez, who has wielded the baton for him on many occasions.

Speaking to Limelight from Berlin, Carreras seems to be relishing being back on the road, describing all the travel as “part of the game… it’s not bothering me too much,” he says. “It’s great to have the possibility to go back to many of the places I’ve been singing during my professional life. And, I have to say, I consider myself a very fortunate artist because I always felt the affection and the respect from the audiences, so it’s a time to again enjoy being on stage.”

In promotional blurb, Carreras describes the concert repertoire as a very personal selection. “Well, I try to sing [music] to reflect what has been my career – of course, concentrating on opera and zarzuela, on musicals, Neapolitan songs and Spanish music. So a little bit of a reflect on what I’ve been doing for many years.,” he says.

As Don José in Carmen at the Royal Opera House in 1983

Towards the end of 2017, Carreras will be back in Australia to headline the seven-night Bravo! Cruise of the Performing Arts aboard the 2,100-passenger Radiance of the Seas, which sets sail from Sydney on October 31 on a round trip to New Caledonia. A line-up of 36 artists will join him, among them David Hobson, Marina Prior, Taryn Fiebig and Guy Noble. Carreras is new to cruising. “I’m very much looking forward, needless to say,” he offers.

At the peak of his powers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Carreras was one of the leading tenors of his generation with a beautiful voice that glowed with a warm, radiant tone, imbued with soulful emotion. A dashing presence on stage, he made his mark with roles such as Alfredo in La Traviata, Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera and Rodolfo in La Bohème. Then in 1987, aged 40, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. According to some reports, he was given a one-in-ten chance of survival. Although he eventually made a full recovery, his voice was altered by the malignant disease and gruelling treatment. As he has said in the past: “I had one career before the illness and another afterwards, so I had to change because of this.”

And now, his voice is changing as he gets older. “Again, this is part of the game,” says a sanguine Carreras. “Of course, the voice, with the age, loses certain elasticity, probably certain brilliance, but on the other hand, your interpretation becomes, in my opinion, more mature and deeper, from the point of emotions and feelings.”

Of course, the voice, with the age, loses certain elasticity, but on the other hand, your interpretation becomes, in my opinion, more mature and deeper

A brutal review in London’s Telegraph of his concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May described his voice as “hoarse and tremulous” and suggested it was time to stop. The fans clearly thought otherwise. While many doubtless recognised that his voice is not what it once was, the rapturous, sold-out crowd stood and cheered, calling him back for encore after encore. 

Born in Barcelona, Carreras grew up during Franco’s repressive regime. Having fought against the Spanish dictator, his father was forced to give up his position as a French teacher and instead became a traffic policeman, while his mother worked in a beauty salon. 

Carreras famously fell in love with opera at age six when he saw Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso. After hours in the bathroom practicing La donne è mobile, he sang a Verdi aria on national radio the following year. At age 11, he made his professional debut at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Lice as the boy soprano Trujamán in Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show, followed by a small role in La Bohème a few months later.

Launching himself as a tenor in 1970, his career sky-rocketed. He made a series of important international debuts in 1974 at venues including the Royal Opera House in London, the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York and was hailed a remarkable young talent. In 1976, he gave his first performance with Herbert von Karajan in Verdi’s Requiem at the Salzburg Festival. The great maestro – who once described Carreras as “The Don José I had always dreamed of” – would go on to conduct him in numerous operas on stage and on disc, among them Don Carlo, Aida, Tosca and Carmen.

The Three Tenors with Zubin Mehta. Photo by Carlos Picasso/Decca

In the late 1980s, Carreras moved into more dramatic roles, which some regarded as an ill-advised step, though he had success as Andrea Chénier and Radames in Aida. After his illness, his operatic career naturally contracted – but not his fame. In 1990, Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti gave their first performance as The Three Tenors in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on the eve of the World Cup final to a television audience in the hundreds of millions, and a phenomenon was born. 

All three were football nuts, and it was a chance for Carreras’s two biggest rivals to show solidarity with him after his illness. They each donated their fee to the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Foundation, which Carreras founded in 1988 (using the Catalan spelling of his name, outlawed under Franco) to raise money for research and for services to help patients and their families.

The Three Tenors went on to perform around 30 times over the next 15 years, selling 23 million albums and videos. Audiences lapped it up, right down to the cheesy mimed gestures as they goofed around, pretending to decide who would sing next. Credited with introducing a whole new audience to opera, they also unleashed an avalanche of crossover acts.

Carreras says that the enormous success of The Three Tenors, which he has claimed as his idea, didn’t surprise him. “I think maybe the reason for success was that we are three complete different personalities, three complete different artists, three complete different voices. But we have been able to create a certain chemistry that touch right to the public,” he says.

Looking back over his career and the singers who most inspired him, Carreras says: “Well, there is one that has always been my idol, and I always declare it was Giuseppe Di Stefano [the Italian tenor, nicknamed The Golden Voice, who sang professionally from the 1940s to the early 1990s]. I always had the dream, if I may say so, to offer to the public what I feel when I listen to his voice and his performances.”

