Ahead of his return to State Opera South Australia since his last appearance in The Barber of Seville in 2007, José Carbό talks about playing the title role in our upcoming production of Verdi’s Macbeth.
How did you become an opera singer?
By pure chance and coincidence! I left school when I was 16 and became a carpenter. From the age of 22 I was working for myself as a fully-fledged builder, which I did for about 10 years. One day, I was driving to Sydney in my ute waiting on the Glebe Island bridge and this song Perhaps Love by John Denver and Placido Domingo came on the radio. It’s the first time I’d ever heard the song, and it’s the first time I had heard an operatic tenor. And the sound just absolutely blew me away.
And so I went home, waited for the song to come on the radio so that I could record it, you remember the days when you had to wait for songs to come on the radio and press the record button?!
Eventually it came on and I wrote out the entire song. It was so easy because they had such good diction, and I memorised it. I had played the guitar from a young age so I was able to work out the chords. Every afternoon I’d come home and I would try to emulate, mimic, Domingo’s sound. I had no voice training. None. I was mimicking what I heard, trying to sound like Domingo.
About a month later, I was invited to a barbecue with a bunch of musicians. We ate, we drank, and we sang all afternoon. One of the guys started playing the introduction to the song that I had taught myself, Perhaps Love, and says, “Does anyone know this one?” I said, “Yeah, I do. You sing Denver’s part, I’ll sing Domingo’s part, and I’ll see you at the end”.
By the end of the song, everyone’s jaw was on the floor, and they said “But you’re a builder?!” They convinced me there and then to take classical singing lessons.
The next day I called the Conservatorium in Sydney and they found me a teacher only about 20 minutes away from where I lived. She was the best teacher for me at the time. She laid down a very, very solid technique from the beginning, and I found out that I actually have the range of a baritone when I’d been trying to sing a tenor part the whole time!
And then bit by bit, I became an opera singer. In my first singing competition I came fourth. But I won the next one! It took eight years, but I went from being a carpenter and a builder to completely turning my career around and debuting professionally at Opera Australia at 32 years of age.
Before that day on the bridge, I had never heard an opera before. But it captured me in some way and I was compelled. From that moment on I couldn’t be anything else.
This is your first time back with us at State Opera in 16 years, how excited are you to be in Adelaide again?
I can’t wait! I have a friend who lives here who is like a brother and I met him when I was here last. I can’t wait to see him and spend time with him again, but also spend time with people and a company that is totally different to the last time I was here so that will be very exciting, and a great discovery.
You recently played Macbeth with Opera Queensland earlier this year, but in a concert version. Are you excited to sing in a fully staged production?
It will be my role debut in the fully staged version, plus a death aria. The version I did with OQ (spoiler alert) has Macbeth dead on stage immediately after the castle is sacked by Macduff and his cohort. But in this version, I get a death aria which I get to learn, I’ve never sung it before. I suppose Macduff has just run me through with his sword and, as I’m bleeding out on stage, I’m singing as I die… as all good opera singers do!
You and Kate Ladner (playing Lady Macbeth) could be regarded as Verdi specialists, what can lovers of Verdi expect from you?
I’ve not worked with Kate before, this will be our first time working together so that will be very special and exciting. Speaking for myself and my character of Macbeth, I will seek to be committed, disturbing and incrementally insane.
Describe the character of Macbeth in 3 words.
Chronologically: soulful, corrupted, malicious.
Do you think the audience can sympathise with the character of Macbeth by the end of the opera?
I think if a production introduces Macbeth as himself, as a committed servant to Duncan (King of Scotland), then yes. The audience can sympathise with what Lady Macbeth puts him through for him to become what he becomes, though it’s no excuse for killing one with a dagger, having another killed, and wanting to kill a third but not being masterful enough to achieve it. But then again, once the thought of Duncan’s death or killing Duncan enters his brain, the spirits start their work of slowly sending him into insanity. From that point yes you can sympathise. But you know, the decision has to be made at some point. He makes the decision.
How much would you agree with the statement “Behind every great man there is a great woman” in regards to Macbeth?
Thinking about the Macbeths, I’d say behind the destruction of every great man, is a certain manipulative woman. It’s her that does the button pushing. I wonder if, with the amount she pushes his buttons, she drives him to that state that’s he’s in by the end. When someone presses you all the time, sometimes you have to placate them and go through with the actions just to get them off your back. But then again, he is a general in the army so his actions go against his loyalty, so you can only assume that he also has a very heartful desire for the throne. And that’s what ultimately sets him down this path that has no return. It’s his fault any way you look at it!