Jose Carbo.

From builder to baritone, Jose Carbo is laying sound foundations. Photo: Quentin Jones

BARITONE Jose Carbo has been lauded as the rascal Figaro in Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville, from his home town of Sydney to his European debut in Spain and, this past year, his US debut. He had to fandango with his arms stretched for so long during the audience ovation for the Seattle Opera production that his shoulders hurt.

''Carbo swaggers around the stage as if he owns it, as a good Figaro should,'' The Classical Review waxed in January last year about the now 44-year-old. ''He's handsome, charismatic and utterly assured, with a beautifully produced baritone that has a surprisingly easy top.'' Not bad for someone who failed to realise his singing voice was anything special until the age of 24 and who only began studying music, a diploma of opera studies at the Sydney Conservatorium, at 27.

He'd first opted for a career with his practical hands, rather than his rich voice: Carbo spent 16 years as a carpenter and labourer, including 10 running his own construction business. He'd left school at 16 and never saw music as more than incidental; just part of everyday life.

Taryn Feibig in Opera Australia's La Boheme.

Carbo with Taryn Fiebig in last year's Opera Australia production of La boheme. Photo: Domino Postiglione

Born in Argentina, with mixed Spanish and Italian blood, Carbo came to Australia at age five. He is the son of labourer Jose Carbo snr, who also has a fine baritone voice, while his maternal grandfather, Domato, a tailor by trade, would often play the accordion-like bandoneon and instilled a love of tango in his grandchildren. Argentina was economically ruined, however, and the family sensed the danger of the secret police, the rising junta that made even its mildest critics disappear, amid rumblings of the coming Dirty War. So in 1972, Jose snr, a floor and wall tiler, secured a tradesman's ticket and family passage to Australia.

He arrived with his wife, Stella, and Jose and Jose's younger brother, Fernando, to life at a modest migrant hostel in western Sydney. Carbo remembers the hostel as culturally rich, large enough so kids could play and have fun, even if kindergarten was ''sometimes lonely'' because he spoke no English. He was resilient enough to soon learn and adjust to his strange new country.

Dressed now in a tweed suit jacket and purple top, Carbo is sitting in his favourite cafe in Sydney's inner-city Surry Hills, near the home he shares with his wife, soprano Tarita, whom he met at an audition eight years ago, and their two children, Zachary, 10, from Tarita's previous relationship, and Maximus, 2.

Both children were born with an ''incredibly good ear'' and ''great pitch'', says a proud Carbo, breaking into his broad, distinctive smile so made for the stage. Zach is a good drummer and Max is already carrying a tune, possessing ''an incredibly resonant voice, so there is hope there'', Carbo says with his deep laugh. ''If he ends up a tenor, then we're rich.''

Carbo's best work may be yet to come: for the sake of his career, he confides he might be tempted to move the family to Europe or the US for a spell when Max reaches school age. There's also a sense of how far he has come and the importance of family; the musical debt he owes his tailor grandfather and the better life he gained when Jose snr decided working two jobs for 16 hours a day in Argentina offered little prospect.

''Dad experienced [the junta] firsthand; he's said he's never been so scared,'' Carbo says. ''He cold-sweated for the first time in his life. He was leaving Argentina, after having gone back to say goodbye to his mum, who was about to die.

''On his way back, there was a room between the security screen and the [airport] gate. It was a room with two armed soldiers and somebody with a big book: if you were in that book, to cut a long story short, you would have ended up with concrete boots at the bottom of the Atlantic.

''You only had to mutter the wrong words, to anybody, and if word got back to the secret police, which were the junta in those days, you were gone. You were never seen again, from that room.

''They questioned dad: 'Do you realise why you're here?' He said, 'I think so.' 'Do you have any cause to be in this book?' 'I don't think so. Feel free to check.' And they did and they let him go.'' Carbo laughs, his face wide with incredulity. ''It was a dictatorship. Imagine having to go through that.''

Perhaps that's why Carbo can handle what's been thrown at him. Five years ago he had been due to play Figaro in a Barber of Seville production in Melbourne, but the morning of opening night woke up unable to speak, having doggedly sung through a thick and lethargic throat the day before, so he was replaced at the last moment by another Opera Australia regular, Luke Gabbedy.

Carbo's ailment was more ominous than the reported laryngitis: a chunk of the bottom of his right vocal cord had been eaten away. It was Easter 2007, so Carbo had to wait three days over the holiday period for the biopsy result from the sample taken by a Melbourne surgeon, who had warned him it might be cancer and to consider another career. But the sample was benign: instead, a surgeon diagnosed a build-up of gluten in the blood that had begun to destroy tissue at the point of greatest stress: the vocal cords.

Surgery fixed the right vocal cord to near perfect: the edges were folded over and stitched to heal. Diagnosed with coeliac disease, he has to avoid all gluten and dairy. It's a good thing he likes black espressos, then. Just 12 days later, Carbo was back rehearsing for the 2007 Sydney season of the show.

So now, five years late, here comes his first Melbourne performance as Figaro in Rossini's opera. This version takes The Barber of Seville, first performed in 1816, into the 1920s, the era of slapstick movies, comic stunts and chases. But Jose Carbo has plenty of deeper reasons to let that rich laugh ring out.

The Barber of Seville opens at the Arts Centre on Monday.