As a young singer, Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé (who was also born in Barcelona) was, he says, “a very important help” to him. “I had the possibility to sing with her in dozens and dozens of opera performances and recordings and concerts. It’s been always a treat for me.”

Photo by Butcher Gundersen/Decca

In the past, Carreras has said of Caballé that “along with Maria Callas, she was the greatest.” As to which sopranos he enjoyed performing with most, well, he’s too gentlemanly, or diplomatic, to tell. “I had wonderful colleagues that I had a great professional relationship [with], and it would be unfair if I mentioned only a few ones. But, of course, besides Caballé, there was Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, a lot of wonderful colleagues,” he says.

In terms of singers he has been particularly close to, he says that he always had good relationships with his colleagues. “Of course, with Luciano and Plácido, it was a very special circumstance, and we enjoyed being together and singing together very much. And also, let me tell you, I received a wonderful advice when I was a very, very young tenor. Somebody once told me, never argue with a soprano. So my life has been much easier!” he says with a chuckle.

When I was a young tenor, somebody told me, never argue with a soprano. So my life has been much easier!

Asked if there was a moment or a role in a particular opera that he thinks moved him into the major league of singers, he says: “Well, for an opera singer, the debut at La Scala in Milano is, of course, a fundamental point, a crucial point. I performed there in Un Ballo in Maschera in 1975. That was one of the moments. Another moment, of course, was my very first appearance with maestro Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg. I had a professional relationship with him for 15 years, singing with him in Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin, Lausanne. That was incredibly important for me as an artist and as a man. 

“And, of course, there was a much more touching moment: it was my comeback after 12 months in hospital after suffering from a severe disease, and to have the possibility in my hometown Barcelona to sing again, after such a period.”

As for other maestros besides von Karajan who have been important during his career, he says that he was very fortunate to have had the chance to work “with people like Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, you name it – the important conductors of my generation. And lately, I’m very pleased and happy to work with maestro David Giménez.”

Although his illness inevitably changed the course of his career, how did it change José Carreras as a person? “I think that everyone [who] has to go through such a difficult period all of a sudden becomes more mature and certain of almost everything. Your priorities are changing but basically I think I’m the same, the same person, with some good sides and a lot of bad sides as well,” he replies.

Your priorities change but basically I think I’m the same person, with some good sides and a lot of bad sides

Even though he wasn’t able to perform in opera as much as before his illness, he still considers himself “an opera singer basically. My roots as an artist are the stage, orchestra, colleagues, chorus, costume, setting, everything that involves opera. Recently, I appear again in opera, a couple of years ago, and we have been doing this opera in several wonderful theatres like the premiere in Bilbao in Spain, and we did it in Austria and in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky, and most recently in Vienna. It was very rewarding and I enjoyed myself very much.”

The opera he is referring to is El Juez (The Judge) by the Austrian composer Christian Kolonovits and conducted by Giménez – Carreras’s first full-length opera in eight years. Set during the aftermath of the Franco regime, when children were often taken away from dissident parents, Carreras had a success as Frederico Ribas, the judge of the title.

When it comes to relaxing away from the stage, Carreras listens to all kinds of different music. “Music is wonderful because there is a type of music for every situation, every mood,” he says. “I can listen to symphonic music, to opera, needless to say, to standards, or to the type of music that has a certain quality. I’ve been always a fan of Frank Sinatra. And other days, people like Elton John and Tom Jones as well, and many other wonderful entertainers. What else do I do to relax? I read, I try to spend time with my grandchildren –  I don’t know [for now that] this is relaxing, but I enjoy very much that. And, of course, I try to follow my favourite team, Barcelona.”

Carreras’s devoted support of his local soccer team is, of course, legendary. Asked if he is still as passionate a fan as ever, he says: “No, even more! And that grows with age. This is not just following a football team, or an institution. For Catalans to support Barcelona, means also to have a very strong feeling in many cases for our identity, for our roots.”

With so much going on and a great deal to do, José Carreras is clearly not yet ready to retire from singing. “It’s possible that at the end of the final tour, I will stop. But you never know. I think I should leave it a bit open,” he says. When he does finally decide to step away from performing, he says that he will concentrate his energies on the work of his Leukaemia Foundation – “a very important goal in my life.”

He knows that when he does finally call it quits as a singer, it will be a highly emotional time. “Singing has been a very, very important part of my life, and I’m sure I’m going to be melancholic, but at the same time very, very grateful for what I receive from people around the world,” he says.

“The most important thing in my career has been always the gratitude that I felt, and I feel, and I will always feel, for the affectionate way the audiences they have been treating me.” 

José Carreras performs A Life in Music at the ICC Sydney Theatre, Darling Harbour on February 18, Perth Arena on February 22, and Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne on February 25. He headlines the seven-night Bravo! – Cruise of the Performing Arts, which departs from Sydney on October 31, 2017