The world renowned tenor Josep Carreras (Barcelona, 1946), made his lyrical debut at Milan’s La Scala at the age of 28. His career is marked by celebrated successes alongside directors such as Herbert von Karajan and Zubin Mehta, among others. He was also one of the famous “Three Tenors”, where his friends Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti joined him.
Carreras gave an exclusive interview to azureazure.com to talk about his Foundation Against Leukemia. He was diagnosed with the disease in Paris in July 1987 while he was recording a film version of Puccini´s La Bohème.
Fortunately he recovered, but the experience changed his outlook on life. Just a year after, in 1998, he created the Josep Carreras International Foundation to help find a cure for leukemia. José Carreras is in charge of the Foundation and has organized many fundraising concerts for this entity.
Carreras often visits patients in hospitals to encourage them and give them hope. Currently the Foundation has offices in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and United States, as well as an extensive network of benefactors, employees and volunteers who want to collaborate with an endeavor aimed to help others.
You got sick with leukemia at the peak of your professional career and just one year later you set up the Foundation. Tell me how and why you got that idea.
The idea of this project came about by sheer gratitude to society. When I got sick so many people turned to help me, and I wanted, somehow, to return all these signs of affection, both to society and to the scientific community. Alongside a large team of scientists and entrepreneurs— and with the support of my family— in 1988, I created the Josep Carreras International Foundation to fight against leukemia.
What did you learn from you illness?
You can find positive lessons in every experience you face. In my case, I learned to be aware of my inner strength, to give more value to the small joys of everyday life, to have patience… In general, it changed my way of looking at life.
Did you ever lose hope?
During my treatment I thought that if there were a chance in a million, I should fight for it, and never felt defeated. I think it is very necessary to keep a positive attitude towards the disease and live in an environment that encourages hope. In my case, I am convinced that this mentality, along with love and tireless support of my family and friends, as well as the excellent medical team by my side, were crucial to my recovery.
Do you believe that extreme situations change people?
Certainly, one becomes a little more thoughtful, seeks more dialogue and tries to give the right importance to things.
What have these past 25 years meant for you and your Foundation?
For the last 25 years, the Foundation has been my main goal and dream. When I see the magnificent results we’ve obtained, and also that there are still many things to do, I feel encouraged to continue in this struggle.
Do you think public figures in a position of power should use that privilege to help others?
I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but I must admit that it is true that when one has a public profession, it is perhaps easier to share and bring awareness to certain solidarity initiatives, and to reach a lot more people. It is a great satisfaction for me, but I also believe that, in addition to many well known individuals, there are hundreds of thousands of volunteers and anonymous contributors who work body and soul to achieve projects of high importance.
1. José Carreras visits a young Leukemia patient.
2. José Carreras regularly visits Leukemia patients in the hospital.
3. José Carreras visits a patient in an isolation chamber in 2005.
What has the Foundation achieved so far and what still needs to be accomplished?
In these 25 years, we have seen great progress, both within our organization as well as in the field of hematology in general since the cure rate has improved significantly. At the Foundation, we are particularly proud of the creation of the Bone Marrow Donor Registry (REDMO). Since its establishment in 1991 our aim is to offer an opportunity for 75% of people who require umbilical cord blood or bone marrow transplants and do not have a compatible donor in their family. In the future, we will focus primarily on scientific research. In 2010, our Foundation created the Josep Carreras Research Institute Against Leukemia, the first European center and one of the few in the world, focused exclusively on research about leukemia and other hematologic pathologies. This is a significant challenge since science is the cornerstone for the development of techniques that will help us to eradicate the disease. Even so, we still lose one of every four children and half of adult patients. And we also have to deal with obstacles such as, for example, the existing misinformation regarding the donation of bone marrow.
What do you find most rewarding about your work with the foundation?
There are many things that have moved me over these 25 years and continue to encourage my actions. However, I remember, with special affection, each of my hospital visits to patients suffering from leukemia; primarily in the case of children since this disease is most frequently a childhood cancer. I can say without hesitation that they have taught me great life lessons.
Why do you think we are so afraid to mention the word cancer and always try to mask it?
Unfortunately, cancer is a disease that affects more and more families every year. According to the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology (SEOM), more than 220,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer in Spain in the year 2015. However, the number of cancer survivors is also growing, and the anti-cancer associations strive to make campaigns to demystify the disease and show the positive side of it. From our Foundation in particular, through the website and social networks, we continually showcase cases of patients who’ve beat the disease. This encourages those who have been recently diagnosed to believe they can also beat cancer. We also raise awareness and provide information to those who have not experienced cancer, and underline the importance of investing in scientific research. Recently we celebrated the Week Against Leukemia (June 21-28) through a campaign called ‘Value life’, in which 210 patients and survivors of leukemia and other hematologic pathologies have taken to the streets to raise awareness about such diseases and help people to value life. Campaigns like this make the word cancer less and less fearful. This helps patients to feel less ‘different’ because they are suffering or have suffered from cancer, and also helps science because when people openly discuss the disease, they are more likely they are to invest in scientific research.
José Carreras with a group of patients at the hospital.
When will leukemia be cured?
I cannot answer that with certainty, and I think that even the scientists currently working on the cure cannot give a definite answer. It is doubtful that leukemia will be 100% curable since there are many subtypes of the disease. What is sure is that nowadays there are considerably improved treatments for many types of leukemia. Our wish is not only to cure leukemia in all cases, but also to improve the quality of life of the patients.
What keeps you awake at night?
The same things that concern society, and also when my team, the Barcelona Football Club doesn’t win.
From your point of view… What is happiness?
After so many years, I’ve realized that happiness consists of not being unhappy.
What has been more rewarding in your life, the Opera or your Foundation?
I could not choose. The music has been, and will always be a fundamental part of my life; but, on the other hand, if I had not suffered this disease, surely I would not be the same person I am today, so I think both realities are part of my life and have given me great moments.
José Carreras in Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana.
Did music help you withstand the hardest experiences in your life?
Listening to music has always been of great help to me because music has the power to help us escape from reality, if only for a moment. Interestingly, during my illness my favorite music was not any aria from an opera, but Rachmaninoff’s Concert No. 2 in C minor.
And finally, could you tell me the operatic moments you find most emotional.
The last scene from Bizet´s Carmen, and the third act of Puccini´s La Bohème. ■