José Cura emerged in the mid-1990s as one of the most distinctive and promising new tenor voices. His first instrument was the guitar, which he studied under Juan de Maestro, and his first public performance was as a choral conductor at the age of fifteen. He studied composition with Carlos Castro and piano with Zulma Cabrera. He entered the School of Arts of the National University of Rosario in 1982.
At that time he was undecided between a career in music or as a professional rugby player. He accepted the suggestion of the university's choirmaster that he study vocal technique. Horacio Amauri, one of his first teachers, taught him the basic foundation of singing. He has continued to receive lessons and coaching in Italian operatic style from Vittorio Terranova.
His initial performances were in unusual repertoire: his first stage performance was as the father in Hans Werner Henze's opera Pollicino in Verona in 1992, and he first garnered attention in Trieste, where he sang Jan in Fraulein Julie by Antonio Bibalo (1993).
In 1994 he won the International Operalia Competition and made his American debut. His London debut was in Verdi's Stiffelio in 1995. The London press predicted that he was an "Otello-in-waiting," a prediction he fulfilled in 1997 when he sang the great Verdi role in Turin with Claudio Abbado conducting. USA Today contrasted him to the stereotypical "brilliant, heroic tenor voice encased in the dumpiest of bodies and deployed by the dimmest of intellects," calling him "tall, smart, and handsome." Cura insists that he is "an actor who sings, not a singer who pretends to act." He maintains his interest in athletics through a serious body-building regime and Kung-Fu training (he is a Black Belt). Thus, he makes a credible stage appearance as a hero, even as Samson, in Saint-Saëns' opera Samson et Dalila, which he has recorded. He prefers "the roles that [he] can act and where the plot is believable or something close to reality." He says he sings parts like Calaf (Puccini's Turandot) and Radamès (Verdi's Aïda) for the sake of the music, but does not enjoy them because they are "so one-dimensional that it is very difficult to make a believable character out of them." He calls Giordano's Fedora "a bitter pill" and says that in Bellini's Norma "you feel like you're in the middle of nonsense." But he likes Cavaradossi (in Puccini's Tosca) because the character of the political prisoner has reality today. He was slow to accept invitations to record because audio-only performances eliminate much of the acting part of the role. His first release was an acclaimed set of Puccini arias, which he delivered free of the post-Caruso "tradition" of vocal sobs and other histrionic effects. The album was conducted by Plácido Domingo.
In 2001, he became principal guest conductor of Sinfonia Varsovia. His work in the early 2000s has included a wide range of operatic performances and recordings, and he is especially noted for concert performances in which he both sings and serves as conductor.