Golden rage of baritone
Baritone Jose Carbo battled coeliac disease and underwent vocal cord surgery. Photo: Quentin Jones
Argentina-born, Sydney-raised baritone Jose Carbo is at a perfect point for his first Verdi opera: at 45, his vocal cords are thickening with age, thus apt for experimenting with the Italian composer's arias.
Carbo has sung Verdi before in concert, but to sustain an opera-length Verdi character typically built on intensely heightened emotions, as any singing coach will tell you, requires blood from the baritone.
At first, the role of Renato or Count Anckarstroem in A Masked Ball (Un Ballo In Maschera) seems a comfortable Carbo fit: the required tessitura (Italian for texture) allows Carbo to use his full voice as Renato, not as constantly high as required last year as the rascal Figaro in Rossini's The Barber of Seville.
But he must tap and sustain a consuming hyper-anger as Renato, and this updated world premiere production by La Fura dels Baus under Spanish director Alex Olle, set in an Orwellian dictatorship present, has a personal resonance for Carbo.
For the first two acts, Renato is the confidant and guard of Gustavo, a character based on Sweden's Gustav III, who was assassinated in the 18th century, played by the Mexican tenor Diego Torre. But then, Carbo's Renato must snap and become ''absolutely raving mad''.
Carbo only gradually unfurled the requisite anger in rehearsals, which were conducted in Italian and Spanish, both of which run thick in Carbo's bloodlines and fluent from his tongue.
''You don't want to burn out because anger is the most adrenal-producing emotion that humans suffer; it's super toxic,'' he says.
''I have to sing the entire third act under this tremendous weight of anger. I might as well have sung two operas; it's incredible. I finish act three and I'm wasted. I've got to reawaken myself to finish the opera in act four.''
It's been worth it: ''Jose Carbo sings Anckarstroem, the vengeful loyalist whose trust was betrayed, with wonderfully smooth lyricism and colour,'' the Herald's Peter McCallum wrote in a 4.5-star review.
Carbo is intending to head to Europe this year to get himself an agent and spend more of his time there to further his career.
He lives in Surry Hills with his wife, soprano Tarita, whom he met at an audition nine years ago, and their two children, Zachary, 11, from Tarita's previous relationship, and Maximus, 3, whom his parents hope might yet be a tenor.
Carbo is drinking a short black coffee but forbidden from adding milk. In 2007, on the day he was due to open as Figaro in an earlier Melbourne production of Barber of Seville, Carbo woke up unable to speak. One doctor warned he might have cancer.
It turned out a gluten build-up had destroyed tissue at the point of greatest stress: the vocal cords. A diagnosis of coeliac disease and vocal cord surgery followed. ''Everything's fine: it's under control, as long as I don't have gluten. I can't have milk, either.''
Carbo says he's hearing A Masked Ball is a ''divisive'' production for audiences given its Orwellian theme, ''which I totally agree with'' given it is ''based on the political power Verdi tried to capture in the piece''.
The results resonate: Carbo's father, Jose snr, a labourer, and mother, Stella, brought Jose and his brother Fernando to Australia in 1972 in the ''thick of the military junta'' and ahead of rumblings of the Dirty War; the regime making even its mildest critics disappear.
''My father went back to Argentina three or four years later, when his mum died. Before he left the airport, there was an anteroom, before getting on the plane.
''If your name was in that book, you were in concrete shoes at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It was as simple as that.''
Jose snr, now living in Brisbane, obviously kept his cool. Carbo's mother, Stella, who now lives in western Sydney, has seen A Masked Ball, and loved the production and imagery, though she's not discussed its oppressive politics yet with her son.
For Carbo, ''it really rings home'', he says, laughing. The family's experience ''gives me an insight into the great disregard that dictators have for their constituency''.
A MASKED BALL
January 27, 2pm; January 30 and February 5, 8 and 12, 7.30pm.
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House.
TICKETS sydneyoperahouse.com, 9250 7777, $44-$337.
TRAVEL Bus, train or ferry to Circular Quay, then a 10-minute walk. Parking station at the Opera House.
SHOW New production of Giuseppe Verdi's tale of deception and disguise by La Fura dels Baus.
STARS Tamar Iveri, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo.
DIRECTOR Alex Olle.