Happy Birthday, José: renowned Argentine tenor celebrates 60th birthday with two concerts in Prague

José Cura in Prague

Celebrated Argentine tenor, composer and conductor José Cura has a long-standing relationship with Czechia: in addition to recording an album of love songs by Dvořák in 2003, he was also a resident artist for three years with the Prague Symphony Orchestra between 2015 and 2018. Now the orchestra has invited him back to give two concerts at Prague’s Municipal House in celebration of his 60th birthday. In this exclusive interview with Radio Prague International, the artist reflects on his relationship with the city of Prague, the effects of the pandemic on him and on the classical music industry, as well as problems the industry is currently facing.

“A beautiful birthday present.”

That is how José Cura describes the invitation extended to him by the Prague Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of his 60th birthday this month.

“The orchestra told me that, when I turned sixty, they wanted to celebrate with two birthday concerts, that's why the concerts are called 'Happy Birthday, José'. And they also told me that the idea was not only to present my vocal work, but the entire spectrum of my musical activities: composition, singing and orchestra conducting.”

José Cura | Photo: Jihočeské divadlo

Cura has a long-standing relationship with the orchestra and with Prague, having made his debut with them in 2002.

“There are cities with which one has different relationships, there are orchestras with which one has different relationships. I have been working with the Prague orchestra for twenty years. Half of the musicians are the same. We see each other every year and we laugh because we say to each other: 'You're older, you have a bigger belly or less hair'. Because we've known each other for a lifetime, we've known each other's children since they were little and now they've grown up and got married... things move to another level, which is great, because it makes work more than just a cold routine thing. There is a human relationship there. After the performance someone says: 'Come have a beer with the violas!' So you go to have a beer with the violas, even if you don't like beer, it doesn't matter.”

Concert announcement | Photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza,  Radio Prague International

When curating the programme for these concerts, Cura wanted to include two original compositions that he had created during the covid pandemic: the symphonic suite from his opera 'Montezuma and the Red Priest', and 'Te Deum', which he says he first got the inspiration for during a vocal exercise in Oman in 2019.

Cura thought it pertinent that the chosen works were paired together because they were both born during the Covid era: a difficult time that led him to reflect on the effect of his hectic international touring schedule and ultimately to rethink his priorities.

"I was working like crazy, running from one plane to another, the same way I've been doing for thirty years, with a minimum of one hundred performances per year, some years more, others less. And suddenly when everything shut down, it was like someone had put a stick between the spokes of my bicycle and I had to stop pedalling.”

José Cura in Prague - Yesterday

That was what led him to refocus on the things that really matter.

“The years go by and you realise how long it has been since you enjoyed going for a walk with your dog, or making music where you want to make music and not where you have to go because the industry forces you. I did that for thirty years, and suddenly I wondered if by always going to the same four or five "must go" theatres, I wasn't missing a lot of other theatres, other audiences.”

One of the ideas that came to Cura as a result of the pandemic was to try to achieve something more than just offering music to people who are capable of paying 500 euros for a ticket.

On the flip side, Cura is of the opinion that the pandemic exacerbated a problem that already existed – what he calls the loss of the “human factor” in the classical music industry.

“That is probably one of the most sensitive issues on the table in show business today. Suddenly, people are saying: if I can watch a live stream at home, why do I need to go to the theatre? Whereas I say, great, let's watch a live stream at home, but as a stimulus to then go see what the real thing is like at the theatre.”

However, the special relationship that Cura seems to have with Czech audiences certainly seems to have that human factor he misses, and is evidenced by the number of times he has returned to the country.

José Cura had his debut at the Municipal House in 2002, at a now legendary concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra in which he had the pleasure of premiering the song Aurora, a patriotic hymn to the Argentine flag that, as can be seen in an unmissable YouTube recording, dazzled the audience.

José Cura in Prague - Aurora (Canción a la Bandera 1)

“I try to create a kind of microcosm, a time bubble, based on energy, based on love, on charisma, on a lot of things that make that moment a special moment. If I see that the public is hooked and I realize it right away, then the bubble enlarges and passes from the stage to the public and the whole theatre is wrapped in a bubble during the two or three hours that the show lasts and that for me is the magic."

The Czech public now has the opportunity to experience that magic again during these two unmissable concerts which, while celebrating his birthday, constitute an excellent opportunity to celebrate the career of one of Prague’s most beloved artists.

The second of the two concerts on December 15 will be conducted by fellow Argentinian Mario de Rose and will include scenes from the operas Otello, Aida and Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, in which he will perform together with the soprano Polina Pasztircsák and mezzosoprano Ester Pavlů.